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Lecture by External Affairs Minister on Act East Policy and India-Japan cooperation in North East India with a special focus on Assam

February 15, 2021

Hon’ble Chief Minister Shri Sarbananda Sonowal ji,
Minister of Finance, Health and Education Dr. Himanta Biswa Sarma ji,
Excellency Ambassador Satoshi Suzuki
Shri Baijayant Panda ji,
Shri Chandra Mohan Patowary ji,
Shri Siddartha Bhattacharya ji,
Distinguished Academics, Teachers, Intellectuals, Professionals, and most of all the young people in the audience,

It is really for me a great pleasure to be with all of you today at Guwahati. And I am particularly pleased to see so many young people in the audience because I am going to talk to you today about the future of Assam, the future of India and the future of Asia. This is my first visit to the State as External Affairs Minister and its a matter of particular pleasure that I have been joined on this trip by the Ambassador of Japan. I thank him for that and learned from him that this is his second visit to the State and I hope with every visit his warmth and friendship for the State will grow. I am so glad to welcome him warmly. Our presence today not only reflects the strong cooperation that we have with Japan, but actually underlines how this India-Japan partnership can really make a difference not just to India, but specifically to the development of Assam. And, that is the theme of my talk which is Assam, our Act East Policy and the India-Japan cooperation. And I am also very pleased that I am in the one State which has, as the Chief Minister told me, an Act East Minister. I hope that we will give him much more work at the end of this event than he had before.

2. Friends, we know that the world has changed very profoundly in the last few decades. New focal points of production, consumption, resources and markets have emerged, especially in Asia. On the one hand, they underline the possibilities that the world offers for our progress and betterment. And, on the other, it means doing what is necessary to exploit these opportunities because it will not happen by itself. Prominent among these is the ability to harness our international partnerships for national growth and development. That really means not just building strong relationships abroad, but having the vision, the policies, the determination to apply those partnerships at home. Let me share with you how this is working to the nations to our East, particularly Japan. And I do that naturally because I am in Guwahati from the perspective of Assam.

3. Many of the challenges that are facing Assam are not unique, they are the same as the rest of the country. But in some cases they may be more acute where Assam is concerned. In that list, the challenge of connectivity comes particularly high. Assam has long been the bridge between India and the world to our East. For centuries, its natural arteries have facilitated the flow of people, of goods, of ideas, not just to South-East Asia but as far as Korea and Japan. The valleys of the Brahmaputra, the Chindwin, the Irrawaddy were central to that process. But the advent of colonialism and the subsequent emergence of nation states effectively disrupted what was a very seamless connection between eastern India and Assam and the world to our East. This may have been a phenomenon for everybody in Asia, but for India and Assam, that disruption was also aggravated by the Partition of India. And if that was not enough, it was magnified by the absence of efforts on our part for many many years to build the compensatory connectivity and that ofcourse has changed since 2014.

4. It is from this viewpoint that one should understand the Act East policy of the Modi Government. This is an approach to create connectivity to and within Assam, beyond to the North-East, then to neighbouring Myanmar and Bangladesh, but eventually push all the way by road, by sea, by air to Vietnam, to Japan. In doing so, we must appreciate that this will not only service greater economic activity but, as demonstrated in other parts of the world, actually be a driver of it. A more connected Assam will be a more energetic Assam, a more contributing Assam, and obviously, a more employed Assam.

5. The origins of the Act East policy go back to the 1991 when we had a balance of payments crisis and there was a shift in our model of development. By expanding cooperation with South-East Asia, with East Asia and Oceania in different dimensions, the Modi Government actually took this initiative to a much higher level. Today, it includes numerous connectivity projects and activities, as well as economic flows and strategic cooperation. Considering how important physical and cultural connectivity is to make this policy successful, the role of Assam as its springboard needs to be fully realized. One way of doing that is to encourage stronger cooperation between this State and our international partners to the East, especially Japan and that is the reason why we are here today.

6. Closer India-Japan collaboration has always had a central place in our national modernization and development efforts. After all, Japan was the original model for the revival of Asia after Western colonialism. It has long been involved in the expansion of our economic and social infrastructure. Across our states and cities, Japanese Official Development Assistance has funded roads, rail, urbanization and energy. Recent flagship projects include the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor and dedicated freight corridors to the east and the west and our business partnerships also have been similarly longstanding. Like the rest of the relationship, they have gained additional impetus during the tenure of our government and the cumulative impact of this relationship on contemporary India is actually worth noting.

7. If Maruti-Suzuki cars which the Ambassador spoke about transformed Indian lifestyle four decades ago, the introduction of metros starting with Delhi added to that at the turn of the century. Today, the bullet train project from Ahmedabad to Mumbai holds a similar significance. The two countries have been collaborating on enhancing the quality of skills and training necessary for economic activities in India. Our current agenda contemplates industrial townships, which many others including the Hon’ble Chief Minister spoke about, training institutes, language centres and financial facilities. As the Modi Sarkar has made it easier to do business in India, Japanese foreign direct investment has also increased and is supporting development assistance in a much more robust manner.

8. Our ties, as a result of all of this have transcended these purely economic facets to now acquire a strongly strategic character. The political convergence draws on a common belief in democracy, in pluralism, in an open society. The security ties are based on a shared commitment to a peaceful, open, stable and rule-based order in the Indo-Pacific and beyond. It is actually remarkable that within a decade, the India-Japan partnership is today seen in Asia, perhaps the world, as one of the most natural and close. Indeed, the awarding of the Padma Vibhushan to former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on 26 January was symbolic of the journey that we have travelled together. For the purposes of our gathering today, what is relevant to note is that the economic and strategic convergence is expressed in a unique platform called the Act East Forum. I had the privilege of first co-chairing it, when I was Foreign Secretary in 2017 along with the Japanese Ambassador. It focuses on development and connectivity initiatives within the North-East region as well as our immediate land neighbours.

9. Let me now, in that background come to Assam. Assam, you would all agree, has long been the fulcrum of the North-East region of India. But as our cooperation and connectivity expands beyond national boundaries, this potential can actually make it the centre of a hub that covers neighbours like Myanmar, Bangladesh and Bhutan. This is especially so as our ties with those countries has undergone a dramatic transformation since the Modi Government initiated the Neighbourhood First policy in 2014. As a result, projects and initiatives have steadily gathered steam, some already having an impact on the ground. In recent days, we have also endeavoured to coordinate with Japan’s own projects in these countries. Our ties with Myanmar, Bangladesh and Bhutan obviously have their own value and importance. But from the vantage point of Guwahati, it is worth assessing what they could contribute to the benefit of Assam.

10. At the broadest level, greater connectivity to and economic activity in a neighbouring geography has an obvious ripple impact. But there is much more than that at play. Direct benefits can be realized, whether it is in employment or investment. And let me illustrate that with some practical examples. The fact is that Assam can play a critical role for the larger region in power, in transportation, in energy, and even in the movement of people. This obviously takes not only a vision but also the diplomacy to realize it and the resources to make it happen. And that has been very much the focus of the Modi Government to this region and to its neighbours.

11. Let me begin by looking at waterways. Our initiatives are today once again making the Brahmaputra River the primary channel for movement of goods and people. Assam will connect the Himalayas with the Bay of Bengal through inland water connectivity to the main ports there especially Chittagong and Mongla. We are working to develop the Eastern Waterways Transport Connectivity Grid, which is supported by the World Bank. Work has already begun to use river ports like Dhubri and Karimganj to move goods to and from Bhutan and Bangladesh respectively. We are also developing port facilities in Ashuganj in Bangladesh, to help give southern Assam external connectivity. And we are already dredging stretches of Brahmaputra and Kushiyara rivers to increase navigability and facilitate faster trade.

12. On power and energy, our vision is to make Assam central for the transmission of surplus power both to the neighbourhood and to the rest of India. We are already working to develop new transmission lines connecting Assam with Bihar through Bangladesh. And we are in discussions with Myanmar to export power utilizing the North Eastern Grid. Similarly, as Assam is already a major player in producing refined petroleum products, we are working to facilitate the sale of these products to the larger region. A pipeline to supply Bangladesh high speed diesel is an important beginning. In future, we will also develop new sources of oil and gas in bordering areas close to Myanmar that would enhance production of refined products in Assam.

13. Surface transport is a priority area, within the country ofcourse, and in the State of Assam and indeed, I would say for the entire region. Whether it is road or rail, we have initiatives that expand Assam’s reach in all directions. They could not only give it a southern access to the sea but an eastern one that extends into the heart of South-East Asia. The India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway is at an advanced stage as we look now to construct some missing road links in central Myanmar and upgrade bridges in the Tamu-Kalewa segment. Studies have assessed the viability of extending it further from the Thai border through Laos, all the way to central Vietnam. The Kaladan multi-modal transport link including the Sittwe Port and the Paletwa Inland Water Terminal will add to our access to the Myanmar coastline.

14. Assam also stands to benefit from the activities of a regional organization called BIMSTEC. Its Masterplan on Transport Connectivity that was finalized last December envisages 264 projects of different sizes among all its members, many of them which have a direct relevance to Assam. Indeed, through them, the Southern and Eastern districts of Assam will develop the ability to move goods produced there cost effectively to global markets.

15. The aviation infrastructure of the North-Eastern States is also undergoing an ambitious ramping up. Apart from greenfield projects in Itanagar and Pakyong, eleven airports are being modernized, six of them in Assam. This can make a big difference to regional connectivity, having the potential to capture traffic from Singapore, Thailand and Myanmar. I am sure that the Ambassador looks forward to the day when we even have flights from Japan! Bringing more Japanese tourists to Kaziranga is certainly a prospect that we should all aim for in the coming years.

16. All policies are finally rightly judged by their impact on the ground and the Act East initiative and India-Japan cooperation are no exceptions. Let me share with you how that is happening. On the infrastructure side, Japanese development assistance is central, and again the Ambassador spoke about this, to the 20 km-long bridge on Brahmaputra between Dhubri in Assam and Phulbari in Meghalaya. As you would all know, this four-lane bridge is on National Highway 127-B. The total project cost which is more than Rs. 6,000 crores we have a loan agreement for Rs.1,600 crores. The contract for the civil work packages was signed in December 2020 and we certainly hope to see this project completed well before its deadline in 2028.

17. A second notable initiative pertains to Guwahati’s water supply and I had the pleasure of going to see the project site myself today with the Ambassador and with Minister Siddartha Bhattacharya ji. Its south-central and northern district waterworks facilities are being renovated and the executing agency is undergoing capacity development. For a variety of reasons, this project got somewhat delayed but we are very confident that we will be able to complete this hopefully by next year. The loan amount, just to give you again a sense of this, is Rs. 1,183 crores of a total project cost of Rs. 1,443 crores. Also significant is the Guwahati sewerage project to provide reliable services by construction of facilities and an extensive sewer network in South Guwahati with a state of the art sewerage treatment plant. I think that is the project on which I called up the Minister of Finance when I was in Tokyo, if my memory serves me right. The project cost is Rs.1,460 crores and the Japanese loan here again is in an excess of Rs.1,000 crores. The scope of the project has undergone revision, necessitating a revised DPR. But certainly taking this forward is one of our immediate priorities.

18. Let me also share with you what is under discussion. Insofar as connectivity is concerned, we are looking at the approach road to the Dhubri-Phulbari bridge that is about 55 kms long. The preparatory survey is being conducted for this Rs.717 crore project by JICA. Another road under consideration is from Dudhnoi to Dalu, via Baghmara. The two laning of this 125 km stretch will cost about Rs.1,500 crores and is included in our rolling plan.

19. On the healthcare side, strengthening health systems and improving medical education is being accorded priority. Again this is something I think the Minister of Health spoke about because certainly after the Covid experience all of us expect strong healthcare support and I think the Ayushman Bharat initiative provides those opportunities. So what we are discussing is really the upgrading of major hospitals and many smaller clinics and I understand that the procurement for preparatory survey by JICA is already in progress. Where agriculture and fisheries is concerned, here too, we are looking at an ambitious project which will be in excess of Rs. 3,000 crores which also is currently in our rolling plan I look forward to taking that forward. I am sure that the presence of the Ambassador today with his team would enable a better understanding of the importance of these projects for the development of Assam and for the development of the eastern region. I am also sure that the Japanese side will appreciate the direct impact that this would have on livelihood in Assam.

20. Any relationship in the final analysis is ofcourse sustained only by the closeness of the people. We have recently signed an agreement with Japan on Specified Skilled Workers that builds on an earlier we had an internship programme with Japan, but this is something much bigger, its far more expansive, it is likely to lead to much greater training and eventually to much greater employment. It covers fourteen trades, which includes nursing; fisheries; agriculture; food services; food & beverage manufacturing; lodging; aviation; auto maintenance; ship-building and ship related industry; construction; electric & electronic information; industrial machinery manufacturing; material processing and building cleaning. Our expectation is that its early realization would open the way for Indian talent to access the Japanese economy. We are also hopeful that Japan would build further on its relationship with IIT Guwahati and other institutions in Assam in the coming days. Indeed, as there is a growing focus on Assam, its tourism potential, especially its nature reserves, can be a greater source of attraction and there to whether it is nature reserves or cultural heritage we hope to have discussions with the Japanese side on how we can include it in our cooperation.

21. Given Japan’s many strengths and our very positive experiences of collaboration in other parts of India, it is evident that the potential for our collaboration in Assam is really immense. We are already contemplating capacity building in water supply and sewage treatment. Disaster management and urban planning are also areas which we are exploring and certainly the Bamboo Initiative that the Ambassador spoke about we take that very seriously because it extends from cultivation and producing to sales and marketing and it would require capacity building and the Ambassador spoke about creating a centre of excellence in Jorhat and that is something again we see as a very important element of our partnership. Where the concept of the Japan Industrial Township is concerned, I am very glad to see that the government of Assam has already taken some proactive steps in that regard, so we will have to see what is the best model which will suit the local circumstances whether we should follow the orthodox model, or whether this should be something which is more de-centralized, but what I can assure is that as with many other projects this will get the fullest support and attention of the Union government.

22. Now, I am not saying anything new to you when I say that the Modi Government has always paid special attention to Assam. This is reflected most recently in the 2021 Budget, what we call the Atmanirbhar Budget, and you can see this whether it is in the expansion of the highways, road building, rail network, the financial security for women tea plantation workers. You all know that the allocations made for 72 road projects, for 13 new railway lines, for 6 doubling the line projects, for agri-business, for urban infrastructure, for Guwahati Water Supply. It is easy to say that I give attention, I am committed, but I would say that when you see that translateed into outlays and commitments and policies and programmes on the ground and see them realise that is when you actually know that people are serious. It is done because at the end of the day, we know that a modern, prosperous, globally connected Assam has a resonance, has an importance which is well beyond the State and that recognition is really what drives the Modi government’s commitment, its appreciation of Assam and also what we are doing in Foreign Policy to facilitate progress and development in the State.

23. The talent of Assam, the people of Assam, that talent has expressed itself beyond the State, I would say beyond national boundaries. You also know that our Government has taken particular care of the Indian diaspora. This was demonstrated most recently during the Covid pandemic when we organized the Vande Bharat Mission, which was the largest repatriation mission in history for the return of people who were stuck abroad to their homes through dedicated flights. More than a thousand residents of Assam availed of this facility, we were glad to be of service to them and I would say as Foreign Minister, I take particular pride that under the leadership of our Prime Minister, we have made it not just easier for Indians to travel abroad, we have made Indians feel secure travelling abroad, a sense that the government is always with them, wherever they are, whatever they are doing, whatever situation that they find themselves in.

24. Let me conclude by putting everything that I have said in sort of a big picture. History and geography actually offer insights on the role that Assam can play in India’s rise. We are headed today towards a 5 trillion dollar economy. But, remember this, remember our history, India was a great country only when eastern India was prosperous and secure. That revival must happen again and that is very much at the core of the Modi Government’s commitment to Assam. And when it comes to the future of Asia, because that is something where we and Japan work together so closely, it is essential today that we build a connectivity all the way from the Arabian Sea to the South China Sea. That will be possible only by making Assam the meeting point of this connectivity.

25. We have demonstrated that a sound foreign policy can contribute directly to the progress of the nation, of a region, of a State. We also believe that Act East must begin by Delhi giving the necessary attention and the necessary resources to our own States in the East and North-East. This is the message that I bring to you today and I thank you very much for your attention.

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