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2024-01-02 13:27:22

Siliguri corridor as a bridge to East Asia

Harsh Vardhan Shringla

Siliguri corridor as a bridge to East Asia

India is a vast and diverse country located within what has been described as the Indian subcontinent. Within the physical expanse of this subcontinent, history and politics, and sometimes, chance, have etched the political boundaries of our country. The same factors have imparted special significance to particular regions. One of these is a narrow strip of land that connects the northeastern states to West Bengal and beyond.

This region, a part of which is sometimes referred to as the Siliguri corridor, is not just a link between two parts of India. It is a geographical and historical crossroads that abuts Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and China. It is also a corridor that ultimately connects India to Southeast Asia and East Asia through Myanmar.

Its military significance is also well known. In defence literature, its vulnerability due to its narrowness, has led it to being described as a “chicken’s neck”. It is a heavily defended part of the country with a major, and expanding, concentration of military force and rapidly improving logistics and connectivity.

This is the only part of India that is physically linked to four different countries. These international borders, and, therefore, connections, also present an opportunity for the people of this area. Geopolitically speaking, this is where Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi’s Neighbourhood First and Act East policies intersect. It connects the Association of South East Asian Nations to the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. This is, therefore, in a sense, where the Indo-Pacific begins.

This part of the country is also in a unique position to benefit from PM Modi's focus on transforming the North East. The results of his efforts are evident, amongst other things, in the quantum improvement of infrastructure – be it bridges, roads, railways, air connectivity and waterways. They are visible in the increasing number of educational institutions, in the growth of medical facilities, and in the augmentation of social capital through improved socio-economic outcomes.

The area is now in a position where it can leverage the conjunction of national and international initiatives. Siliguri, for example, is where the National Highways Authority of India’s “Golden Quadrilateral” will connect to the Asian Highway network and future BIMSTEC land connectivity initiatives.

The Siliguri-Bagdogra area also presents a compelling economic proposition. Its strategic location near the Nepal and Bhutan borders fosters cross-border trade, while its fertile plains support a thriving agricultural sector. Skilled artisans contribute to a flourishing handicraft industry, while educational institutions cater to a talent pool across diverse fields. Furthermore, the region boasts significant hydroelectric potential from the Teesta river and connectivity advantages through Bagdogra airport.

Road and rail connectivity with this area to Bangladesh has been augmented as has border and customs infrastructure. This has generated economic benefits through the movement of people and goods. The India-Bangladesh Friendship pipeline that allows high-speed diesel to flow from Siliguri to Parbatipur in Bangladesh, inaugurated recently by PMs Narendra Modi and Sheikh Hasina, is another example of how the physical location of this area is an asset.

Further improvement of links between India and Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan are certain. These connections will inevitably have to pass through or near Siliguri and adjoining Darjeeling and throw up the likelihood of this area developing as a transport economy hub and trans-shipment point. It is well established that connectivity provides the basis for development and economic growth.

Darjeeling has always been a centre for education. Its schools and colleges have sterling reputations in India and the countries adjoining it. This potential can be tapped to create an educational, training, and skilling hub for students from these countries.

India’s medical capacities are growing. PM Narendra Modi has increased the number of medical colleges from 387 in 2014 to 654. During my tenure as foreign secretary, I had the privilege of working under his leadership to deliver Indian vaccines, pharmaceutical products and medical capacities to several countries during Covid-19. I am confident that there will be an increase in demand for a whole spectrum of medical services from India to Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan. Educational and medical capacities often go together and a strong potential for developing Siliguri and Darjeeling as an international health care hub for the region also exists.

The Airports Authority of India project for modernising Bagdogra airport will contribute to this process. An improved airport will mean that one of the greatest assets of the Dooars and the Himalayas, with their natural beauty, can generate a revitalisation and expansion of its tourism industry into new segments. The G20 events that were held in Darjeeling confirmed the enormous potential that exists in the travel and tourism industries.

Furthermore, with the completion of the North East Grid Natural Gas Pipeline Project from Siliguri to Gangtok, a surge of industrialisation is poised to reshape the region. This vital artery promises a steady flow of energy, powering factories and igniting a wave of development.

The US-India Strategic Partnership Forum recently took a delegation of potential investors to Darjeeling. It emphasised “strengths in the tea and tourism industry” and the “plethora of unexplored opportunities and untapped potential in fields of agriculture, infrastructure, and renewable energy”. Similarly, a high-level delegation from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation also visited Darjeeling last month to explore opportunities, collaborate with local stakeholders and support tea garden workers in the region.

The cultural diversity of this Himalayan and sub-Himalayan area and its emphasis on education also produce high-quality human resources. This combination of human capital and location when linked to an enabling environment, investments and an eye for opportunity has the potential of converting this strategically significant Siliguri corridor into a national and international growth corridor. This strategic corridor must be carefully monitored to not only ensure its development to the fullest potential but also to safeguard the security interest of the nation. It is time we fully realise its potential.

(Harsh Vardhan Shringla is the former foreign secretary of India and chief coordinator of India’s G20 presidency. The views expressed are personal)

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