Highway of opportunity


Business Line
May 24, 2004

LIKE THE US and Europe, Asia has decided to have its own version of
a transcontinental freeway going from Tokyo to Istanbul. Running
through the Koreas, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand,
Myanmar, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Armenia and
several Central Asian countries, the 140,000-km Asia Highway Network,
including a trunk route through St. Petersburg to Russia’s border
with Finland, besides bringing people together, will open up economic
opportunities at their doorstep in the shape of truck stops, hotels,
motels and restaurants and gift shops could be built along the planned
routes. The potential is enormous.

The agreement on the Asia Highway, signed in Shanghai by the
participating nations, is significant for other reasons also. It is
UNESCAP’s first inter-government agreement since the organisation was
set up 57 years ago. Also, many landlocked countries, such as Laos,
Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Nepal, Bhutan, and Kyrghyzstan,
hope to get access to the sea by joining the highway network.

The proposed network, apparently modelled after the ancient Silk
Route that wended its way from Persia to China, will extend even
further, and opens up possibilities of a globalised transportation
system with coordinated ferry and rail connections. For example,
island nations like Sri Lanka and the Philippines will have ferry
connections. However, signing the agreement does not mean totally
‘free’ borders. A series of bilateral and multilateral negotiations
will be needed to sort out the border issues. It must be remembered
that the proposal for such a road network has been around since 1959
and only now have the governments of the region got together to sign
an agreement. ESCAP was unable to push through the project because
of various geo-political hurdles. The proposed highway network will
pass through some of the most difficult terrains – vast deserts,
high mountains, dense forests, and some virtually uncharted areas of
Central Asia.

The preliminary rounds of discussion reveal that the existing road
conditions vary substantially from country to country depending on
their level of development (or backwardness). The road construction
work would have to be standardised and road signs need to be in both
English and local languages and such issues as funding, quarantine,
auto safety standards, environment impact, road maintenance and
a proper road pricing mechanism (in view of the projection of
probable exhaustion of fossil fuel in next half a century or so)
would need to be addressed. All this calls for detailed planning and
meticulous execution with application of modern technology and with
participation of a large number of countries with varying levels of
progress. Also, the participating nations would need to look at the
road’s potential for negatives such as flesh trade, and arms and drug
smuggling. Certainly, a rough road ahead.