NADI 2016-connecting people with rivers

By Ibu Sanjeeb Garg


In 1981, Joseph Montville, while discussing foreign policy in the magazine ‘Foreign Policy” during the course of his article “Foreign Policy According to Freud” coined the phrases ‘Track 1’ and ‘Track 2’ diplomacies. Track 1 referred to the normal discussions that diplomats indulged in, while Track 2 took place through professional experts, industry leaders, among others. A Track 2 discussion was seen as a way of understanding each other’s apprehensions and identifying common threads that would help establish a partnership. Since then, globally Track 2 discussions have become an important part of diffusing tensions and creating conducive atmosphere towards building a more meaningful partnership.

In this context the two day NADI festival-2016 organised by the Asian Confluence, India, East Asia Centre, Shillong, in collaboration with the Meghalaya Government and the Maulana Abul Kamal Azad Institute of Asian Studies assumes significance. It was a two day conference organised between 15 and 16 July 2016. Noted speakers and experts from Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Myanmar and north eastern states of India sat together to discuss issues of connectivity and people. Rivers was the central theme of discussions, as besides serving as a means of transport, rivers stood as a connective narrative among people for centuries now.

A number of interesting ideas were presented during the course of the two day conference, which sought increased connectivity among India’s Asian neighbours. This would indeed help India in its own quest as an emerging global power, and at the same time, giving the North East a firm footing in evolving diplomatic relations. It was Punjab and Tripura which first started power diplomacy with neighbouring countries and redefined how foreign relations evolved in India. Through initiatives such as the NADI festival, the north eastern states would further diplomacy from a state perspective as well. All this, while staying on course on the firm ethos on which Indian diplomatic values and directions are embedded.

Representatives from Bangladesh sought to increase the number of flights between Bangladesh and North eastern region to further people-to-people connectivity. Basin management should also form a part of the joint initiative, the speakers opined. Speakers from India stressed on strengthening dialogue process and that including all stakeholders would pave the way for effective convergence and “actionable” points in using rivers for mutual benefit and prosperity in the region. Border haats (Border markets) as an important form of cross border trade was emphasised and stress was laid on increasing the number of border haats.

At the bedrock of the NADI confluence which seeks to leverage on rivers, both as a conduit of transportation as well as a people-to-people connector, it is important to understand why inland waterways are important to India. According to a World Bank study, when one compares Inland Water Transport (IWT) with Road and Rail connectivity, one sees a clear pattern. While energy efficiency (in terms of how much weight cargo one HP of energy can carry) for rail and road are 500 kg and 150 kg respectively; for IWT it is 4000 kgs! Similarly fuel efficiency of IWT is much more than traditional rail and road connectivity. While considering other factors such as land needed, capital invested and air pollution emitted, IWT scores favourably over other traditional forms of transport.

Northeastern India is a completely land locked region connected to the rest of the country by a thin chicken neck! As such, alternate connectivity to the rest of the country as well as reverse connectivity between India and its Asianneighbours via North East assumes significance and it is here that rivers have a major role to play. While China has almost 43% of its internal trade via waterways, in India it stands at 7% only. Today experts estimate about 640 rivers criss-cross the region and 54 rivers flow from the Northeast to Bangladesh. There is immense potential of developing these rivers as inter country as well as intra country means of transport. The Indo Bangladesh Protocol on Inland Water and Trade (PIWTT) has been operational since 1972. PIWTT was later amended and Ashugonj was declared a port of call and transhipment port and is now used to transport goods to Tripura. This has cut down the transportation costs of good to Tripura dramatically. A renewed PIWTT would not only enhance intra regional trade but also open new opportunities of connectivity. The Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport Project which seeks to connect Kolkata with Sittwe port in Myanmar by sea can be seen as a natural extension to the ideas envisaged in the NADI confluence.

Yet an initiative of connectivity via rivers should not be seen in terms of transport connectivity alone. There has to be greater people-to-people interaction, more linkages between the upstream and downstream inhabitants. A theme of connectivity, centred around such connections is bound to boost relationships among nations. In the sidelines of the conference, a Buddhist circuit jointly developed between India and Bangladesh was mooted. Such a proposal would indeed bring the nations closer. India, as the birthplace of the Buddha, has a special place among Buddhists spread across Bangladesh, Myanmar and other Asian nations. A proposed Buddhist circuit incorporating these dynamics would undoubtedly foster closer people-to-people relations. Another initiative that can work wonders is opening a South Asian University centre in the North East, along the lines of the one established in New Delhi. Northeast India undoubtedly shares racial, cultural and historical ties with the Asian nations. A common university in North East would doubtless be attractive for students from other South Asian nations and increase people-to-people dynamics.

Today, India and her neighbours jointly face new forms of challenges in the form of conventional and non conventional threats. As the deadly attack in Gulshan, Dhaka has proved no country is immune to the threat of global terrorism anymore. In such a crucial juncture, initiatives such as NADI- 2016 would provide a great boost to confidence building measures among nations. At the same time threats are not limited to conventional arrays alone. Climate change is a major threat to nations today, especially low lying ones like Bangladesh. Experts predict, by the end of this century, a large part of Bangladesh would be under water. This would undoubtedly create pressure on the Northeastern states as migration is inevitable and the pressure would be on cross border migration as well. The Northeastern states already have a chequered history on the issue of migration from Bangladesh; hence opportunities such as these can also be used to discuss the question of livelihoods, cross border migration and climate change in the future.

In a global order, 21st century diplomacy has certainly moved from drawing rooms of diplomats to the people. This is a positive trend that encourages people participation and makes them stakeholders in their nation’s future. As the world order moves towards greater connectivity initiatives such as NADI- 2016, it would indeed foster greater people-to-people ties and at the same time helping India cement its position as a global leader in a new emerging multilateral world order.

(The views expressed by the author are personal)

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