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June 17, 2013

Burma-India Transport Project Raises Opportunities, Concerns

by Daniel Schearf

An India-funded transportation network being built to cross Burma has been criticized for a lack of transparency and concerns about damage to the environment.  The Kaladan  project promises to connect India with Burma's remote and impoverished west and improve trade links.  But, activists and biologists warn, officials on both sides are ignoring risks to wildlife, the environment and people. 

When finished in 2015, the Kaladan project will connect a highway system and inland waterway from India's northeast Mizoram state through Burma's western Chin state to a deep sea port in Rakhine state.

The transport network will allow trade to flow more easily between the impoverished and isolated areas, increase incomes for farmers, lower food prices, and provide jobs.

​​But activists say officials are not providing enough information about the project to the public, and are ignoring risks to the environment and people.

Cultural, environmental impact

Cultural heritage sites in Rakhine were damaged during the port's construction and Burmese authorities have failed to make good on promises made a year ago to conduct impact assessments. 

The Kaladan Movement, a coalition of local rights groups, called last week for the project to be suspended until their concerns are addressed.

Twan Zaw, director of the Arakan River Network, spoke at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand.

"So far we haven't seen any report about the environmental and social and health, the impact assessment yet.  That's why it is concerning about the local social livelihoods in regards, in terms of the sustainability on the ground," he said.

The Indian government is financing the entire project, estimated at $214 million, as part of its "Look East Policy" to improve links with Southeast Asia.  It is India's largest development project in Burma.

But so far, the only known impact study was conducted in India on a 99-kilometer highway being built to connect Mizoram to Burma's Chin state.
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​​ ​​Wildlife concerns

Kashmira Kakati, a wildlife biologist and author of the 2011 report, which focused on the effect on wildlife, told the FCCT the highway to Burma cuts through a wildlife sanctuary, a fact India's Ministry of Environment and Forests has ignored.

"I've written, I've faxed to the director of ministry.  Nobody has even acknowledged the report.  And, the next thing I know about, there's no information forthcoming from the ministry," said Kakati. "And, when it finally, I read about the Kaladan report, it's been passed in the minutes of the meeting, it says that the report has been approved with no objection from… the inspection committee, which is patently wrong."

Activists say the road construction in Mizoram is about half finished.  Kakati says, when completed, it will also pose a threat to wildlife outside the sanctuary.

"And one of the biggest fears that we anticipated in the report is that this would become a major wildlife trade route," said Kakati. "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."

Indian officials have dismissed the need for independent impact assessments in Burma. 

Rajesh Swami, first secretary at the Indian Embassy in Bangkok, read out a statement in support of the project.  He says suggestions to provide more information to local people merits consideration but is no reason to suspend the project.

"The need for the project and the fact that the project will bring about only positive changes to the region are the basic facts accepted while commencing the project," he said. "The people of the project area and the local government are certainly competent and knowledgeable to discuss any aspect of the project and cooperate for speedy implementation of the project for the benefit of the people who urgently need proper transport connectivity."

Compensating farmers

The Kaladan Movement says farmers in India were not adequately compensated for land in Mizoram and they worry about worse abuses in Burma.

Burma is to provide land and security for the Kaladan project.  But, despite having only two years to finish, many locals in Chin state are still not aware of a plan to build a highway on their side of the border to India. 

Activists say that raises concerns of last-minute land confiscations as Burmese officials scramble to meet the deadline.

Salai Za Uk Ling, program director for the Chin Human Rights Organization, says increased military activity is another concern.  He told the FCCT the army may resort to forced labor to complete the project.

"Large-scale infrastructure development in Burma, especially road construction in past involved forced labor," he said.

Burma's army has a long history of forcing villagers to carry military supplies or build roads, and Chin state has a large military presence.

A survey released in 2011 by Physicians for Human Rights found nine out of 10 households in Chin state experienced forced labor, the highest recorded rate in Burma.

A Burma government spokesman was not available to comment on concerns about the Kaladan project.  But, a report last week in state media promoted the highway through Chin state.  The New Light of Myanmar newspaper said when completed, the new road would boost border trade and form a trade corridor connecting India to Burma and Southeast Asia.