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The Quest for Goodwill: Quick Impact Projects and Act East Policy – IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute

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The Quest for Goodwill: Quick Impact Projects and Act East Policy

Chaitanya Deshpande

Abstract

India’s Development Partnership Cooperation completed seventy-five years in 2022. Quick Impact Projects started by the Government of India are a crucial part of the Development Partnerships. These projects were announced for Lower Mekong Region countries, Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar and Vietnam (CLMV). India signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Lao PDR to implement five Quick Impact Projects in July 2023.  Also, a Memorandum of Understanding was signed with Myanmar in November 2023 to start three Quick Impact Projects in the fields of solar energy and education. In this context, Quick Impact Projects are back in discussion. This article attempts to trace and track the role of Quick Impact Projects in the Act East Policy of India.

Introduction

Development assistance to countries through bilateral or multilateral institutional mechanisms is one of the features of the foreign policies of major global powers. Such programmes are armed with the moral objective of ‘cooperation and mutual sharing of economic gains.’ However, development cooperation has often been conceptualised as a strategy to gain more economic benefits from the recipient countries. India’s Development Cooperation programme marks a different approach. Based on the principles of the Indian National Movement, it is focused on capacity building and human resource development. As a result, it is often argued that India’s development assistance programmes have generated great goodwill amongst Africans, Latin Americans and South East Asians.

One such development assistance programme is the Quick Impact Projects started by India in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam, widely known as CLMV countries in Indian Foreign Policy circles.  These projects were started under the Mekong Ganga Cooperation (MGC) in 2012. They have also been considered within the framework of the Act East Policy. 

The Look East Policy, the predecessor of the Act East Policy, was started in the 1990s to diversify India’s economic and strategic partnerships in the post-Cold War era. It focused on improving relations with South East Asian countries (ASEAN nations) along with Japan and South Korea. Act East Policy, started in 2014,  also added more emphasis on building connectivity with these countries. The major connectivity projects include the Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport Project, which is expected to connect Kolkata with Sittwe port in Thailand and the Trilateral Highway between India, Thailand and Myanmar. 

However, these Infrastructure and connectivity projects often suffer from long delays. The reasons for delays are various such as unfavourable weather conditions, problems in land acquisition and high logistical costs etc. For example, the Kaladan Project was conceived in 2003 and the framework agreement between India and Myanmar was signed in 2008.

It was envisaged that the ambitious project would be completed within five years of signing the agreement. Fifteen years later, the project is yet to operationalise even in 2023 fully. India’s relationship with smaller neighbours like Nepal has also suffered setbacks in the past because of the delays in completing promised development projects. Delays like these have resulted in the perception that India promises but never delivers on time.

The Contours of Quick Impact Projects 

Quick Impact Projects (QIPs) started in CLMV countries have emerged as a strong complement to complex, time-consuming and large-scale infrastructure projects. They are short gestation projects with a target to complete the project within one year. All these projects are aimed to directly benefit local communities. These projects mainly consist of raising social infrastructure for capacity building such as Schools, hospitals, and sanitation. They also include the creation or upgradation of physical infrastructure such as roads, community development centres etc.

The government of India announced the starting of Quick Impact Projects at the 5th Ministerial Meeting of Mekong Ganga Cooperation in 2012. The actual projects started in 2015-16. 105 QIP projects have been sanctioned since 2015-16. The government of India annually sanctions 15 projects on average. 78 projects have been completed and 27 are in progress. 

Finance for Quick Impact Projects

With the announcement of QIPs, the India-CLMV Quick Impact Projects Revolving Fund was also established with an annual contribution of US $ 1 Million. The fund has been revised twice. The India- Cambodia Joint Statement in 2018 upgraded it to US $1.5 Million. Further, the fund corpus was increased to US $2 Million in the India-Vietnam Summit in 2020. Each QIP project costs no more than US $ 50 thousand. 

Cambodia has received sanctions for 48 projects so far. Thirty-four have been completed so far.  46 QIPs were sanctioned to Vietnam, and 37 have been completed. 11 QIPs have been allotted to Laos PDR so far, and 7 have been completed. The projects are also spread out in various provinces or federal units of these countries aiming at decentralisation of projects. 

Data Source for the Graph- Mekong Ganga Cooperation

The Significance of Quick Impact Projects for India’s Act East Policy

These projects have unique benefits in terms of time-bound completion and direct link between India and beneficiary communities, villages, and towns of the Quick Impact Projects. They help to generate goodwill among the people, the most significant capital in the business of diplomacy. Vietnam Times has published a story on the inauguration of two Quick Impact Projects related to school infrastructure in North Central Provinces Nghe An and the Central Province of Tanh Hoa. These projects have helped grassroots development. These projects are helping CLMV countries to achieve their Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Additionally, Quick Impact Projects are fulfilling the objectives of the Act East Policy in terms of widening economic and development cooperation with the four key ASEAN members. Also, they help to build people-to-people ties within and across the national borders of South and Southeast Asia. The cultural and civilisational ties between India and CLMV countries can have another dimension of mutually beneficial cooperation for sustainable development in the region in the form of developing social and physical infrastructure. 

The projects also try to expand India’s footprint in the Lower Mekong subregion in a more concrete and concentrated way. External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar underlined the importance of the region for India in the 12th Ministerial Meeting of Mekong Ganga Cooperation. He remarked, “Peace and Prosperity in the region also play a pivotal role in realising India’s vision of ‘Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR).” This underlines the significance of Quick Impact Projects as catalysts to ensure peace in the region through social infrastructure and capacity building. 

Challenges 

Though the timely completion of Quick Impact Projects is an achievement on its own, India has to rapidly complete connectivity projects such as the India-Myanmar-Thailand (IMT) Trilateral Highway. Boosting physical connectivity is crucial for fostering economic and development cooperation including the implementation of Quick Impact Projects. Also, the number of sanctioned projects has come down from 20 in 2020-21 to 12 in 2023-24. 

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Data Source for the Graph- Mekong Ganga Cooperation

The soft power-based approach like Quick Impact Projects has its limitations when other competitors come into the picture. India has a giant competitor in the region, China. India is lagging far behind China in terms of economic investment and infrastructural connectivity. To limit China’s influence in its extended neighbourhood in East and South East Asia, India has to complete the connectivity projects rapidly to further boost commerce and cultural interactions.

Conclusion

Large-scale projects like the Kaladan Multimodal Transit Project will need more time and resources. Also, external factors like instability in Myanmar may cause further delays. India has been already facing tough competition from China to extend its influence in the Lower Mekong Region and CLMV Countries. China has lured away countries in the region in its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Cambodia, Thailand and Lao PDR are among the staunch supporters of BRI projects.  The ‘Wait and watch’ approach from the Indian side will cause a huge disadvantage for its ambition to invest more in the region. It will also impact the prospects of linking North East Indian Region to ASEAN countries. 

Till large infrastructure projects get completed and new ideas arrive on the horizon for the implementation of the Act East Policy, innovative ideas like Quick Impact Projects can be India’s ‘goodwill ambassadors.’ This quest for goodwill can go on for deepening and strengthening cultural, commercial and civilisational ties with ASEAN countries in general and CLMV countries in particular. 

References

Anand Vinod. (2016, September 29).  Connectivity at the Core of India’s Act East Policy. Vivekananda International Foundation. 
https://www.vifindia.org/article/2016/september/14/connectivity-at-the-core-of-india-s-act-east-policy

Bhatia, Rajiv. (2016, May 12).  Progressing ‘Diplomacy for Development.’ Gateway House, Indian Council for Global Relations.

Busbarat, Pongphisoot. (2023, December 5). How has China’s Belt and Road Initiative Impacted South East Asian Countries? Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. 
https://carnegieendowment.org/2023/12/05/how-has-china-s-belt-and-road-initiative-impacted-southeast-asian-countries-pub-91170

DD News. (2023,  July 28) India and Lao PDR signs MOUs for Five Quick Impact Projects. https://ddnews.gov.in/international/india-lao-pdr-sign-mous-five-quick-impact-projects 

Embassy of India, Hanoi. Vietnam. India’s Development Partnership Cooperation. 
https://www.indembassyhanoi.gov.in/page/india-s-development-partnership-cooperation/

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