Connectivity => trade => wealth => power.
Ancient India had adopted this ‘formula’ with great success. Ships carried valuable produce both eastward to south-east Asia and westward to Egypt, the gateway to the Roman empire. A senator of ancient Rome had lamented that buying spices, textiles and jewellery from India was depleting the treasury of gold and silver.
Trade in those days involved high-value, low-volume and non-perishable items suitable for transport in small sailing ships, which often took a year or more for a return journey.
Today, transport needs have expanded, and goods have to be moved by road as well – faster, smaller quantities for a full truck-load, and over many more routes than just one specific seaport to another.
You see, road transport has a big advantage over shipping. A ship moves from A to B with no stops in between. But a road provides connectivity between every intermediate point along its length, plus innumerable other points accessible via roads branching off from the main road.
Connectivity becomes infinite when roads are used.
Look at this map.
This map shows the 4,300km route from Delhi to Bangkok, passing through Myanmar. The plan is to build a four-lane highway that will allow smooth and speedy transport of goods, and people too, between India and south-east Asia. Most sections on this massive stretch of road are already operational, and some bits and pieces still need to be upgraded.
This highway will not only provide great connectivity between north India and south-east Asia, it has enormous potential for reaching many more places.
For instance, branches going further east will connect this highway to Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. Bangladesh has expressed an interest in joining, whereby a westward branch through Mizoram, Tripura and Bangladesh could reach Kolkata and then on to Odisha, Jharkhand and beyond. Numerous connections could link the main route to the vast network of highways now spreading all over India.
In effect, the possibilities for expanded connectivity are endless.
I won’t go into a long discourse on how roads bring development and wealth. Suffice it to quote John F Kennedy (JFK), who said (or perhaps an unknown speech writer made him say): “America is rich because American roads are good.”
This network should not develop along the lines of China’s belt and road (BRI) project, which works like this:
- China lures an impoverished country to borrow huge amounts from it on usurious terms.
- The money goes to Chinese contractors for building a road at an inflated cost.
- The road cannot generate enough income to service the loan.
- Voila – China has the country by the throat.
Instead, international road networks should:
- develop through willing cooperation from every country involved;
- be built bit by bit by the countries themselves, maybe with a little help from others; and
- have mutually negotiated and agreed terms of usage.
Only then will such networks have complete acceptance, leading to people recognising the opportunities it presents and trade developing all over the road’s footprint.
Admittedly, this plan is ambitious.
Perhaps even more ambitious is India’s venture westward – the north-south transport corridor (NSTC). Here is the map.
This route is meant to connect India to Russia via central Asia.
The blue line shows the only route available today between Russia and India – by sea, through the Suez Canal and all the way around Europe. Besides, like all sea routes, it is purely port-to-port(s), with no direct access to the resource-rich central Asian countries. The NSTC plans to cut the distance, reduce the time and open up a pathway through central Asia.
This route is much more complex than the India-S.E. Asia land route. There is a stretch of sea that has to be crossed, from western India to Iran – reaching Bandar Abbas for now and hopefully Chabahar later. Besides, some stretches of road and rail are yet to be finished.
Overall, this is a more complicated route needing multi-modal transport – sea, rail and land - which will require several trans-shipments along the way, unlike the eastern project, which will allow a truck to traverse its entire coverage without transferring its cargo.
Nevertheless, the route opens up interesting possibilities.
As you probably know, for two centuries, Russia has been looking for access to the warm waters of the Arabian Gulf and Indian Ocean. NSTC offers Russia this access, albeit without full control over its entire length.
For India, NSTC will provide the long-desired access to the markets of central Asia and eastern Europe without dependence on the Suez Canal.
Interestingly, if you go back to the map, you are bound to ask yourself, “Why not a land route from India all the way to Iran?”
The answer is not hard to find – in between lies a manger, with a starving creature (the ‘establishment’) sitting in it. It could benefit immensely by joining the party because it would benefit from trade via both its eastern and western borders and also earn revenue from the use of its roads.
But alas, that is not to be, unless the ‘establishment’ abandons its selfish interests and adopts bigger ones.
Another very interesting possibility exists – what if the eastern corridor was to link up with NSTC via India? This would create an enormous network that would link up a huge section of the world, from Saigon to St Petersburg – rivalling China’s BRI plans.
Some of this may seem to be pipe dreams right now. But, the imperatives of trade drive the thinking of nations more and more as we progress through the 21st century. When countries see that self-interest and prosperity can be achieved through cooperation in mutual interest, such ambitious projects may one day come to fruition.
“You may say I’m a dreamer, but I am not the only one”.
(Deserting engineering after a year in a factory, Amitabha Banerjee did an MBA in the US and returned to India. Choosing work-to-live over live-to-work, he joined banking and worked for various banks in India and the Middle East. Post-retirement, he returned to his hometown, Kolkata and is now spending his golden years travelling the world, playing bridge, befriending Netflix & Prime Video and writing in his wife’s travel blog.)