Last week, Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Sheikh Hasina, and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, flagged off the Kolkata-Khulna Bandhan Express, to follow in the tracks of the erstwhile Barisal Express, which was stopped during the 1965 war with Pakistan. The weekly service, which will start rolling on Thursday, will cross the international border at Petrapol outside Bongaon in North 24-Parganas district, and will be the second train to Bangladesh after the Kolkata-Dhaka Maitree Express. Given how they are juxtaposed geographically and culturally, the two countries, and especially India’s Northeast, stand to gain enormously from closer road and rail links. Efforts have, however, progressed slowly.
Agartala-Dhaka-Kolkata, 910 km
Service on the 490 km Agartala-Dhaka route began in September 2003, and ran irregularly until January 2015, when it was stopped for security reasons. Service was restarted in May 2015 on an extended Agartala-Dhaka-Kolkata route (910 km). The Tripura Road Transport Corporation, Shyamali Paribahan Ltd of Bangladesh, and West Bengal Road Transport Corporation ran two weekly trips each, making it a daily service barring Sunday. But this service, too, has become irregular.
Guwahati-Shillong-Dhaka, 450 km
Formally inaugurated in December 2015, but service did not continue.
Kolkata-Dhaka Maitree Express
In 2008, rail links disrupted by hostility with erstwhile East Pakistan were reestablished, the 375 km route crossing the border at Gede on the Indian side and Darshana on the Bangladesh side. The Maitree Express runs six days a week, and was, until the November 9 inauguration of the Bandhan Express, the only rail link with Bangladesh.
No seamless service between Agartala and Dhaka, but people from Tripura cross the border at the Integrated Check Post on Agartala’s outskirts and take a tempo or taxi to the railway station at Akhaura in Bangladesh to catch a train to Dhaka. A 15-km line between Agartala and Akhaura being built by the Indian Railways is set for completion by the end of 2018. Agartala has recently got a direct train to Sealdah (Kolkata) via Badarpur, Haflong, Lumding, Guwahati and New Jalpaiguri, a 37-hour journey that an Agartala-Dhaka-Kolkata train can cover in less than a third of this time.
A line links Siliguri in North Bengal to Parbatipur in northern Bangladesh, by which India sent a 42-wagon consignment of high speed diesel manufactured by Numaligarh Refinery in Assam in March 2017. But there is no regular goods train movement on this route, and passenger services are unlikely soon, given trans-border crimes and infiltration in the North Bengal sector.
Kolkata-Dibrugarh waterway through Dhaka and Guwahati, started in 1844 by the East India Company and shut after the 1965 war, was recently reopened. Cargo vessels have been occasionally plying through Bangladesh under a Protocol on Inland Water Transit and Trade. Heavy machinery and equipment for the Numaligarh refinery and Lower Subansiri hydroelectric project in Arunachal Pradesh have been transported by this route.
In 2011, heavy over-dimensional consignments of turbines and other machinery for the Palatana power project in Tripura were shipped through Ashuganj port in Bangladesh. When the Lumding-Badarpur railway was shut for gauge conversion last year, India moved foodgrains to Tripura by waterways through Bangladesh, saving on both time and transportation costs.
Kolkata-Dhaka-Northeast seamless cargo
In November 2015, seamless road cargo transport between Kolkata and Agartala through Bangladesh was tried out successfully under the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal (BBIN) Motor Vehicles Agreement (MVA) for Regulation of Passenger, Personnel and Cargo Vehicular Traffic, signed by these countries in June that year. Regular services are yet to start.
Northeast, the biggest beneficiary
The creation of East Pakistan — and subsequently, Bangladesh — significantly increased the distance between the Northeast and the Indian mainland. Until 1947, a train to Guwahati from Kolkata took hardly 12 hours. Today, despite increased speeds, the journey takes at least 18 hours by the fastest train, while a normal train — such as the Kamrup Express — takes almost 24 hours through Siliguri or New Jalpaiguri.
Before Partition, people travelled from Guwahati to Kolkata via Lalmonirhat, in the Bangladesh district close to where the Brahmaputra crosses the border. Trains between Assam and Kolkata through East Pakistan stopped in 1947; trains between West Bengal and East Pakistan stopped after the 1965 war.