The Scourge of Geography

A reflection on landlockedness, economic growth and underdevelopment with reference to the Northeast India and Manipur

“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.”
ADAM SMITH (1723–1790)
Landlocked countries in green; doubly landlocked in purple
Image: Soffredo / Wikimedia Commons


One of the recurring theme we hear when we are dealing with the development plan in Northeast India is about landlockedness. A landlocked region, in physical geography, is enclosed completely by land or has no coastline. One of the major problems of such a region is its inability to access the world/wider markets. Trade and commerce are a concern that any country faces irrespective of its location but it is harder for a landlocked country (LLC).

India is not a LLC. It is not amongst the 48 such countries and four partly locked countries but its volatile and mountainous Northeast is a landlocked region. With an area spread over 262,230 km², the Northeast covers 8% of the Indian territory, and its population of 38,857,769 comprises 3.1% of the total population, according to 2011 Census. There is a tendency for people in mainland India to homogenise the region but for a simple clarification, there are 33 officially recognised ethnic groups in Manipur alone. Altogether, and locked in a time warp, the region is a nasty blend of awful geography and terrible economic policies.

Contemporary politics will show how the landlockedness in this region is a matter of grave concern. It is unquestionable that the combined process of Indian independence, partition of the subcontinent and the formation of the Indian State was a chief cause of this region becoming landlocked. For instance, the paperwork and red tape of nation-states with a host of new expressions, ranging right from a passport to economic cooperation is a new phenomenon. One hundred years, say, two at the most. Even the International Civil Aviation Organisation had commenced the standardisation of passports only as recent as 1980.  Then, the tiny state of Manipur—bordering Burma and covering an area of 22,327 km²—existed all along as a proud and ancient Asiatic kingdom with access to Southeast Asia. However, it became a wretched peripheral province after the illegal, coerced merger into the union of India in 1949.  That bolted the door for good.

Just as landlockedness is to development programmes, violence is to the Northeast. The Naga National Council was the first organisation to be outlawed in 1972 though the council’s origin can be traced back to the Forties. Amongst the eight states in the region, armed rebellion for sovereignty is unbridled in Assam, Manipur, Nagaland and Tripura though the armed organisations fighting for political independence exist in varying forms in all the states, except Sikkim. Many of the major outfits were established during the Sixties and Seventies. New Delhi has never stopped pouring in funds but on the ground the land tells a different tale. People are fighting for the right to life and hopelessness rules the roost. 

In this condition the fact that India is not a LLC is also significant because of other reasons. The issues of LLCs are global yet distinguish in their own ways. There have been in-depth studies but there will always be a lack of information for us, despite the geographical difficulties and other challenges that the Northeast is putting up, as we apparently do not live in such a country. In today’s age of information, this deprivation is a form of prejudice.

Ironically, a landlocked region such as the Northeast can be a location of strategic importance. In layperson term, it can be read as ‘you are useful in particular cases and you need to help—this is not a request but a National Command. If there is no use of you, just shut your pie-hole’. This is a made-up statement but the gist is real. We can even imagine the elected representatives, self-styled as the local lions, whimpering in New Delhi when they are demanded to complete a project or rapped on their knuckles for being too incompetent. Then, in the aftermath of economic liberalisation during the Nineties, the union government came up with the master plan of the Look East Policy, recently rechristened as the Act East Policy. This policy aims to accentuate trade and security relations by integrating these elements with those of the Southeast and East Asian countries. The Northeast, despite being a main transit point, featured nowhere in the original plan.

For that matter, the indifference has been distinct from day one when India got its power back from the British. Consider the chronic absence of this region and its people in the consciousness of mainland Indians. Policy experts would keep echoing that the region has been a part of the five-year plans but this can be described as all style and no substance. It is their ineptitude which is obvious from other factors such as the rise of Maoism and Naxalite movement across central and eastern part of the mainland.

Despite popular demand for fairness in governance and administration the political ringmasters can easily ignore the region, which some people believe is an intentional ploy to maintain the status quo—or to maintain a frontier territory to raise the military against imagined invasion. (Did someone just mention China now?) But when it is indeed attacked, it is highly likely that it will run all the way back to West Bengal a thousand kilometres away, like it did in 1962. Except for the occasional military liabilities, this is a negligible region and the fact that it does not have a say in the national politics, contribute to its irrelevance. Just dole out the regular grants and funds to the provincial government of the day and send in droves, more and more foot soldiers and generals from the so-called active services, in the name of the nation.

Tough taskmaster

Geography is a hard taskmaster. For the State, it has to obey the natural (not national) command in the form of making ways through the hostile terrains and which is made worse by the presence of armed struggle for sovereignty against its very foundation in the region. However, as we have noted, India is not a landlocked country but its disparity has been a curse to the Northeast. When the country was smugly growing at 8% a few years ago, the figure shows next to nothing in/of the region. Especially, in Manipur, where industry is non-existent, it is linked to the outside world through two miserable national highways, termed as its lifelines. Before we can even find other solutions to open up more in this connected world, the importance of these lifelines has been hijacked by groups with vested interests constantly. This is evident in the countless number of highway economic blockades that are imposed at the drop of a hat.

For the rebels, there are swathes of inspiration from Timor-Leste plus communist and socialist ideologies to define and rationalise their existence, as a separate entity from India. Alternatively, geography is the motivation to regain the supposedly lost glory of the past for the future’s sake. For the common people, they are a kangdroom, a rolling ball that everybody kicks around with no noticeable goalposts and which is stuck in the middle of a no man’s land, contrarily with or without a taskmaster. Once they used to export rice, with surplus production, now they import their staple food on a large scale.

In many landlocked countries, the problem is closely related to the means of access over territory of coastal transit states or the usage of marine resources. However, the Northeast has the extra soreness of dismal infrastructure as in its transport and communication system. Besides, it is doubly prone to armed conflicts and routine landslides. Another double-trouble is the Northeast’s already landlocked pain and proximity to underdeveloped countries. The region shares an international border, to name the underdeveloped countries, like Burma, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh, which span over 4,500 kilometres while it is connected to mainland India through the notorious 21 km-wide Chicken Neck or Siliguri Corridor. To some observers, ‘bad neighbours’ are a ‘trap’.

Between the east and west

Landlockedness is a highly artificial problem. For instance, the creation of modern Bangladesh has blocked many areas in mainland India from accessing the Bay of Bengal. Across the globe as well there are several countries which once enjoy access to the seas but modern state formation puts a bottleneck in the movement of goods and people. This case is still raging in several African countries after the Europeans’ loot, plunder and arbitrary map-making in the continent. Another reason is evident from how civil wars, violent armed conflicts and ethnic violence have resulted in the closure and destruction of old routes in these countries. In South America, Bolivia, now an LLC, lost its coast in the War of the Pacific. Bolivia teamed up with Peru and fought against Chile a long ago between 1879–1874, but unsurprisingly, the problem is simmering as a political nuisance till today.   

Experts are of the view that LLCs, by default, face the problem of underdevelopment but the issue of landlockedness facilitating such a condition is unclear. Contemporary trade theories have established it as verifiable because geographical constraints reduce the volume of business transaction. Proponents also believe that the lack of handling facilities is more acute than the geographical headache. Perhaps only the oil mafia in Manipur can explain the concept of capacity constraints plainly.

There are contestations whether landlockedness is the main culprit because most of the LLCs are underdeveloped or it owes to the general backward conditions of these countries. Nowadays, theorists would discredit the role of landlockedness in underdevelopment without further ado. Their claim is that geographical factors only reduce the volume of trade, but do not tear apart an economic system. This is why, economists and policy makers are now emphasising on whether landlockedness is instead accountable for varying economic growth rates. Certain studies have established that it does play a role in slowing an economy but it is not the sole factor. 

If we apply one of the theories that elaborates on transaction cost, the road taxes imposed by proscribed armed organisations based in the hills of Manipur are a glaring example. In figures, particularly the Isaak-Muivah faction of NSCN collects around INR 2.0–3.0 crores as vehicle tax annually along NH 102, the main lifeline of Manipur. (The other NH37 is in a deplorable condition since ages but its importance is seldom appreciated, except during crises on the main lifeline.) Add to these illegal taxes and rampant corruption, the legal offloading-onloading costs, tariffs plus transportation and storage costs that bog down the already dependent economy of the province. For the record, Manipur—which imports all its daily needs and items—also survives wholly on central assistance in the form of funds and grants.

Besides the ambiguous political conflicts with the union, Manipur shares a cold relationship with the groups along the transit areas, especially in Nagaland that aggravates the situation. Both the Manipuri valley-based Meiteis and hill-dwelling Nagas are hell bent on flaunting their ethnic nationalisms and this antagonism beats the devils of landlockedness hands down. The Kukis have also joined the jamboree in the aftermath of the demand for a regulation to check demographic imbalance. During blockades, the agitators would block the medical supplies, something which is unimaginable even during wartime. This depressing condition is also rampant in the cross-border disagreements among the Central Asian LLCs that include Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Civil conflicts have already wrecked these countries just like ethnic hostilities are creating a social volcano in our backyard. 

However, there is so much to learn from the case of Laos and its main benefactor, Thailand.  The former benefits from the well-developed road networks of Thailand though the infrastructure is limited in Laos, which does not have its own railway system. Thailand is also investing to facilitate its neighbour’s trade and economics. Besides, Laos is hopeful that it will reap the benefits by providing a common transit link between Thailand, Vietnam and China in the near future.

Closer to the Northeast, observers have been citing the case of Yunnan in south-west China as model. This province—resource rich, inhabited by 25 ethnic groups, located in a mountainous zone and once a landlocked region and a ‘museum of human races’ lagging far behind mainland China—was previously a carbon copy of India’s anthropological paradise, the Northeast. But today, amongst the ten airports in this Chinese province, the Kunming Wujiaba International Airport in the capital city of Kunming is one of the busiest international airports in China. Yunnan enjoys easy access to Burma, Laos, Thailand, Tibet and Vietnam. With an annual growth rate of 13.7% in 2011, the nominal GDP of Yunnan was 875.1 billion Yuan (US$ 138.92 billion) and per capita GDP was 13,494 Yuan (US$ 1,975). Its economy is still growing strong, banking on border trade, tourism, mineral wealth and investment in construction and so on.

Sheer dependence on transport and communications, unfavourable political condition, socio-economical mess plus governance and bureaucratic incompetency account for underdevelopment in the LLCs. Interestingly LLCs such as Switzerland, Luxembourg and Austria enjoy highly developed economies. Switzerland is ranked second according to the IMF’s gross domestic product per capita at nominal values just behind Luxembourg. What do these countries have that the other developing LLCs do not?

Switzerland is surrounded by four developed economies: Austria (ranked 16th), Germany (18th), France (20th) and Italy (26th). This ranking is based on the World Economic Outlook Database presented by the International Monetary Fund in mid 2015. India secures the 140th position, one rank ahead of Zambia, another underdeveloped LLC in South-eastern Africa.

According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), these developed LLCs:

•    export mostly to a surrounding, thriving regional economy
•    benefit from numerous roads and railways and face few customs or administrative barriers (although Switzerland has some)
•    produce a wide variety of goods that ‘fit’ intellectual commodities with sectors such as in banking and engineering little hindered by geographical location
•    manufacture other items—such as Swiss watches—having high value per weight, making freight costs per unit low
•    have entrepreneurs who come up with good business ideas

Economists working with UNCTAD are hopeful that these pecuniary magic can be recreated elsewhere too. They have prepared a three-point agenda for the purpose:

•    Building productive capacity—or regional economic growth and broaden wider varieties of goods
•    Improving transport links while lowering customs and administrative barriers
•    Offering advice and training on investment, exports and entrepreneurship

Net result

Asian countries such as Bhutan (dependent on India), Laos (on Thailand/Vietnam), Mongolia (on China/Russia) and Nepal (on India) illustrate the bad example of an LLC, coinciding with the dull economic condition of the Northeast. A decade ago, India put several restrictions on Nepal while bargaining for a bilateral trade agreement, which the latter had to accede to. A news on a national daily reports headlined: China Confirms Sending Fuel to Nepal.

China could well become a long-term fuel supplier to Nepal, undercutting IOC (the state-owned Indian Oil Corporation), which had been the sole supplier of fuel to Nepal for four decades.

China confirmed it was sending fuel supplies to Nepal, breaking India’s monopoly on the export of petroleum products to the Himalayan nation. The fuel deal with Nepal feeds into China’s broader strategic perspective, with Kathmandu as one of the nodes of the Beijing-led Belt and Road connectivity initiative that would integrate the economies of Eurasia. Nepal and China have inked a four-point document endorsing the Belt and Road initiative.

THE HINDU, 30 Oct 2015

We cannot move the Patkai, Manipur, Naga and Mizo Hills but there ought to be ways to compromise with geography and the trade / development models. For instance, if transportation is the cause, then it follows that intervention is needed in the road network. In this context, the lack of political will is equally obnoxious to the illegal taxes levied on highway good vehicles. The state is highly incompetent to tackle the issues that the vacuum left by its inefficiency has been filled in by the army and the armed anti-state organisations. The laidback natives, instead of helping, worsen the situation with their lack of imagination and their inability to don proactive roles in our collective life. Disengagement is unquestionably worse than the issue of landlockedness.

One of the challenges that the LLCs face is the cutback on competition and profit because of isolation. For Manipur, there are agricultural, forestry, cottage products to trade, however these are too meagre to compete, and it is exacerbated by the lack of an industrial base.  According to the trends, we can recommend improving the road transport. But how—in a region where a bridge which is supposed to take six months to build consumes ten years? Investment on this infrastructure is also questionable from arguments that the rebel organisations always interfere in the development works, in this case, the construction and maintenance of the road network.

As a consolation, along the India-Myanmar-Thailand Friendship Highway, the Guwahati–Mandalay is scheduled to be functional by 2016. The completed highway will further extend to Cambodia and Vietnam as a part of the Asian Highway Network under the larger scheme of the Mekong–Ganga Cooperation. The United Nations initiated the Asian Highway (AH) project in 1959 and then it has been taken over as a cooperative project between Bangkok-based UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) and 32 countries in Asia and Europe. 

ESCAP is also responsible for building the Trans-Asian Railway that will connect the region to Southeast Asia through its Southern Corridor. The passage will rail through Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, China, Malaysia and Singapore. As of 2015, there are five missing railway gaps between connecting countries and this includes the break between India’s Northeast and Burma. The gap between Burma and Thailand is also affecting us directly.

[Footnote: The locals only wish, with condolences, The Bridge on the River Kwai was built for real and the bridge was actually authentic! It could have eased the introduction of a railway line in the Northeast too. The epic film was based on the construction of the 415-km Burma Railway, which was more popularly known as the Death Railway. Estimates show that the construction resulted in the death of more than 90,000 Allied prisoners of war, during Japan’s Burma Campaign in the WWII.]

As we cannot be a world unto ourselves when we talk about getting rid of landlockedness blues, it calls for a great understanding and coordination between the stakeholders. Another Utopian view, but then we are left with not many options. In the context of flexibility, there is a need to maximise from the agreements amongst the Asian countries. There is a possibility to realise the objectives that is not possible in other ways, including those arising from geographical problems. There could be issues like the questions of interference in a country’s domestic affairs but these organisations, while legitimising the groups, is mutually beneficial. Below, it is a list of organisations and initiatives for development and cooperation in and around Asia:

•    THE BAY OF BENGAL INITIATIVE FOR MULTI-SECTORAL TECHNICAL AND ECONOMIC COOPERATION (BIMSTEC, FOUNDED IN 1997) An international organisation consisting of countries in South Asia and South East Asia, including Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Bhutan and Nepal with 13 priority sectors

•    THE SOUTH ASIAN ASSOCIATION FOR REGIONAL COOPERATION (SAARC, 1985) An economic and geopolitical organisation of eight countries that are primarily located in South Asia or the Indian subcontinent

•    THE MEKONG–GANGA COOPERATION (MGC, 2000) An organisation consisting of India, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam with four areas of cooperation including tourism, culture, education and transportation for future trade and investment cooperation
•    THE ASSOCIATION OF SOUTHEAST ASIAN NATIONS (ASEAN, 1967) A political and economic organisation of ten Southeast Asian countries: Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam with the objectives of accelerating economic growth, social progress and socio-cultural evolution among its members, protection of regional peace and stability, and opportunities for member countries to resolve differences peacefully

[Note: After signing THE ASEAN–INDIA FREE TRADE AREA (AIFTA, 2009) agreement in Bangkok amidst criticism from certain corners in India, the trade between the country (the regional sixth largest partner) and the ASEAN (India’s fourth largest trading partner) stood at US$ 79.86 billion in 2011–12. It has been predicted to grow to US$ 100 billion by 2015.

Three years ago, India and Burma further signed 12 MoUs, covering topics such as border development, defence and analysis and joint trade and investment. Trade between the two countries, which started in the early Nineties, reached US$ 2.18 billion in 2013–14.]

•    THE ASIA COOPERATION DIALOGUE (ACD, 2002) An intergovernmental organisation to promote Asian cooperation at a continental level and to help integrate separate regional organisations such as ASEAN, SAARC, the Gulf Cooperation Council (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) and the Eurasian Economic Union (Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Russia)

•    THE BANGLADESH–CHINA–INDIA–MYANMAR FORUM FOR REGIONAL COOPERATION (BCIM, 1999) A sub-regional organisation of four Asian countries aimed at greater integration of trade and investment between them

Landlocked or policy blocked?

The big push model in welfare economics explains how small funds are counterproductive in a backward region. Briefly, it goes wasted for multiple reasons. New Delhi should reconsider its investment to the Northeast, of which the maximum amount of money goes to the pockets of those in the ruling class. As of now, New Delhi is just too satisfied as long as there is a puppet in the province, though the big push model requires the State to play a primary role. Economists equate the necessary initial push to an economy for development to the ground speed of an aircraft, which it has to gain before taking off. Our aeroplane is frozen in a junkyard far away from the Imphal International Airport. 

If the state can establish Counter-Insurgency and Jungle Warfare School in the remote Vairengte, award prizes to the legitimised gunmen for killing people, improvise the counter-insurgency operations and invite military experts from all over the world for recommendation and consultation, then it is no rocket science to get to work regarding these issues at hand. If they cannot do it, or are reluctant, another entity will take up the space definitely. This is just a law of nature—the wind rushes into the area of emptied air.

If we ask any expert, the answers are worded differently but the essence is the same: underdeveloped countries need decolonisation and independence to take part in the global development process. India is decolonised and independent but the Northeast is not; in fact the State plays hide and seek with the region putting on both colonial and independent veils, which many natives inferred as a neocolonial mindset, though with valid reasons. 

The annexation of 1949 was a threshold in placing both India and Manipur into an economic arrangement instituted and governed by the Indian ruling class. It created an interrelated phenomenon: firstly, the Indian ruling class creating a military base in Manipur for accumulation of super profit from (the) Northeast region and Southeast Asian countries; secondly, Manipur ’s loss of political autonomy and a corresponding loss of control over economy and vice versa and; thirdly, (the) growing impoverishment of a large chunk of the population. The Indian state’s aggressive attitude explains its failure to respond positively to public yearning for accountability, transparency, compensation, rehabilitation, equitable distribution of profits and a role in the decision making. It becomes a crucial factor in shaping the prevailing economic condition in Manipur.

MALEM NINGTHOUJA, Manipur Mortgaged
From the half yearly journal REVOLUTIONARY DEMOCRACY
Vol. XVI, No. 2, September 2010

Distance is a state of mind in the same degree as development is a sense of progress. We do not lack natural resources but the problem is the exploitation by political class and their sycophantic, profit-driven corporate houses and contractors from all over the country. This is best seen in the various building and construction projects. Even some global corporations have joined the bandwagon, particularly in the so-called development projects, which critics define them as a technique of the First World to control the Third World. It is like, for the general public, standing with desperation in a gorge between two high mountains.

Besides, the natives are too impoverished to compete with the outsiders who have a monopoly over the local economy. No wonder, many of the natives are up in arms, using violence to turn the things upside down though it is not related to finding the solutions of landlocked problems. Once again, the means to find sensible solutions are available, from building roads and policy intervention to regional cooperation. It only requires a will to get out of this rut and the disposal of ulterior motives as defined by terms such as strategic importance and geopolitics. People are at stake here. Period.

Jawaharlal Nehru once remarked ridiculously that Manipur, the land of jewels, is also the Switzerland of India. Did he mean the beauty or the landlocked condition? Most probably the former, but we have a local saying that ‘beauty cannot fill an empty stomach’. Local singers also croon that the elected representatives’ wives have mortgaged the jewels too, but all’s not lost. Just as in there is a way if there is a will, the need of the hour is in the willpower to formulate practical and tangible policies in the field of industry, trade and infrastructure. However, this will be unrewarding without studying the production issues and other economic foundations in the province.


Nothing can be clearer than the statement that the input for high-quality transport infrastructure results in the improvement of output in several related areas. In another word, such an approach can accentuate the rate of return to capital formation in a faster and broader manner. If we go by the endogenous growth theory, these investments are the soul of economic growth. Further, the inertia of motion explains that once a thing starts rolling, it will continue to do; so once we are on the track, we will literally be going places. The State should note it again that growth and development are more important than geopolitics.

Now the question is how and when the policies and infrastructure are going to show results. There are numerous literatures—on institutional reform sand frameworks, transportation agreements, policy formulation, contemporary development models, trade and economic policies, regional coordination and cooperation and the likes—regarding LLCs, which can as well be applied to a region like the Northeast. With the initiatives of Act East Policy, the BCIM Economic Corridor, the UN-sponsored surface transport projects and others, we can look forward to a new paradigm of trade and commerce that will have a direct impact on the socio-political and economical lives in the region. The processes of ‘unlocking’ have already begun as obvious from the UN’s highway project that started a long 56 years ago. 

However, the issue of armed organisations fighting for sovereignty and other demands cannot be sidelined. In the fight lies the genesis of a thousand problems that we are struggling for a solution now; and in its conclusion, we can expect a new story to begin life anew. The establishment has been obstinate enough to keep blaming these rebel groups for underdevelopment but history tells a different story. Still, two wrongs do not make a right. The solution requires the participation of all the stakeholders, broadly including all the people and the government. On the other hand, we can conclude that landlockedness is a difficulty, not a destiny. It’s time to make Forward Movement—and not landlockedness—a leitmotif of the region’s development discourse.



THE HINDU, 30 Oct 2015




THE CHALLENGES FACING LANDLOCKED DEVELOPING COUNTRIES by Michael Faye, John Mcarthur, Jeffrey Sachs and Thomas Snow, Journal of Human Development Vol. 5, No. 1, March 2004

ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT PROBLEMS OF LANDLOCKED COUNTRIES by Landis MacKellar, Andreas Wörgötter, Julia Wörz, Institute for Advanced Studies, Vienna, Reihe, Transformationsökonomie / Transition Economics Series No. 14, January 2000


THE REVENGE OF GEOGRAPHY by Robert Kaplan, Foreign Policy, May–June 2009




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