Connectivity rush opening tourism, investment opportunities in Arunachal

Pratim Ranjan Bose

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With its snow-capped mountains, lush green valleys and rich biodiversity; the Northeastern State of Arunachal Pradesh has every potential to be a top travel destination in the world. 

However, in terms of domestic and foreign tourist arrivals respectively, Arunachal is ranked 30 and 31, out of 37 States and Union Territories. Compared to Bhutan, which shares similar geography and culture; Arunachal attracts few value-tourists. 

Part of the reasons may be attributed to restrictions on movement, particularly on foreign tourists, to this strategic geography that shares a border with Bhutan, China and Myanmar. Poor connectivity has been a bigger hurdle. Bad roads, lack of airports etc limit footfalls which limit the State’s potential to attract investment in quality leisure infrastructure. 

The recent connectivity rush in northeast India may finally break this vicious cycle. Of the 35 projects undertaken by the National Highway and Infrastructure Development Corporation Ltd (NHIDCL) in the last six years, 11 achieved 99-100 percent physical progress and eight are 70-98 percent complete. 

 

Connectivity rush

In other words, more than half of the 737 km highway projects undertaken in Arunachal after July 2015 – when NHIDCL started functioning - are complete or near-complete. Moreover, as against a total sanctioned cost of nearly Rs 10,000 crore, the awarded cost is less than Rs 7000 crore – indicating strict monitoring over both time and cost. 

For starters, NHIDCL is fully owned by India’s Ministry of Road Transport & Highways and is mandated to ensure modern highway connectivity in parts of the country that share international boundaries. With 98 percent international boundary, northeast India is the focus area of the company. 

The company website hides no details. One can easily track projects which are lagging. These details are closely monitored by India’s super-efficient highways minister, Nitin Gadkari, and the Prime Minister’s Office, every month. Together they leave no stone unturned to remove hurdles if any.

There is no dearth of hurdles either. In a matured and populous democracy, governments cannot acquire land at free will. Post-2013, there is a strong legal framework for compensation and rehabilitation of the land acquisition victims, which takes time. 

The Northeast has additional problems. Roughly 40 percent of land in the region is covered by forest. The ratio is as high as 60 percent in Arunachal. This makes highway construction difficult as the country has stiff regulations against the acquisition of forest land. 

There is more. Due to customs and practices specific to the northeastern States, the government and local communities enjoy dual ownership of forest land. Both need to be convinced and compensated. 

NHIDCL followed this circuitous route and yet ensured fast-paced project implementation, due to unprecedented attention from both the Centre and the State. The model was replicated in implementing other connectivity projects. 

 

Air connectivity

In 2016, India upgraded a 1962 airstrip at Pasighat, in East Siang district in central Arunachal Pradesh. In the same year, the country launched the path-breaking UDAN (Ude Desh ka Aam Nagrik) – Regional Connectivity Scheme. 

By 2018, Pasighat started operating commercial flights. It’s a small airport fit for ATRs. But significantly enough this was the first-ever civil-commercial air service to Arunachal, since Independence in 1947. 

Next year, in February 2019, the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, laid the foundation stone of a greenfield civil airport at Hollongi, 14 km south of the capital city of Itanagar. The Rs 1000 crore airport is designed to accommodate large-bodied aircraft. Construction is 60 percent complete. The airport is set to be inaugurated in 2022. 

For records, the India government has proposed an airport in Itanagar as early as in 2007. However, it took them five long years only to finalise the site. Preparation of the techno-feasibility report began after the Narendra Modi government came to power. 

 

More to come

The connectivity rush in Northeast India and Arunachal Pradesh are far from over. 

As on June 30, NHIDCL is implementing highway projects worth Rs 92,237 crore ($12 billion). Projects worth another Rs 120268 crore ($16 billion) are in DPR (detailed project report) stage. 

A total of Rs 3306 crore Highway projects are in the pipeline for Arunachal. This is over and above the ongoing projects. The State will witness more activity in the coming days on the rail connectivity front. 

As part of the “Capital Connect” project undertaken by the Vajpayee government (1998-2004), train services reached Naharlagun, about 13 km short of Itanagar, in April 2014. 

With the completion of Bogibeel bridge paving way for a railway loop connecting either bank of Brahmaputra; there is now focus to improve rail connectivity between Assam and Arunachal. 

The Rs 750-crore Murkongselek (Assam) and Pasighat rail project is already underway. Three more proposals are in different stages of consideration. They are: 378 km Bhalukpong (West Kameng, Arunachal)-Tenga (Arunachal)-Tawang (Arunachal); 247 km North Lakhimpur(Assam)-Bame (Arunachal)-Aalo (West Siang, Arunachal)-Silapathar (Dhemaji, Assam); and 227 km Pasighat (East Siang, Arunachal)-Tezu (Lohit, Arunachal)-Parshuram Kund (Lohit, Arunachal)-Rupai (Tinsukia, Assam). 

Of the three, the proposed Bhalokpong-Tawang rail is most interesting. Tawang is located at over 10,000 ft and is a tourist attraction bordering Tibet. 

The Indian Railways is relatively slow (compared to NHIDCL) in resolving the land acquisition tangle, which is impacting the pace of implementation. However, the State government is keen to see the projects through. 

 

New Opportunities

Development is a habit. States in Southern or Western India, which have a history of development, understand the merits of good infrastructure faster and make way for it easily. Northeast was lagging way behind the national average in terms of infrastructure or connectivity. It is now poised to take a giant leap and Arunachal is making dramatic improvements. 

This will break many barriers, including social barriers, to investment. A new ecosystem is set to be created that will welcome growth for the traditional lifestyle. It’s time for the investor community to recognize the emerging opportunities, particularly in the hospitality sector. 

 

**Pratim Ranjan Bose is a commentator, researcher and corporate consultant. He is an expert on India’s eastern neighbourhood. **

Disclaimer: Views expressed in the content belong to the author. 

Photo of Tawang, Arunachal, by Mayur More on Unsplash

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