KALAYMYO, Sagaing Division — “It won’t take more than three hours, the road is very good, better than our airport runway,” was how the hotel manager in Kalaymyo reacted when I told him that I was planning to drive to the India-Burma border. Locals enjoy the highway’s smooth surface, noticeably different than most of the other roads in the area, but it is lightly traveled. The India-Burma Friendship Road has underwhelmed expectations since it was conceived by the Indian government in 1993. This is mostly due to the fact the Burmese government failed to upgrade the 71 single-lane bridges along the highway, as promised in the original agreement.
The Friendship Road has yet to become the busy trade route it was envisioned to be, although this appears set to change with recent noises out of New Delhi that engagement with Burma is a priority for the newly minted Narendra Modi government. The long-planned Moreh-Mandalay bus route is set to begin operation this October, and the India-Burma-Thailand Trilateral Highway is expected to be fully operational by 2016.
Originally proposed as India’s first “Look East Policy” engagement with Burma, construction of the India-Burma Friendship Road (also known as the Tamu-Kalaymyo-Kalewa highway) started in 1997. A 320-strong workforce from India’s Border Roads Organization completed the widening and paving of the highway in November of 2000. The US$30 million for the highway came entirely from the Indian Ministry of External Affairs.
The highway was seen as important for improving cross-border trade. But there were
certainly also security considerations at a time when the Indian Army was fighting a number of insurgent groups who were active in the border area. The new highway meant Burma Army troops were better able to assist the Indian Army in its fight by gaining quicker access to areas used by the insurgent groups. The Indian security establishment’s desire for Burmese assistance fighting insurgents was one of the key reasons for India’s policy shift toward Burma in the early 1990s. With the emergence of the “Look East Policy” in 1993, India moved from a principled support for the Burmese democracy movement to a strategy based on mutual security cooperation.
The Trilateral Highway
Economic cooperation and trade is the other pillar of the “Look East Policy.” The 3,200-km Trilateral Highway project—of which the Friendship Road is one part—is seen as crucial for India to expand trade with Burma and the rest of Asean. India has been the driving force behind the development of the Trilateral Highway. In 2012, India provided Burma with a $500 million line of credit to be used for the upgrade of the 1,600-km Burma section of the highway. Other sections of the highway are being financed by the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, as it is envisioned as part of an Asean East-West Corridor. At the India-Asean summit in October 2013, former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh proposed extending the Trilateral Highway eastward to ports in Cambodia and Vietnam.
It has recently been announced that the India-Burma-Thailand Trilateral Highway will open for business in 2016. But given the experience of the India-Burma Friendship Road, this estimate may be optimistic.
A Highway Is Only as Wide as Its Bridges
The original agreement for the construction of the Friendship Road was that the Indian government would be responsible for widening and repaving the existing highway, while the Burmese government would upgrade the old and decrepit single-lane bridges. This never happened.
The Burmese government has been dragging its feet since construction of the Friendship Road began in 1997. By 2013 the Indian government decided it had waited long enough, and a new agreement was drafted whereby India would take responsibility for upgrading the 71 single-lane bridges.
Driving along the highway in early 2014, it is clear why India was getting impatient. The once brightly-painted and optimistically-worded concrete signs posts installed along the highway to celebrate its completion were peeling and crumbling. Nearly 15 years after it was “opened,” the India-Burma Friendship Road has yet to reach its full potential.
Common sense says that a highway is only as wide as its bridges. With 71 single-lane bridges along the 160-km stretch, there is the potential for traffic to slow to a halt every 2.25 kms. Most bridges are so narrow that only one vehicle can cross at a time. Some of the bridges are so frail that trucks over 13 tons are directed to drive down a dirt road beside the bridge, and cross directly through the water flowing below.
It is a feat that proves difficult during the monsoon season, making the highway basically impassable for a certain class of truck six months of the year.