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SHILLONG: A group of eminent persons from the eastern and northeastern parts of the country, as well as four neighbouring countries recently came together to brainstorm on the development opportunities across the border and find a sustainable way to make them a reality.
The two-day Shillong Dialogue Roundtable, organised by Asian Confluence in collaboration with The Asia Foundation, discussed on ‘India and Sub Himalayan Eastern neighbours: Shared Borders, Shared Opportunities’ and chalked out a time-bound road map to give a fillip to tourism and agriculture and horticulture and identify special trade and transit hubs. Experts, bureaucrats, politicians and academicians from India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar had several rounds of discussions and debates to identify opportunities, list challenges and the geo-spaces of possibilities before they came to the consensus that steps should be taken immediately and within a stipulated time frame.
Chief Minister Conrad Sangma, who inaugurated the roundtable, spoke at length on how to develop tourism and push forward the agriculture and horticulture sector.
“Regionally integrated development approaches with the backing of digital connectivity can help India’s North Eastern states and its eastern neighbours to revolutionise the economic scenario in this sub-region,” he said.
(The dialogue started off with Sabyasachi Dutta, executive director of Asian Confluence, setting the larger context through a visual presentation of maps of the region, to highlight the once connected region, the fractions in between and the recent thrust towards reconnecting the entire region through a slew of projects on physical connectivity.
Talking on Day 1, KN Kumar, the state’s additional chief secretary, raised concerns over informal trade with neighbouring countries, especially Bangladesh. He pointed out that the volume of informal trading in food, consumer goods and textiles is more than formal trade. He suggested that if the informal trading can be converted to formal through various policies then it would be profitable for both the countries.
Kumar observed that the existing border haats, where locals from both India and Bangladesh take their produce, are insignificant with Rs 16.56 crore worth transactions per annum.
Muchkund Dubey, former foreign secretary, too said he had little faith in border haats.
However, Sreeradha Dutta, Senior Fellow at Vivekananda International Foundation, contradicted Kumar saying one cannot overlook the grassroots level. While apologising for the ‘discordant note’ at the seminar, she said, “There is disconnect between political parties and bureaucrats. Also, infrastructure exists but only on paper and that is creating problem. We are not on the same page when it comes to security issues.”
Day 2 of the roundtable started with speakers sharing government and private sector perspectives on the possibilities in agri-horticulture value chains, trade-transmit hubs and tourism.
This was followed by breakaway sessions where three groups were formed to discuss on the topics.
Group 1, which was brainstorming on tourism, identified various circuits like the Buddhist, cultural hubs, health tourism and nature and caves. The participants flagged various hurdles and possible solutions to develop and promote the various circuits. Air connectivity is a major problem and that needs to be developed, they concurred.
There are existing routes for Nepal-India-Bhutan circuits of tourism with Siliguri as the fulcrum and further facilitation of these corridors with Siliguri as the sub-regional hub and destinations in the North East of India and the four neighbours as spokes can lead to substantial gains.
The participants also mooted the idea of BIMSTEC visa to ease travelling bottlenecks.
For developing the Buddhist circuit, Kamrul Hasan Murshed, CEO of Visit Sylhet in Bangladesh, suggested that his country has several Buddhist sites and these can be promoted by direct air links to Dhaka from Guwahati and Shillong. “In fact, a large part of the erstwhile Jaintiapur is in Bangladesh. So why not promote that too along with tourism in Jaintia Hills,” he said.
Group 2 discussed on agri-horticulture and all participants agreed that trade restrictions on products should be removed.
The group identified products like turmeric, chilli, tapioca, pineapple, jackfruit and potatoes which can be promoted and traded among the BBIN (Bhutan-Bangladesh-India-Nepal) countries at ease.
The discussion stumbled upon several road blocks in boosting livelihoods of small farmers, the foremost being communication challenge.
There is no mobile connectivity in the border areas. Certification of agricultural products, testing centres and quarantine issues were also listed. However, all agreed that the last mile connectivity has to be facilitated by the respective governments.
Khin Maung Lwin, former director of Myanmar’s health and sports department, pointed out the long-term challenges like climate change and said contaminated water sources spoil even organic produce and countries should act together to clean and save the resources.
For special trade and transit hubs discussed by Group 3, it was suggested that negative lists of commodities between countries should be eased and awareness on initiatives should be there. The group also pointed out psychological bottlenecks in trading.
Thrust on waterways
The discussions and deliberations put a major thrust on the forgotten traditional waterways connecting the countries. The participants came to the conclusion that adequate steps should be taken to rejuvenate and preserve the water routes and ports so that trading can be initiated through these.