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The Great Asian Highway

By Rahul Kamat

The proposed 140,000-km Asian Highway, the longest road network in the world linking 32 countries, including India, is finally taking shape. Transport experts in India are, however, sceptical about the viability of the project given the current economic and political situation in South and South-East Asia. The Asian Highway (AH) project is being undertaken by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP), specifically its Transport and Tourism Division.
"It's an excellent step taken by ESCAP to gather all the Asian countries under one crown but the problem with this project is political disputes between some countries, notably Pakistan and Myanmar, which is delaying the project," Om Prakash, Advisor, International Consultant and Technocraft Pvt. Ltd, New Delhi, says. 
India is keen to develop the Asian Highway as it would increase trade with her neighbours, especially Pakistan and Myanmar. For instance, New Delhi is forging closer relations with Yangon by encouraging GAIL (India) Ltd and ONGC to export its products to Myanmar.
"The agreement between Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand (signed in 2003) needs to be considered by India as an international link for trade, while retaining the presently designated AH route through Tambli, Bangladesh, and Imphal, India," Sanjoy Hazarika Managing Trustee, Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research explains.
New Delhi is also hopeful that the mega project will bring India and Pakistan closer, more so since the resumption of bus and train services between the two countries. 
Says Hazarika, "Given its extensive geographical coverage and the recent move to integrate it with other means of transportation, the Asian Highway project requires collective effort and close collaboration among the Asian countries." 
The Asian Highway project will crisscross the Asian continent and reach Europe. For this, inter-governmental agreements have been signed between 32 countries; last year India became the 24th country to sign the Asian Highway Agreement. Some of the other signatories are Pakistan, China, Japan, South Korea and Bangladesh. A significant part of the funding for the project has come from the larger or more economically advanced nations as well as multilateral agencies like the Asian Development Bank. The project is expected to be completed by 2010.
In this project the participating countries have decided to make the maximum use of existing roads by avoiding the construction of new highways, except in cases where missing links obviated the continuity of the work. Thus, the early beneficiaries of the Asian Highway project are the planners within the national land transport department of the participating countries. It assists them in planning the most cost-effective and efficient routes to promote domestic and international trade. Non-coastal areas, which are often negligible, are the other beneficiaries. 
The futuristic highway would facilitate greater social and economic interaction between the Asian countries such as closer people-to-people contacts, capital-to-capital links, connecting major container terminals and depots and promoting tourism by making overland travel cheaper.

(31 January 2005)


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