An Indian embassy official has reaffirmed the country’s commitment to a long-delayed infrastructure project that will connect Chin and Rakhine states with northeastern India, despite community objections and concerns.
However, he also revealed that no environmental impact assessments are likely to be conducted for the project, despite Myanmar government officials promising in 2012 that these assessments would take place.
The Kaladan Multi-Model Transit Transport Project aims to create a combined highway and waterway route to transport goods from India’s landlocked northeastern states into the Bay of Bengal through Chin and Rakhine states.
“The idea is to provide connection in the most isolated parts of [both] countries,” said Sailas Thangal, deputy head of mission at the Indian embassy in Yangon. “It will have enormous benefit for the people living on the river.”
Not all stakeholders are convinced. A group of civil society organisations based in western Myanmar and collectively known as the Kaladan Movement say they have been pushing the governments of both countries for answers on the Kaladan Multi-Model Transit Transport Project since work began in 2008.
“The Kaladan Movement has made public recommendations to the governments of Burma and India in previous statements and reports … but have never heard a direct response to our recommendations by anyone from the Ministry of Transport,” Salai Bawi Pi, country program officer of the Chin Human Rights Organization, told The Myanmar Times.
The project will see Sittwe port redeveloped and dramatically expanded so it can handle 20,000-tonne vessels, up from 2000-3000 tonnes at present. Dredging will be conducted around the port and along a 158-kilometre [98 mile] stretch of the Kaladan River from Sittwe to Paletwa in Chin State, where a jetty will be built for transferring cargo to road transport. From Paletwa, a 129km [80 mile] highway will be built to the border with India’s Mizoram state. The cost of construction – estimated at US$120 million – will be covered by India.
India and Myanmar first signed an agreement to begin construction in April 2008. The Chin Human Rights Organization says that since then neither government has made any effort to consult or educate the thousands of Myanmar citizens whose lives will be affected by the project.
In a statement released on June 11, the Kaladan movement urged both government and their private sector partners to “take this opportunity to make public important information about the implementation of the Kaladan project regarding its policies on human rights, indigenous rights, community consultation, environmental impact assessment, local hiring and labour conditions”.
Salai Bawi Pi said it was clear that residents had not given their consent to the project because locals in Chin State “have no idea about the route of the planned highway”.
In particular, activists say both governments need to commission an independent environmental impact assessment on the possible ecological effects of building the highway and dredging large sections of the Kaladan River.
“In 2012, in response to pressure from … local groups, Burma’s Minister for Transport U Nyan Tun Aung and Presidential adviser U Ko Ko Hlaing both made public statements promising that proper impact assessments would be conducted for the Kaladan project. To date it appears that this promise has not been fulfilled,” Sam Cartmell, a program officer for the CHRO, told The Myanmar Times.
But Mr Thangal said that an environmental impact assessment for the dredging phase of the project was unlikely to happen because those in charge of the project had deemed it unnecessary.
“To be frank, the environmental impact assessment has not been done because this is a minimum intervention. I’m not saying it has no impact, but it’s minimal.”
He said he was unsure whether an assessment would be conducted for the highway construction phase.
Delays to the project, meanwhile, have been the result of disagreements between the Indian, Myanmar and Rakhine State governments, he said.
Mr Thangal admitted that the Indian government and other groups had not done enough to reach out to communities and explain the benefits of the project and had redoubled its efforts to do so.
“We have tried to work out how we can do it in a better way,” he said. “Yes, we should have done [consultations] earlier on – it has not been done [and] now we are trying to do it.”