Re-Imagining India's Borders
Author : Shyam Saran
It is time we made our border regions full stakeholders in the country's development
The conventional view of national territorial boundaries is that these
are, or ought to be, strong and durable fences, safeguarding the country
from hostile external forces. Passage across these fences must,
therefore, be through tightly controlled, carefully regulated and narrow
gateways. This is an outdated notion in the modern world and the time
has come for us to begin to look at our borders as “connectors” or
“transmission belts”, which bring us closer to our neighbours in a
mutually beneficial embrace rather than as impenetrable walls behind
which we insulate ourselves.
This is the first mindset change we need to foster.
As corollary to this, we must also stop treating our border areas as
belonging to the periphery or serving as “buffer zones”, preventing
ingress into the heartland. We must rid ourselves of this “outpost”
mentality and acknowledge that our border states and regions are as much
part of our national territory as are the so-called heartland states.
The notion that these areas should be left underdeveloped and remote, as
is reflected in the outdated colonial instrument of inner-line permits,
must be abandoned. An empire ruled by a foreign power may have had some
logic in creating buffer zones. This, however, has no place in an
independent, sovereign country, where citizens living in any part of the
national territory are equally entitled to the fruits of development
and economic integration.
If borders are connectors then border states become important platforms
for mutual interaction with our neighbours. They can serve as bridges
linking India with its neighbours. Such interaction could become the
catalyst for economic development of border regions both in India and in
Pursuing such interaction requires convenient and hassle-free
cross-border movement and, therefore, efficient cross-border
connectivity. We have neglected the development of our land border areas
and our outlying islands precisely because of an outdated mindset. This
is beginning to change but far too slowly. In the Indian subcontinent,
cross-border connectivity today is far less than in pre-partition India.
The vision of an economically integrated south Asia leveraging its
obvious complementarities cannot become reality without efficient
transport, communication and, now, digital connectivity.
We need to follow certain principles in undertaking cross-border infrastructure projects.
One, while putting in place such projects, it is important that this
goes in parallel with the establishment of appropriate backward
linkages. The progress in cross-border infrastructure must never outpace
the all-round integration of our frontier regions with the rest of the
country. If this happens, it will be a recipe for alienation in these
sensitive frontier regions, endangering our security. One sees this
phenomenon in northern Myanmar, which is today more closely integrated
with southern China than the rest of the country.
Two, we must abandon the concept of border trade and replace it with
trade through border points. Border trade in an agreed list of
designated local commodities, limited to a designated zone on either
side of the border, is thoroughly outdated at most places. Several
points on the India-Myanmar or India-Nepal borders are well connected
with the rest of the country on either side. Trade in local items is far
outstripped in volume and value by a great variety of goods which are
officially “contraband”. On my visits to the Tamu-Moreh border point on
the India-Myanmar border, I have witnessed how truckloads of Chinese
goods, all contraband, find their way into our north-east and beyond.
The only way to address this is to open border trade points to regular
most-favoured nation trade. It should not really matter what goods are
coming in from which country of origin as long as requisite duties are
paid. The government earns revenue while minimising the opportunities
This does not mean that in truly remote areas we should stop the holding
of traditional border “haats” or local trade fairs. However, we should
make certain that these areas do not become channels for illegal trade.
The criminalisation of much of our border trade, the involvement of
local mafias in such trade and the corruption this engenders among
precisely those of our authorities that are assigned the job of looking
after our sensitive borders, are threatening our national security much
more than the opening up of our borders to regular trade and economic
activities. The lesson to be learnt is that the economic development and
prosperity of our border regions will greatly enhance, not diminish,
our national security.
It is time we re-imagined our country’s borders and made our border
regions full stakeholders in India’s development. This is also a
prerequisite for realising our vision of a south Asia, where borders
have ceased to matter and there is a free flow of goods, peoples and
ideas across our frontiers.
(This article first appeared in the Business Standard on June 24, 2011)