Bridging India to East Asia
Once, Bengal was considered as the 'weaving hub of the globe'. A variety of hand-woven cotton cloth was shipped to various countries of East Asia through the Bay of Bengal using the river routes of Ganga, Irrawaddy and Mekong (GIM) to enter into the domestic markets of this region and beyond. Strong trading ties paved the way for cultural ties and vice versa. Moreover, parts of undivided Bengal and the North Eastern states of India were once included in the old Arakan kingdom which is now a part of Myanmar. Various races of the North Eastern states of India also share their ethnic and cultural lineage with the people of Thailand and Myanmar.
In addition to these, this GIM region is part of a huge ecological hotspot which can provide sustainable livelihood to its inhabitants, if utilised properly, for the next few centuries. The Indo-Burma hotspot comprises of the Southeast Asian nations of Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, portions of Eastern and Northeastern India and Southern China. It follows along the coast extending across thousands of miles and includes the islands of the South China Sea, the Gulf of Thailand, Andaman Sea, and the Bay of Bengal. This area enriched with diversity is bordered by the Himalayan hotspot to the north and the Sunderland hotspot to the south. But these ethnic, cultural and ecological commonalities have failed to boost trade among the various trading blocs, namely, the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN)-India, the Mekong Ganga Cooperation (MGC), the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-sector Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) and the India Myanmar Thailand Trilateral Cooperation (IMT) functioning in this vast region. Intra-regional trade figures for 2015 suggest that even after one-and-half decades of India's 'Look East' (now 'Act East') policy, initiated in 1991, as a counter initiative to check China's growing influence in the region, intra-regional trade among these blocs has not witnessed a significant growth. Intra regional trade figures for ASEAN-India, MGC, BIMSTEC, IMT for the year 2015 (2000) were 22.92 per cent (23.80 per cent); 3.91 per cent (8.20 per cent), 3.69 per cent (6.70 per cent) and 0.88 per cent (1.66 per cent) respectively.
After a gap of over five hundred years, the epicentre of the global economy has realigned itself and shifted to East Asia. Myanmar is located at the 'cross roads' of the world's two largest civilisations, namely, India and China. While this geopolitically important country is a part of all the major trade blocs of this region including the new Bangladesh-China- India- Myanmar (BCIM) initiative, Bengal (more precisely Kolkata) is the ideal place for spearheading India's 'Act East' policy, which aims to re-establish the old cultural and trade links shared with the countries of East and South East Asia. Therefore, cooperation within the IMT region is crucial for the success of India's new strategic and trade initiative.
It is thus important to identify the driving and restraining forces towards this flourishing initiative. Driving forces for a stronger cooperation in the IMT region would be rooted in Bengal's capital city Kolkata, in particular, towards forming the Gateway to the East and South East Asia. A few insights would be crucial here.
1. A deep water port built by India in Myanmar's Sittwe which is situated in the old Arakan region is ready to be commissioned. This will open the Kolkata-Mizoram trade route via Myanmar. It has been calculated that transportation via the sea route is more cost effective than utilising only land routes.
2. Myanmar and Thai citizens are mostly practising Buddhists and Bengal still hosts several Buddhist shrines. These religious ties can be leveraged for further strengthening trade and investment relations
3. Being a part of the huge Indo-Burma ecological hotspot, the IMT could cooperate to develop sustainable ecological products for their domestic markets while also tapping on to the global market. Instead of solely relying on western technology and contributing mostly to the global value chain of the TNCs, the traditional technology and knowledge system of the indigenous people of this vast land should be harnessed to the maximum possible extent.
4. During the last few years, the Bengal government has developed a new approach to rediscover its rich weaving techniques, intricate handicrafts, endangered varieties of aromatic and medicinal rice, and traditional food items by bringing all these products under one generic brand called 'Biswa Bangla'. This can act as a model for various regions of South and East Asian countries including Myanmar and Thailand. Investment can be directed to promote traditional goods, agricultural products and sustainable green technologies like hand looms.
5. The present political leadership of Bengal believes in the 'Beauty Contest approach' of inviting investment into the state. It is a considerably better, long term strategy compared to the much maligned 'Race to the Bottom approach' (Tata Nano Project is a case in point) of the previous government. 'Beauty Contest' approach emphasises on making the land more attractive by educating the labour force, investing in infrastructure and developing new institutions. The leadership of West Bengal is precisely doing the same.
Major Restraining Forces
Political intolerances in India and Myanmar, especially communal conflicts, are intensifying over the passage of time. The limited autonomy given to Indian federal states by the Central government of India is proving to be a major logjam for the proper exploitation of the trade and investment potential of the fast growing East Asian region. The Central government should provide power and authority to the states to negotiate trade and investment deals with other countries. Instead of competitive federalism, the government of India should ideally encourage cooperative federalism. India can no longer afford to ignore China — its powerful next door neighbour in the East. Indian policy makers are still in a state of confusion regarding how to tackle this great power. Though India and China are members of BRICS (Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa) and the New Development Bank (formerly, BRICS Development Bank), India is still apprehensive of China's 'One Belt One Road' (OBOR) initiative. A constructive engagement with China is thus essential for a Resurgent Asia.
After a long period of hibernation, owing to economic liberalisation and better connectivity with the neighbouring nations of Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan, Bengal is now on the move again under a new political leadership. Kolkata, the original capital of British India, has rediscovered itself to yet again emerge as the Gateway to the East and South East Asia.
West Bengal, the fourth largest state economy in India, growing at 15.64 per cent GVA (2016-17), is leading the growth curve of our Nation. The State is a perfect blend of economic strength and dynamism, with a strong consumer base, policies to usher in women's empowerment, a vibrant industry, a large talent pool, industry friendly stable policies, transparent governance and a strong physical infrastructure. The State government is committed towards inclusive and sustainable development by providing increasing employment opportunities. Moreover, Bengal is equipped with abundant skilled labour and a responsible workforce, and during the last few years 'zero man-days' have been lost.
In addition to the Kolkata and Haldia ports, two major deep sea ports are coming up at Sagar Island and Tajpur, along with the Amritsar Kolkata Industrial Corridor (AKIC) aligned to the Eastern Dedicated Freight Corridor, two more international airports, national waterways, ready industrial infrastructure with over 200 industrial estates covering around 20,000 acres and six new theme townships. All of this together, promises to open up new vistas of investment opportunities.
The business opportunities that the State of Bengal offers are spread across multi-dimensional sectors including, industrial infrastructure, manufacturing clusters (light engineering, auto ancillaries, leather, gems & jewellery, textile), urban development, agro-based industries (seeds and fertilisers, food processing, animal resource development, fisheries), IT & ITES, transport, tourism, power, skills, healthcare and education, to name a few.
Bengal, more precisely Kolkata, has all the ingredients to emerge as the gateway for India to the East and South East Asian countries. The success of India's Act East policy depends on how quickly and effectively this 'city of joy' can position itself in the global trade circuit. Now, the responsibilities lie with the policy makers, trade associations, intellectuals, the media and the political leaders of Bengal to take this possibility and convert it into a reality that would benefit the entire nation, and, in fact, the entire region.
(The views expressed are strictly personal.)