(Corrects spelling of Maday Island in paragraph 10)
BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Human rights groups issued a report on Tuesday criticising a $214 million Indian infrastructure project in western Myanmar as being secretive, excluding local people and threatening the environment and livelihoods of 1.2 million people along its route.
There has been little or no public consultation on the project, but there have been forced relocations, land confiscation without adequate compensation, discrimination in hiring workers and destruction of local heritage, the Kaladan Movement, a coalition of rights groups based in India and Myanmar, said in its report.
There are also concerns that further militarisation in project areas in Myanmar could increase human rights abuses and that a new route may open for the illegal trade in wildlife, it said.
“From the very beginning, when the project was conceived, till today, there hasn't been any kind of meaningful public consultation or public participation,” said Salai Za Uk Ling, programme director of the Chin Human Rights Organisation (CHRO), a core member of the Kaladan Movement.
“A lot of people in the local communities do welcome development projects. What we’re saying is to do it in a proper way that benefits the local communities,” he said.
The report calls for the project to be suspended until concerns such as lack of transparency, consultation and accountability are addressed.
The Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport Project is India’s attempt to woo its strategically important but impoverished neighbour which, during Myanmar’s half-century of military rule, had grown closer to China.
It is India’s largest infrastructure project in Myanmar to date, financed entirely by Indian development aid, though the roads, inland waterway and port facilities will be handed over to Myanmar on completion, the report said.
AMBITIOUS BUT DESTRUCTIVE?
The ambitious project, expected to be fully operational in 2015, involves an inland waterway along western Myanmar’s Kaladan River and a highway linking landlocked Mizoram State in northeast India with a deep-sea port in Sittwe, capital of Myanmar’s Rakhine State and a site of violence against Muslims last year.
The port is different from the one being developed on Maday Island in Rakhine, where twin pipelines are being laid to transport gas and oil to China.
The Indian project involves Rakhine and Chin, Myanmar’s least developed states, where better infrastructure is badly needed, but local rights groups are concerned the project may not benefit those who will be most affected.
Land confiscation in Mizoram has already led to protests by local residents over compensation, the report said. The Indian government has denied the validity of 80 percent of the 913 land compensation claims it has received, and people who were declared eligible were offered $0.06 per square foot while other projects in the area paid out $0.86, it added.
Twan Zaw, executive director of the Arakan Rivers Network,said local workers at Sittwe port face wage discrimination, earning about $4 to $5 a day compared with around $25 paid to Indian workers.
Culturally important sites in two villages in Rakhine have been destroyed and their stone used in the port’s construction, he added.
There have been no environmental, health and social impact assessments in the areas affected by the project, despite the rich biodiversity, the number of ethnic and indigenous groups living there and promises by Myanmar officials, the report said.
UNIQUE MODEL, REGIONAL BENEFITS
Rajesh Swami, first secretary at the Indian embassy in Thailand, said the project’s port and inland waterway components do not involve land acquisition, clearing of forest, infringement on wildlife habitat, large-scale dredging, submergence of any land area or any displacement.
“Therefore, it is not considered necessary for a third party to examine the environmental aspects afresh, midway through the implementation,” he told journalists at the report launch.
“The project will open up a unique multimodal transport system in the region ... (it) will also generate many opportunities for trade between India and Myanmar for the benefit of the region,” he said.
CHRO’s Salai Za Uk Ling is not convinced. He said an agreement signed in 2008 requires Myanmar to provide security and land for the project free of charge.
"From experience, any kind of militarisation is accompanied by increased human rights violations” and large-scale infrastructure development in Myanmar often involves forced labour and land confiscations, he said.
Kashmira Kakati, a biologist and an author of the environmental impact assessment conducted in Mizoram for the project, sounded alarm bells on the state of wildlife.
“One of the biggest fears we anticipated in the report is that this would become a major wildlife trading route. We are already talking about tigers disappearing and there is a lot of illegal wildlife trade across the border,” Kashmira Kakati said. "It is very serious."
Underscoring the rights groups’ concerns over the lack of transparency surrounding the project, Kakati said she had never received an acknowledgment from the Indian government for her work, even though they had invited her to conduct an assessment.
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