BANGALORE, India—Activists and environmentalists are concerned that the 242-mile-long Kaladan transit project linking India’s northeast to Burma is being built without input from the people who live along its length.
The project involves new roads and 99 miles of waterways that must cut through a thick cover of vegetation, including a wildlife sanctuary in India’s Mizoram State, and through the Kaladan River Basin in the Chin and Arakan states of Burma. Expected to be completed by 2015, India is footing the bill for the multimillion-dollar project, part of its Look East Policy, which aims to increase India’s influence in Southeast Asia.
Activists say the world’s largest democracy is dragging its feet when it comes to conducting a transparent environmental impact assessment. They want authorities to consult with the tribal indigenous peoples who live along the transportation route who fear the loss of their ancestral rights to the land and the river, and fear an increase in pollution.
The project is of great strategic and economic importance for both India and Burma (also known as Myanmar). Activists see it as an opportunity for both countries to showcase their commitment to democratic practices.
Already, significant work has been completed on the dredging and construction of one deep-sea port in Burma. Construction on another port is still in its early stages, and the highway between the Burmese port and the Indian border has not been started, according to Sam Cartmell, project manager at the Chin Human Rights Organization. He added that consultation with the people needs to happen before the work continues.
The nonprofit Kaladan Movement concluded that many local people don’t know they have the right to organize in response to the Kaladan Project, nor do they know how to respond due to a lack of information, fear, and a civil administration still influenced by decades of military rule.
Mizoram, on the eastern border of India, is composed of a variety of ethnic tribes that are among the most literate and urbanized in the country. The Chin region consists of various Chin tribes and a high poverty rate, whereas Arakan State is dominated by the largely-Buddhist Rakhines.
Activists working in the Burmese region of the project suggest that the negative impacts of the project are already visible. “Early phases of construction have led to … land confiscation without compensation, labor discrimination, and a lack of public consultation. People living along the project route are very concerned that there will be further unwanted impacts once the Kaladan Project is in operation,” said Cartmell.
He said the rights of indigenous people living in Chin and Arakan states are not in question. They “have inherent rights to full participation in all development decisions relating to the territory where they live.”
“The decisions about whether [and how] to proceed with the Kaladan Project must be made by people living in the project area, and by elected representatives at the state-level government, not simply dictated by a ministry in Naypyidaw (Burmese capital),” Cartmell said.
Ko Tin Oo, coordinator of Arakan Rivers Network, said that it’s very unclear who would be held responsible for the human rights violations and ecological degradation that is likely to happen if the project is implemented without assessment and consultations.
Indian law states that an environmental impact assessment is necessary, yet the Indian government said the responsibility of conducting one is Burma’s. “Why shouldn’t India follow its own laws as a minimum standard when investing in another country?” asked Tin Oo.
At the same time, the Indian government has been severely criticized within India for similar issues related to many of its infrastructure and mining projects. Many mining projects in central and east India, and hydroelectric projects in the central Indian and Himalayan regions, have reportedly led to large-scale displacements of people. Reports allege that compensation and rehabilitation packages have not been delivered as promised.
According to Tin Oo, Burmese government representatives had earlier promised that a proper environmental impact assessment would be done. “In 2012, Burma’s Minister for Transport U Nyan Tun Aung and presidential adviser U Ko Ko Hlaing both made public statements promising that proper assessments would be conducted for the Kaladan Project. The Kaladan Movement calls on these government representatives to honor their promises,” Tin Oo said.
Cartmell said in his view a fully participatory and transparent environmental impact assessment should be done fast. “The Kaladan Project should follow global best practices for environmental impact assessment,” he said.
“As the financing for the Kaladan Project is classified as ‘development assistance’ to Burma—and is coming from the Indian government’s Development Partnership Administration (a department of the Ministry of External Affairs)—all steps should be taken to ensure that the project actually benefits the local people, and doesn’t negatively impact their livelihoods and environment,” he added.