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Source: Government of India

Hon’ble Minister of State (Independent Charge), Ministry of Development of North Eastern Region, Dr. Jitendra Singh
Hon’ble Chief Minister of Assam, Shri Sarbananda Sonowal
Hon’ble Chief Minister of Manipur, Shri N. Biren Singh
Hon’ble Chief Minister of Tripura, Shri Biplab Deb
Hon’ble Industries Minister of Assam, Shri C M Patowary
Hon’ble Agriculture Minister of Assam, Shri Atul Bora
Chief Secretary of Assam, Shri Jishnu Baruah
Secretary of the North East Council, Shri K. Moses Chalai

1. It is a privilege to be invited as the Guest of Honour for the inaugural session of the 8th edition of the North East Festival.

2. This Festival has made its mark on the national calendar and has been instrumental in raising awareness about the North East. It showcases the rich and diverse culture of this region that is home to 8 of India’s 28 states. It also highlights the immense potential of this part of our country.

3. I am happy to note that the Festival has adapted to the disruption of the pandemic and has moved to a virtual platform. This will, I expect, significantly augment the reach and the audience for this event. I congratulate Shri Shyamkanu Mahanta, Chief Organizer of the North East Festival, for successfully organizing this important event.

4. I have been asked to speak about India’s Act East Policy and what it means for the North East. My effort today would be to give you an overview of the initiatives that have been taken to create openings and opportunities for our North East region through the foreign policy of the Government of Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi.

5. States of North Eastern India can be seen as the link between two fundamental pillars of our foreign policy, Neighbourhood First and Act East. From this perspective, the North East is a gateway and a portal. It binds us with some of our most important neighbours. It also connects us, and our neighbours, to one of the most economically dynamic and politically significant geographies of the world – the ASEAN and the Indo-Pacific.

6. Speaking at the Convocation Ceremony at IIT Guwahati in September this year, the Prime Minister had underlined the importance of the North East in India’s Act East Policy. He had said that “this region of the North East is also at the center of India’s Act East Policy. This region is also a gateway to India’s connectivity and relations with South East Asia.”

7. We have a vision for this region that is captured in the 3 Cs – Connectivity, Commerce, and Cultural Commonalities. We have been working through a number of concrete initiatives to realize this vision. At one level, we work bilaterally with our partners with a full range of diplomatic tools. At another level we work through multilateral and plurilateral initiatives such as BIMSTEC and BBIN or the Bangladesh- Bhutan-India-Nepal grouping.

8. Let me first talk about the initiatives that have been taken in the area of infrastructure and connectivity. We know that improved infrastructure and enhanced connectivity act as force multipliers in economic development. They generate investment, trade and employment opportunities. They also bring countries and regions closer together and facilitate greater people-to-people contact.

9. You might be aware that India has a development partnership programme which implements projects in partner nations through various modalities such as lines of credit and grants-in-aid. The most capital intensive elements of our development partnership, whether through credits or through grants, are projects in the infrastructure sector in our immediate neigbourhood. This includes several ambitious projects with countries adjoining our North East that aim to transform the regional landscape.

10. I will start with the work that is being done with Bangladesh, where I have served as India’s High Commissioner. Improvements in connectivity between India and Bangladesh have a direct and positive impact on the North East. Accordingly, a lot of work has been done in recent years to enhance connectivity with Bangladesh.

11. We have revived five rail links that used to be operational between India and Bangladesh before 1965. As many of you would have seen, the Prime Ministers of India and Bangladesh jointly inaugurated the rail link between Haldibari in West Bengal and Chilahati in Bangladesh during the virtual summit held this week. This link can revive the old Siliguri-Sealdah rail route through Bangladesh, taken by the Darjeeling Mail. Work is ongoing on two more connections. The sixth pre-1965 rail link (Kulaura-Shahbazpur), work on which is underway, will revive the railway connectivity between Karimganj in Assam and Sylhet in Bangladesh. A railway that links Akhaura in Bangladesh to Agartala is under construction and will be ready by 2022 when India will commemorate 75th anniversary of its independence. Passenger trains such as Maitree and Bandhan Express link India and Bangladesh.

12. These external projects complement the many initiatives undertaken by the government to improve the railways in the North East. A major expansion of the network is underway. This will, amongst other things, link the state capitals in this region.

13. Historically, rivers have played an important role in connecting the people and business in the region encompassing our North East and the neighbouring countries. This region was served by our common rivers, particularly Brahmaputra and Barak-Surma, which were used extensively for facilitating trade and commerce, and people-to-people contact. Recognizing this, considerable efforts have been made in recent years to augment inland waterways connectivity between the North East and Bangladesh. You might be aware that goods from West Bengal can now reach Tripura through waterways up to Ashuganj port in Bangladesh and further by road up to Agartala. Recently, a goods consignment was also moved from Kolkata to Agartala under the India-Bangladesh agreement on the use of Chittagong port for transporting goods to and from North East India. For the first time, Tripura was connected to Bangladesh through inland waterways route. This new route can further connect Tripura with the National Waterways of India. These new initiatives provide alternative and shorter routes for transporting goods between the North East and the rest of India through Bangladesh.

14. Another example of our focus on enhancing usage of inland waterways was the movement through this mode of first goods consignment from Bhutan to Bangladesh through India via Dhubri inland port last year.

15. The plan for twenty port townships along the Brahmaputra and Barak river systems to enhance inland water connectivity could galvanize multimodal linkages in the entire region.

16. Road transportation links are also being improved. Indian and Bangladesh nationals can move by bus between Shillong and Dhaka and between Agartala and Kolkata via Dhaka. Goods and people move by road between the two countries through a network of Land Customs Stations and Integrated Check Posts.

17. Air connectivity is increasing through the 13 operational major and minor airports in the North East. Direct flight connections between Guwahati and Bangkok and Guwahati and Dhaka have been initiated. International flights appear to have been suspended due to COVID-19 but I am sure that they will be revived at the earliest possible.

18. Myanmar has a particularly important geographical location. We have therefore accorded high priority to projects that build regional connectivity with Myanmar. Our flagship projects include the Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport Project and the Trilateral Highway Project connecting the North East with South East Asia with direct conectivity to Myanmar and Thailand. The Kaladan multi-modal transport project will give the North East access to the sea through the Sittwe port in Myanmar. The Trilateral Highway will provide land connectivity enabling people to drive between the North East and South East Asia. Two international entry/exit points have been operationlized at Tamu-Moreh and Rih-Zowkhawthar to increase connectivity with Myanmar. We are also a part of the Asian Highway Project.

19. Future plans to enhance connectivity include a four-lane trilateral highway linking India with Thailand via Myanmar – which could see expansion up to Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Railways that link India and Myanmar and further to Thailand, Laos, Singapore, Cambodia, Vietnam and Bangladesh are all very possible in the future.

20. Energy is the lifeblood of growing economies. It also contributes to building common commercial interests and business networks. India and Bangladesh are working on building an India-Bangladesh Friendship Pipeline. Hydrocarbons from refineries in Assam can flow through this pipeline into Bangladesh. LPG now reaches Tripura through Bangladesh entailing lower transporation costs.

21. Bangladesh is importing 1160 MW of power through adjoining states in India. The hydro-power of Himalayas has been used for the joint benefit of the North East and its neighbours through hydro electric projects in Bhutan. We are also looking at exporting the surplus hydropower potential of the North East to Bangladesh and Myanmar.

22. Our foreign policy initiatives for development of the North East are not limited to neighbouring countries but extend further east. We have been collaborating with Japan for the economic development of the North East. We have set up the India-Japan Act East Forum, which I co-chair with Japan’s Ambassador to India, to take up projects for economic modernization of the North East. The range of projects taken up is quite diverse and includes improvement of National Highways in Mizoram, Manipur and Tripura; hydropwer in Meghalaya; biodiversity conservation and forest management in Sikkim, Nagaland, Tripura and Meghalaya; and water supply and sanitation in Assam. Upskilling of human resources in the North East is also a part of the initiative.

23. BIMSTEC, an organization which we strongly support, is working on a connectivity Master Plan, Coastal Shipping Agreement and Motor Vehicle Agreement. Its ambitious plans that are studying linking BIMSTEC and ASEAN, and BIMSTEC and the Ayeyawady – Chao Phraya – Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy (ACMECS) would make the North East a logistical linchpin.

24. Prime Minister’s vision of making the North East a gateway to South Asia is not limited to expanding infrastructure and connectivity. It also encompasses a vision of creating common economic spaces and economic sub-regions that span boundaries and build on each other’s competitive advantages. Bangladesh, for example, is a rapidly growing economy with a population of 160 million. It is a large and growing market for Indian products and services, which our states of Meghalaya and Tripura are increasingly accessing.

25. The physical proximity of North Eastern states provides scope for mutual benefit. The traditional strengths of the North East in the services sector will encourage investment in Business Process Outsourcing, eco-tourism, wellness and hospitality, mining, food processing and various other areas. The expanded connectivity will enhance tourist footfalls and give a boost to the hospitality industry.

26. The Aatmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan announced by the Prime Minister which focuses on building domestic capabilities has significance for the states of the North East. Projects such as the Skills development Center set up in collaboration with Singapore and a Skill University that is receiving the support of the Asian Development Bank are initiatives that we will support and facilitate.

27. The Ministry of External Affairs intends to further study how these linkages and connections can be further harmonised to give effect to the Prime Minister’s vision. We will involve think tanks and local stakeholders in these studies.

28. We will also support public diplomacy events in the North East that connect stakeholders in the region with interlocutors in neighbouring countries and South East Asia.

29. The North East is also a storehouse of Indian talent. The young men and women from the states of the North East have made their presence felt across India and internationally.

30. I am confident that their efforts will lead to a transformation of the region. I would like to leave you with a thought. Only 10% of India’s trade goes through land borders. If we are able to even double this number, the effects on the North East would be transformative and would unlock even further value.

31. Let us all work together to make this happen.

Thank you!

New Delhi
December 19, 2020