| The rice chain
New Delhi, Oct. 20: India plans to import 50,000 tonnes of rice from Myanmar for distribution through the public distribution system in the north-eastern states.
The rice imports have been planned despite the fact that the country is sitting on a food mountain which includes a stock of 8 million tonnes of rice in its silos and another 10 million tonnes that it is set to buy in the current year.
The cabinet, which is likely to clear the move tomorrow, is being told by the food ministry that this would work out cheaper than transporting rice from Punjab or Haryana where most of the stock is kept because of the distances involved and the fact that Northeast is badly served by rail links.
However, the move, which would cost the government about $12 million, is really being taken up as part of an attempt by the Union government to build bridges with the military regime ruling the nation.
Relations between the Indian government and the Myanmarese military junta had cooled off over the latter’s belief that India was aiding and sheltering pro-democracy activists.
While India does lend a degree of support for pro-democracy activists, some of whom have found safe haven here, it has in the past tried to rein them in to placate the military rulers who are seen as being too close to China for India's comfort.
Top officials said, “This will not be the first or the last trade with Myanmar. We feel if the cabinet approves of the move this could easily be made a regular feature.”
India has always had troubled relations with Myanmar ever since the military junta took over in the 1950s through a coup d'etat and expelled a large number of Indians living and working there. However, co-operation in controlling ethnic insurgency in the border provinces of both nations through the late 1980s and the 1990s saw better relations between the two.
News that the Chinese were building a naval base on Myanmarese soil also did not help relations between the two nations.
However, recent exchanges have revealed to Indian strategists that Myanmar is desperate for foreign exchange and is willing to offer ports, road links, and even tea acres to India in exchange for hard cash. As tribal insurgency in Myanmar's northern provinces rules out any attempt to take on these offers, India is trying to work out ways of doing profitable trade with Myanmar which will help it gain a diplomatic lever over its eastern neighbour.