Sinlung /
25 June 2013

Flying East

Imphal as an international flight hub is a great idea. But Northeast still awaits a robust transit infrastructure

If all goes according to plan, the upgrade of the Imphal and Agartala airports to international status will help end the physical isolation of India's landlocked Northeast. Currently, Guwahati is the lone international airport in the eight northeastern states, including Sikkim.

Given the region's dire need for better connectivity — with the rest of India and neighbouring countries — an integrated airports development project that upgrades and connects the dozen or so northeastern airports, including Bagdogra in West Bengal, will help build Imphal into a regional hub for international flights to Southeast Asia, and facilitate domestic movement and commerce. Road and rail connectivity for the economically deprived Northeast has remained a festering absence since Independence.

While an international flight hub will likely stimulate road projects, the upgraded airports will need better road and rail links. Manipur, for instance, is a state that sits at the ends of NH 39 and NH 53.

As the protracted 2010-2011 Manipur blockades brought home, it's all too easy to cut the state off from the rest of the Northeast, to say nothing of the country, by blocking these two arteries.

Meanwhile, Arunachal Pradesh shares a 1,000 km border with China, a border that Beijing can reach faster than Delhi, even as the people of the state languish in rugged and remote terrain.

Imphal is a good choice for the hub, given Manipur's close links with Myanmar — India's only gateway to ASEAN states by land. But to develop the region, its linking with Myanmar's Sittwe port, via NH 54 and the Kaladan river, and with Bangladesh's Chittagong port, must be speeded up.

As should connecting Manipur with the trans-Asian highway system and the Imphal-Mandalay bus service.

The long-awaited rail corridor through Bangladesh would reduce the distance between Kolkata and Agartala to 550 km from 1,700 km. The needs of the Northeast necessitate integrated, long-term thinking. The Imphal hub cannot be an exception.

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