New Delhi, Oct. 23: Calcutta has a Chinese sister.
Their parent governments have picked the siblings for a key task: connecting India and China through a land route that promises critical trade benefits and recognises the unique historical links that bind the Middle Kingdom to the city in eastern India.
India and China today inked a pact declaring Calcutta and Kunming in southwest China as sister cities. The tag in itself is largely symbolic, although it allows preferential cooperation and exchanges between the cities on trade, education, health, culture and urban planning.
But the pact binding Calcutta to Kunming is far more substantive than similar agreements today declaring Delhi and Beijing and Bangalore and Chengdu as sister cities.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang emphasised a larger role for Calcutta and Kunming — to bookend a four-nation highway that will also include Bangladesh and Myanmar. (See map above)
The four nations have not finalised the route for the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) corridor but it will not mimic the “Southern Silk Route” that extended to Chengdu in China. “There’s more than symbolism here,” a senior diplomat said in Delhi. “There’s a chance to bring two big nations closer.”
The first Chinese emigrant to Calcutta, Yang Tai Chow, landed on the banks of the Hooghly in 1778, starting a legacy of ties that remain intact.
Calcutta is the only Indian city with a Chinatown — the globally recognisable settlements that mark every major city across the world that is recipient of substantial Chinese immigrant populations.
“Geographical proximity of the city to China and its accessibility by land made Calcutta the natural choice for many emigrating Chinese,” Calcutta-based researchers Sipra Mukherjee and Sarvani Gooptu wrote in an article for the 2009 book, The Calcutta Mosaic: the minority communities of Calcutta.
The BCIM project was first pitched by China in 1999, although it is only in the last few months that officials in India and China have overcome key differences over the proposed highway. In 2002, some residents of Calcutta and Kunming, businessmen and researchers set up a forum that meets annually. From 2012, the forum has been backed by the ministry of external affairs. In 2007, China Eastern Airlines started direct flights between Calcutta and Kunming.
But the corridor could open up a new chapter in India’s road connectivity with China, with gain for both nations, and for Calcutta.
India is unlikely to gain economically as much as China, a more advanced economy, in the short run, said Binoda Kumar Mishra, the director of the Calcutta-based Centre for Studies in International Relations and Development.
Concerns do exist over the project, in particular the access it would give China to India’s Northeast.
“But in the long term, it can greatly help India’s Northeast, Bengal and even Calcutta develop economically,” Mishra, who also heads the Calcutta-Kunming (K2K) forum, told The Telegraph.
For India, the corridor will create another artery that can connect with other transnational routes it is planning with neighbours — like the Bangladesh-Myanmar-India trilateral road that New Delhi wants to extend to Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
The Association of South East Asian Nations plans to start a European Union-style common economic platform from 2015, and India is pinning its hopes on greater connectivity with the region to gain economic leverage with the bloc.
Beijing has officially designated Kunming, the capital of China’s relatively poor Yunnan province, the nation’s gateway to South Asia — in the hope that it elevates the province’s economic profile.
India doesn’t believe in such designations. But the challenges Bengal and Calcutta face, and the opportunities the BCIM corridor will offer, aren’t very different to those before Yunnan and Kunming.
“We need to be cautious because of the strategic implications,” Mishra said. “But if Bengal and Calcutta can develop quality products, it opens up a massive market and huge opportunities.”