Retro Ledo

A 1942 route could become new Asian link

Published: Tuesday 31 May 2005

Retro Ledo

-- The Second World War (ww ii) was at its peak. The Allies (England and France) were facing the Axis powers (Germany, Italy and Japan). When Japan bombed Pearl Harbour, Hawaii on December 7, 1941, the us joined the war on the Allied side. A month later, Japan attacked Burma (now Myanmar) at its southernmost point and by 1942, had overrun much of Burmese territory. Burma was soon to slip from the hands of the Allied command. Supplies from China could not be unloaded at strategically important Rangoon. The Allied forces badly needed another route to push wartime supplies and transport ammunition.

So the grand plan of the Ledo Road was born. 1,736 kilometres (kms) of an all-weather road (roughly the distance between Mumbai and Patna) would run from Ledo, a small colonial outpost in Assam to Kunming, capital of the Chinese province of Yunnan, cutting through mountainous forests and the marshy valleys of Kachin in Burma.

Ledo is near Margerita in Assam, famous today for its coal. Further is Digboy, where a giant oil refinery dominates the town. But in the surrounding hills, neat roads lead to spacious company mansions and a course where employers play, followed by barefoot caddies -- a country within a country -- as Andrew Marshal wrote in one of his travelogues on the region.

An epic project The region spells leisure today. But when the British began work on the Ledo road, it was rough country. During the period of construction, 1942-1944, it was called a 'man a mile road'; at least one road worker per mile died building it. By the time it was done, the us Army had spent us$150 million and 1,100 Americans had died.

Most American or British war memorials on Ledo Road extol the valiant soldiers and officers of the Allied command who built the road. Most forget, however, to mention that 60 per cent of the 15,000 us soldiers were African Americans. The contribution of more than 35,000 Naga, Kachin, Shan and Chinese workers, hired from local tea gardens or villages, to this heroic effort also remains unacknowledged.

Teething troubles On December 1, 1942, British general Sir Archibald Wavell, the supreme commander of the Far Eastern Theatre (the Allied Army's command over the South and South East Asian region), arranged with us general Joseph Warren Stilwell to build the Ledo Road. As most of Burma was in Japanese hands by then, information about the topography, soil and river behaviour was not available before construction and had to be acquired as the project went along.

Work started on the first section of 166 kms in December 1942. The road followed a steep, narrow trail through un-surveyed territory from Ledo, across the Patkai range, and down to Shingbwiyang, Burma. For this, earth had to be removed at the rate of 1800 cubic metres per km. Steep gradients, hairpin curves and sheer drops of 60 metres, surrounded by a thick rainforest, was the norm for this first section. General Lewis A Pick, completing the building, called it "the toughest job ever given to us Army engineers in wartime".

By late 1944, however, in barely two years, the Ledo Road was connected to the Burma Road, despite some sections of the road beyond Myitkyina at Hukawng Valley being under repair due to heavy monsoon rain. This became a highway stretching from Assam, India to Kunming, China on January 12, 1945. The first convoy from Ledo, of 113 vehicles led by General Pick, reached Kunming, China on February 4, 1945. In the next seven months, 35,000 tonnes of supplies in 5,000 vehicles were conveyed through it.

New trade to revive Ledo
After the war, Ledo (or the Stilwell) Road fell into disrepair, though people kept the border crossings alive through barter. The present governments of Myanmar, China and India are now considering reopening the road, precipitated by the growing trade between India and China, which expanded by as much as 79 per cent in 2004.

Despite China and India sharing 4,056 kms of border, most of the business between the two countries is still done via the loopy sea route as these territorial borders are mostly inhospitable. Roads along the border passes cannot handle heavy goods. The road to Nathu La, for instance, has a very high gradient as it rises almost 9,000 feet within a 10 km stretch. A new navigable road to handle container traffic through such a terrain, would certainly cost several billion dollars to build today.

Despite that, there is a need for a land route as the sea route has its own constraints. On an average, a ship takes about 15 days, moving through the Strait of Malacca and around the Gulf of Thailand and the South China Sea.

New partnerships
Given this reality, the Ledo Road can dramatically change the contour of India's trade with China and South East Asia. This is especially likely, given that the road ends in the Yunnan province, at the border of one of China's economic powerhouses, Guangdong province in its south-eastern region.

In 2004, Guangdong's gross domestic product (gdp) grew at 14.5 per cent against China's 9.5 per cent. By 2006, it is expected to have a gdp of us$250 billion (this is as much as 38 per cent of the whole of India's current gdp).

More significantly, notes southeast Asia trade analyst Rajeev Dubey, an expressway connects Guanzhou, the capital of Guangdong, to Hong Kong, which is one of Asia's biggest trading hubs. Dubey also predicts that the opening up of Ledo Road will create a new land route between India and the states in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (asean).

Shock treatment
Today, the Ledo Road has the capacity to become India's lifeline to Asia. Potentially, trade through this road could equal, even overtake, India's trade through the Southern and Western corridors. The reopening is good news for global business, but whether it will also be beneficial for the northeast region, through which these goods may pass, remains to be seen.

'Development' programmes are routinely set in motion in the name of regional progress, but the local perspective can be low priority at times. Moreh, on the Manipur-Myanmar border, shows the uncertainties cross-border trade brings in its wake. Forget large containers, even a single product can destabilise smaller economies unable to cope with globalisation's battering ram.

As media reports reflect, the flooding of markets in Manipur by the Myanmar watermelon ruined the once booming business in kalen thabi (cucumbers), which was being grown by the local horticulturists in Moreh. With the advent of summer, watermelon import and distribution throughout the state's markets is on the rise. Retailers have already cut down the price of local fruit from Rs 15 per kg to Rs 10 per kg.

Similarly, recent rice imports from Myanmar have also severely hit the once popular varieties of indigenous rice. The Myanmar rice tastes more or less like the local rice, but is available at a much cheaper price. Such competition is bound to throw the region open to vagaries of markets that have never ruffled these remote corners of the country.

When the containers do roll in, and they are bound to, who shall measure the Richter scale of these ripples?

The Death Toll Road
Non-US fatalities were not counted


Typhus and malaria




Road Accidents 44
Aircraft Accidents 173
Total Road Fatalities 1,133


Typhus and malaria 15
The price tag
Road building costs
US military labour 31,766,000
Materials and supplies 33,912,000
Equipment, fuel & repairs 51,956,000
Overheads 19,424,000
Chinese military labour 2,410,000
Indian military and civilian labour 9,442,000
Total costs 148,910,000
Source: Carl Warren Weidenberner 2005,, 5 May

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