Guwahati: Khamasom Phungdhar is one of the remotest and underdeveloped villages located north of Ukhrul in Manipur. The village is known for its rich vegetation and is arguably the only one in northeast India with a thick virgin forest cover along the Indo-Burma border stretch. However, it lacks connectivity and residents are now taking up the matter with authorities.

Apunba Imagi Machasing (AIMS), a Manipur-based organisation representing Ukhrul district, has proposed an alternative Asian highway between Kuirei via Khamasom Phungdhar in Ukhrul in India and Homalin in Myanmar.

Myanmar’s Homalin town is the only navigable river port to reach the Bay of Bengal from the landlocked Northeast. The written proposal was sent to the Union Minister of Road Transport and Highways Nitin Gadkari.

A satellite map of the proposed Highway, connecting India and Myanmar

Development in Homalin town

In their letter to the road transport and highways minister, the organisation said Homalin or Hommalinn is a town in north-western Myanmar lies on the Chindwin River and is served by the Homalin Airport. Precious metals like gold have also been found in Chindwin’s major tributary of Uyu that flows close to Homalin, which is very close to the Indian border. 

The main population residing there comprises Shanni, Kathe and Naga ethnic groups. The main artery road in the region is the Thabeikkyin-Phaungbyin-Homalin-Hkamti Road, which is 530-km long.

This road is being extended and bridges are being built to make it an all-weather structure. A suspension bridge, 1000-ft long and 16-ft wide, was constructed across the Uyu River linking Homalin in Hkamti district of the Sagaing region with the Thetkekyin-Phaungpyin-Homalin-Khamti Road.

Country boats, locally known as landwins, also ply in the waters of the Chindwin to Homalin. Both Irrawaddy and its major tributary, the Chindwin, have inland water transport facilities. The Homalin Airport (HOX) in the centre of Homalin town has flights operating to Yangon and Mandalay, and is on the famous tourist circuit. 

Country boats on Chindwin, a tributary of Irrawaddy river, in Myanmar Photo: Special Arrangement

Khamasom Phungdhar still underdeveloped

On the Indian side, Khamasom Phungdhar, the AIMS said, is one of the most remote and underdeveloped villages. The village is known for its rich vegetation and was declared the Honey Bee village in March 2021.

The agricultural products available in the region, which is about 7 km from the National Highway of Imphal-Ukhrul-Jessami Road from Kirei, are purely organic.

“It is pertinent to construct a highway between Kuirei via Khamasom Phungdhar to Homalin in Myanmar. It will be the nearest river port of Myanmar from the northeastern states of Nagaland, Manipur, Assam, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh. As an extended vision of the Act East Policy, this nearest riverport will be more economically feasible to conduct Indo-Myanmar trade relations,” AIMS director Dr Atom Sunil Singh told EastMojo.

“The destination we are planning to reach, Homalin, is one of the largest river ports. It will be nearest to us to connect with Myanmar and the rest of south-east Asian countries through the sea route. We thought Northeast India is landlocked but if we connect through this route, then we can easily reach the Bay of Bengal,” he added.

Homalin, a river port in Myanmar, which can be connected with Manipur if the proposed highway is approved. Photo: Special Arrangement

“My village is situated on the border, about 5 km from Myanmar. For India, it is the shortest route to reach Myanmar. For India, the nearest river port is in Homalin near my village if it constructs (a road) from Homalin to my village,” Awungshi Philip Soso, a social worker from Khamasom Phungdhar in Manipur told EastMojo.

“There are at least 15 villages settled near Indo-Myanmar border pillars no. 123, 124, 125 with a population of nearly 20,000. And it is the shortest road from the northeast to Myanmar by riverboats. There are so many tourist spots, agriculture, minerals and forest here also,” Soso added.

Present circumstances a big barrier

Even though the idea of a the highway sounds interesting and worthy of discussions at the central and international level, locals are not unaware of the present circumstances in Myanmar, which can act as a dampener to the plans. Since February 2021, Myanmar has been under military dictatorship, which makes any new development project an almost impossible idea. Even if the governments agree on such a project, executing it will be a huge challenge while there is so much civilian anger in Myanmar, said locals. Take the Homalin region, which is crucial to this region. In Spetember this month, a huge fight broke out between Myanmar junta forces and Kachin Independence Army troops in Homalin Township, Sagaing Region on after the shadow National Unity Government declared war on the junta.

Then, there is the environmental issue.

The Highway can help improve Ukhrul’s economy by giving it a larger market to sell produce

Manipur’s only virgin forest

Manipur Forest and Environment Minister Thounaojam Shyamkumar in October 2018 had rewarded Khamasom village for protecting the only virgin forest in the state situated along the Indo-Myanmar international border.

The forest department got to know about the virgin forest cover through satellite images after which the minister visited the village and handed over a sum of Rs 2 lakh to the villagers of Khamasom for their commitment towards protecting the environment.

The village is home to the last remaining virgin forests in the state.

“My village is among the few villages to have virgin forest cover left. We are yet to explore so many resources here,” said Awungshi Philip Soso.

Smuggling and illegal trade

Hardly a week passes by without news of smuggling and illegal trade on the India-Myanmar border. And this gives the region a bad name, locals allege. A highway on these lines can change that image to a great extent, they say.

“A highway between India and Myanmar will greatly help Ukhrul district to develop. Right now there is less security, and the proposed highway is in a very disturbed area. But there is a lot of potential here.”

The president of Border Area Villages Association, who represents a majority of the stakeholders at the border and is keen on the project to materialise, told EastMojo, “Currently, there is smuggling of goods in the area. But with a highway, we can have systematic trade and build trade relations between the two countries, which will help the people of Ukhrul immensely.”

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