India road project in Burma: opportunities and concerns increase

Burmese Indian highway project causing environmental and social concernsIn the modern world, it is not possible for a country to grow or progress in isolation. Development is helped when a country is at peace with its neighbours and has a symbiotic relationship with them. India is currently involved in continuing efforts to further the cause of peace and stability in the Indian region and establishing trade relations and peace treaties with bordering nations. The ‘Look East Policy’ adopted by the government is an attempt to forge links with South-East Asia. As part of this policy, India has invested $214 million in a highway project in Burma. Named the ‘Kaladan Project’, most of the roads will be laid in Burmese territory, linking the Indian state of Mizoram with the poorly connected western states of Burma through the Chin state, ending at a deep sea port at Rakhine.

While the highway project is expected to benefit the local population through increased connectivity and trade, it has been pointed out that it will do so at considerable cultural, environmental, and social cost. The port, which has already been built in Rakhine, has been the caused the destruction of several heritage sites and in addition to this, the highway will also pass through a wildlife sanctuary. This is expected to upset the delicate ecological balance of the region. It is also feared that it will cause an increase in poaching. Kashmira Kakti, is a Burmese wildlife biologist. In 2011 she published a report on the impact of the proposed highway on wildlife. She points out, “one of the biggest fears that we anticipated in the report is that this would become a major wildlife trade route. We're already talking about tigers disappearing. There is a lot of illegal wildlife trade across the border. And, we anticipate that this is going to turn out to be a major route for wildlife trade."    

The highway project is also expected to have a negative social impact. With a history of military dictatorship, Burma has been susceptible to social exploitation and violation of human rights. Salai Za Uk Ling, a member of the Chin Human Rights Organization points out, "Large-scale infrastructure development in Burma, especially road construction in past involved forced labour". The involvement of the Burmese military raises concerns that the issue of forced labour may arise again. In addition, there are fears that the farmers may not be adequately compensated for their land, as most farmers in the Chin state do not have any knowledge about the highway project, although about half of it has already been completed.

The world is already suffering the after-effects of unsustainable industrial growth which has irreparably damaged the global ecological system. Drastic changes in weather conditions, melting of polar ice-caps, dwindling forests, air and water pollution, increase in diseases and extinction of several species are a few of the disadvantages of unfettered growth. We must take a lesson from past mistakes to preserve and restore nature. The Indian and Burmese government would be well advised to heed the warnings of environmental activists and address their concerns to ensure that the natural wealth of the region and the interests of the locals are protected, without stopping or stunting the cause of development.