Within hours of the mix of stone and sand being dumped on the bank of the Kaladan River at Paletwa in Burma’s western Chin State, local teenagers turned the new flat swath of land into a football pitch.
The aggregate material had been dredged from the bottom of the Kaladan River to ensure clearance for the 260-ton cargos ships set to start docking at the currently under-construction Paletwa inland port in 2015.
The port is the midpoint of the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project, which will ultimately connect a deep-sea port at Sittwe on Burma’s Bay of Bengal coast to the national highway system in Mizoram State, northeast India.
The Kaladan Project is one of two major Indian infrastructure development projects currently being implemented in Burma – the other being the India-Burma-Thailand Trilateral Highway – and was high on the agenda during a meeting between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Burmese President Thein Sein in Naypyidaw last month.
In a press statement following the meeting, an Indian official referred to the Kaladan initiative as a “totally a win-win kind of project”.
While the project has the potential to provide economic opportunities in a remote part of Burma, local people have largely been kept in the dark regarding implementation plans. No environmental impact assessment has been conducted.
The project area is home to over one million people, mostly from ethnic minority groups who have traditionally been allowed little political power by central governments in Naypyidaw and New Delhi. It remains to be seen whether these people will ultimately win or lose from this large-scale development project.
The project was conceived by the Indian government in the early 2000s as an alternative shipping route to India’s northeast region, as well as a potential natural gas pipeline route at a time when Indian state-owned companies had their eyes on Burma’s Shwe Gas fields. The Shwe Gas buying rights were ultimately awarded to China, but the idea for a Sittwe deep-sea port and Kaladan River transportation infrastructure development has remained a key component of India’s “Look East” engagement with Burma, officially known as Myanmar.
The Kaladan Project also has geopolitical significance as India attempts to counterbalance China’s growing economic and naval presence in the Bay of Bengal – namely the deep-sea port and Special Economic Zone 100km south along the Arakan [Rakhine] coast at Kyaukphyu.
The US$214 million Kaladan Project is being financed by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs’ Development Partnership Administration as development assistance to Burma. Once in operation, ownership and management of the infrastructure will be transferred to the Burma government.
Construction of the deep-sea port at Sittwe and the inland port at Paletwa is currently being carried out by Indian conglomerate ESSAR Projects Ltd. The contract for the 130km highway linking Paletwa with the Burma-India border is slated to go to an as yet unnamed construction company, widely expected to be Burmese crony Zaw Zaw’s Max Myanmar Group although one of the Indian firms building the Mizoram-side highway is reported to be planning to make a bid.
Chin State’s Paletwa Township remains isolated due to notoriously poor roads, and an improved transportation infrastructure is clearly needed. Many local residents express hopes of future economic opportunities from the new Kaladan Project highway. But there are also widespread concerns about the potentially negative impact.
No environmental impact assessment has been conducted on the Burmese side where there is the potential for deforestation and destruction of riverine ecology. No studies have been conducted on the impacts of increased river traffic to local fisheries, which provide an important source of protein and income in this remote and underdeveloped region.
Project-connected job opportunities for locals have been few, and there are no comprehensive plans outlining how the project can be harnessed to spur local employment and economic growth in the future. There are concerns that rich businesspeople from other parts of Burma will swoop in and monopolise any new economic opportunities.
Public consultations have been lacking, and the route of the planned highway from Paletwa to the Burma-India border has never been publicly announced. This information gap among local people has raised the spectre of land-grabbing by cronies and military-connected businesses, a common occurrence across Burma.
For now, Paletwa residents will continue to make the best from what they have been given thus far; a new place to play football and watch the ongoing construction.
Danielle Swearingen is a research intern with the Kaladan Movement.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not reflect DVB editorial policy.