Eight states of India comprise the Northeast India region which shares its border with countries like Myanmar, Bhutan, and Bangladesh. It is predominantly mountainous, with towns and farming villages nestled between valleys of several hundred meters in depth and mountains several thousand meters high.
Other than the gastronomical culture and facial features of the people in these areas, the Japanese also have historical ties with this region. In 1944, towards the end of World War II, the Japanese military engaged in the Battle of Imphal in an attempt to capture the northeastern region of India, then under British rule. The year 2024 marks the 80th anniversary of the Battle. Moreover, it is the region where the then Indian National Army (INA), led by Subhash Chandra Bose, fought together with the Japanese Imperial Army to secure Indian independence from British rule.
Seventy-five years post the Second World War, an era prevails. India and Japan are very close strategic partners; Japanese diplomats, and development administrators, are contributing to the economic development of India’s Northeast and the growth of people-to-people linkages between India and Japan. The two countries are committed to concretising the concept of a ‘Free, Open and Prosperous Indo-Pacific’ by deepening convergence between the Modi government’s Act East Policy and the Japanese government’s vision for a ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’.
Northeast India is connected to the rest of the country by a small strip of land some 20 kilometres wide. Due to this and the mountainous terrain, the movement of people and goods is challenging, and infrastructure development and other forms of development have been limited. Less than 30 percent of all the roads here are paved (the national average is about 70 percent), and even when it comes to national highways, the proportion comprising at least one lane on each side of the road remains at about 50 percent (80 percent nationally).
Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), is currently supporting road development projects in this northeastern region to improve people’s lives and promote regional development. They have developed comprehensive guidelines for the design and maintenance of mountain roads. These guidelines are a testament to the commitment to safe and sustainable infrastructure development in Northeast India covering various aspects, including the construction of tunnels and bridges, ensuring that the roads are not only functional but also resilient against the harsh mountainous conditions
JICA is currently supporting six road development projects in Northeast India. This includes the construction of new roads as well as the widening and improvement of existing roads over a total distance of more than 750 kilometres. The economic benefits of the completed projects will be immeasurable
Phase 1 of the development project began in 2017 with improvements on a north-south arterial road in Mizoram, which borders Myanmar, and a north-south arterial road in the western part of Meghalaya, which shares a border with Bangladesh.
In 2022, a national highway improvement project (Phase 6) was commenced, spanning Tripura and connecting to a road that leads to Chattogram, the second largest city in Bangladesh, and Matarbari, where a deep seaport is being constructed with the assistance of JICA and will begin commercial operations in 2027. Both projects will boost the flow of people and goods and improve overall connectivity.
The Act East Forum, established after the 2017 Japan-India summit, is the primary forum for accelerating such development cooperation between India and Japan in India’s Northeast. Both governments have held six rounds of practical policy discussions to review the progress and explore opportunities for collaboration in areas such as infrastructure, health, tourism, people to people exchanges, and forestry and bamboo utilization.
Under the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP), which aims for stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region. Prime Minister Kishida spoke about the new FOIP plan in March 2023, he proposed the “Bay of Bengal Northeast India Industrial Value Chain” concept, which envisioned a unified economic zone for Bangladesh and other neighboring countries in the region, home to a market of over 300 million people.
The establishment of a cross-border economic zone with these neighbouring countries is expected to stimulate industry, including the entry of Japanese companies. Japan possesses practical expertise in establishing such economic corridors to enhance connectivity. Focusing on the Mekong region reveals a flourishing industrial value chain that is linked by the “East-West Economic Corridor” and the “Southern Economic Corridor,” spanning from Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam to other Southeast Asian countries.
From the Japanese point of view, under its declining population and labour force, northeast India could be an attractive labour market thanks to historical ties and cultural similarities in dining habits, such as a preference for non-vegetarian cuisine that resonates with the Japanese people, further strengthening this connection. These cultural and historical ties form the bedrock of the growing partnership.
India and Japan can be in a win-win situation; while Japan provides job and training opportunities for Indian youth, India with its abundant workforce could make up for the labour shortage in Japan. Due to a lack of public awareness and mismatching, only about 500 Indian workers are currently staying in Japan under the Technical Intern Training Program/Specified Skilled Workers (TITP/SSW) system, while there are 250,000 Vietnamese, 60,000 Indonesian, and even 3,600 Nepali workers in Japan under the same scheme. There are still huge opportunities for Indian workers because Japan is facing a substantial shortage of labour in the caregiving, agriculture, construction, and hospitality sectors.
The India-Japan Intellectual Conclave, which was started in 2021 by the Embassy of Japan in India and the Asian Confluence, has been an important platform to discuss connectivity between Northeast India and its neighbouring countries, establishing industrial value chains in the region, and increasing people-to-people exchanged between Northeast India and Japan including academic and cultural corporations and TITP/SSW. Through the Conclave, more and more people from various fields have begun to recognize the importance of connectivity with Northeast India and its potential.
The previous (Third) Conclave was held in Agartala, Tripura in April 2023. Participants including ministers, government officials and business leaders from India, Japan and Bangladesh exchange their views under the New Plan for ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP)’ announced by Japan’s PM Kishida a month before the Conclave.
The fourth Conclave is to be held in Shillong, Meghalaya on 12th February 2024, and will serve as the premier forum for the Bay of Bengal where officials and leaders in areas such as business, government and academia in India, Japan and Bangladesh as well as neighboring countries can gather, discuss, and connect with each other.
Summing up, India’s Northeast has a brighter future, together with Japan.