As Tripura opens its first-ever inland waterway with Bangladesh from Sonamura in Sepahijala district, along with the expectations and hopes, there are also questions around the ambitious project and its trade potential.
The route connecting Sonamura, about 60 km from Agartala in the Indian side, and Daudkandi of Chittagong in Bangladesh was included in the list of Indo-Bangladesh Protocol (IBP) routes agreed up on May 20 this year. The ambitious project has already been projected by Tripura’s incumbent BJP-IPFT government as a major catalyst to catapult Tripura into a gateway to the North-East.
A big boat carrying 50 MT cement from Bangladesh’s Munshiganj port is scheduled to come in as part of the trial run Saturday.
Tripura’s foreign trade
Tripura’s cross-border trade commenced in 1995. Currently, the state exports a handful of goods and materials worth Rs 30 crore to Bangladesh annually, but imports good worth Rs 645 crore. This huge trade deficit is due to abnormally high import duty apparatus in Bangladesh and the absence of many commodities abundant in the state in the list of goods allowed for export as well as port restrictions. Consecutive state governments have nudged Dhaka to smoothen processes for flow of goods.
Earlier this year, CM Biplab Kumar Deb predicted a significant growth in bilateral trade, raising the Rs 30-crore export volume to Rs 400 crore while he said Rs 2,000 crore worth goods would be imported against the current volume of Rs 645 crore within a year. He projected the imports to grow to Rs. 4,200 crore in five years with exports touching Rs 1,200 crore.
Now, the forthcoming Agartala-Akhaura rail project, Indo-Bangla bridge over River Feni and a second Integrated Check Post (ICP) at Sabroom are also aimed at taking up the quantum of trade between the two sides.
Not everyone is optimistic about the prospects of the project. “Akhaura Integrated Check Post alone imports 150 times more than Sonamura jetty’s trade volume — the state has six other land crossings. Since the waterway project’s trade volume would be low, there isn’t massive local employment to count upon either. Most importantly, the river route would not stay operational throughout the year,” reasoned Economist and Assistant Professor of Tripura University Dr. Selim Shah. However, he said, the low low transportation can create new opportunities.
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Tripura’s first Inland waterway
Soon after Chief Minister Biplab Kumar Deb assumed office in March 2018, expert teams from the Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI), Land Port Authority of India (LPAI) and local authorities held a series of visits and studied the feasibility of launching inland waterways connectivity on River Gomati. The rive connects with Meghna in Bangladesh via a 90-km stretch of water from Sonamura till Daudkandi.
The plan included dredging the riverbed to make way for small ship and boats from Sonamura till Ashuganj river port in Bangladesh, 60 km away. Dredging was deemed necessary given the shallow depth of riverbed and constant sedimentation in the areas where the river meanders below hills.
A terminal building was also planned to be built for customs’ check of imported goods. As the permanent jetty for loading and unloading of goods was taking too much time, Tripura built a temporary floating jetty in July 04. A large chunk of the other infrastructure is yet to be built.
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Making Gomati navigable
River Gomati is the largest and longest river of Tripura with cumulative length of 180 km. It is also considered a sacred river and devotees converge along its banks at Tirthmukh every Makar Sankranti.
Gomati is also a regulated river. Due to the high altitude of in its upper catchment and Dumbur dam built in 1974 as part of the Gumti hydro-electric power project, the river erodes a lot of sand and rocky particles in its upper segment. The flow slows down a lot after it reaches the plains and at Maharani barrage in Gomati district, a large volume of the water is extracted for irrigation and is held back for beautification of Dumbur dam as a tourist spot.
A river needs at least 4-5 feet depth for goods carriers to navigate on a regular basis. Gomati riverbed remains navigable for less than four months a year, that too only during monsoon days. For rest of the year, scanty rainfall in the hills results in low volume while accumulating sediments raise the average riverbed, rendering Gomati even shallower. In comparison, the inland waterway route with Bangladesh at Karimganj in Assam operates small ships to large boats for nearly six months a year.
“Dredging is a way to tackle the shallow riverbed but it will take far more in the actual project route. They should consider dredging till Maharani barrage where the sedimentation issue starts,” explained river-expert and Associate Professor Nibedita Das Pan from Tripura University. As an alternate and long-term solution, she suggested planting water-resistant vetiver grass and bamboo along its banks to prevent erosion along with small check-dams and some regulated dredging.
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