A World War II road to China emerged from obscurity to rev up the Assam Assembly on the inaugural day of its budget session on Monday.
Despite the Commerce and External Affairs ministries’ skepticism – and the trade fraternity’s fear of a ‘Chinese goods invasion’ – legislators across party lines rooted for the reopening of the 1736 km Stilwell Road linking Ledo in Assam and Kunming in south China’s Yunan province.
Named after the US General who oversaw the project, Stilwell Road swallowed three years and over $150 million before Allied troops could use it in 1944 to move 65,000 tons of supplies for the Chinese and Burmese armies every month. It was a functional strategic road until 1952 when it became a victim of souring relations between New Delhi and Beijing.
On a day Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi presented a lackluster deficit budget of 4615.11 crore for the 2009-10 fiscal, legislators were on an emotional overdrive to have the WWII road reopened. Arguments presented by CPM’s Ananta Deka, Asom Gana Parishad’s Pradeep Hazarika and Congress’ Pradyut Bordoloi finally made the House unanimously resolve to move the Centre.
“Making this road functional after 60 years will revolutionize the region besides driving India’s Look East Policy,” said Deka. Bordoloi, also Assam’s Power Minister, added: “Nothing is closer to my heart than this historic road.”
The legislators, however, chose to ignore the ground realities. Cheap Chinese goods bombarded through the existing border trade routes have virtually forced Indian products out of the Northeast, and traders don’t want “another road to add to our misery”. More importantly, the main hurdle to reopening is 252 km of lawless Myanmar territory between India and China.
Yangon had some time back told New Delhi that it had no control over that stretch passing through areas held by numerous druglords and guerrilla groups operating both in India and Myanmar. New Delhi subsequently gave the proposal to reopen Stilwell Road a quiet burial.
DoNER Minister Bijoy Krishna Handique tried driving home the point earlier this month. He said the onus of reopening the WWII road was on Myanmar, and there was little India could do about it. His matter-of-factness triggered widespread protests since the principal northeastern communities including the Ahoms are banking the Stilwell Road to reconnect with their roots in southern China.
Notably, the Assam and Arunachal Pradesh governments had repaired the Indian stretch of the Stilwell Road measuring 38 miles. From Ledo in eastern Assam’s Tinsukia district, it cuts through Changlang district of Arunachal Pradesh before entering Myanmar at Pangsau Pass.