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Through Bangladesh, a development shortcut for Northeast

Ongoing efforts to raze walls erected by Partition open up possibility of dramatically reduced distances and unprecedented economic gains.

Written by Samudra Gupta Kashyap | Guwahati |
Updated: November 30, 2015 3:49:09 am

Something very significant from the point of view of the economy happened to the Northeast on November 1. A cargo vehicle carrying a car and some goods made the first successful trial run from Kolkata to Agartala through Bangladesh, reviving a route shut since Independence, and cutting the travel distance by a thousand kilometres.

The trial run came four-and-a-half months after South Asian transport ministers signed the landmark Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal (BBIN) Motor Vehicles Agreement (MVA) for the Regulation of Passenger, Personnel and Cargo Vehicular Traffic among their countries.

The BBIN MVA, signed in Thimphu on June 15, is intended to promote safe, economical, efficient and environmentally sound road transport in the subregion, help the four countries create an institutional mechanism for regional integration, and promote mutually beneficial economic development.

The BBIN MVA is the second subregional initiative that will benefit the Northeast economically, the first being the Kolkata-Dhaka-Agartala bus service that was started in June. Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Sheikh Hasina had also flagged off a Dhaka-Shillong-Guwahati bus that month, which, however, is yet to begin regular operations.

bangalaA Kolkata-Dhaka bus has been running since June 1999, and an Agartala-Dhaka service since September 2003.

Before Partition, people used to travel from Guwahati to Kolkata via Lalmonirhat, the Bangladesh district adjacent to where the Brahmaputra crosses the border. While trains between Assam and Kolkata through Bangladesh (East Pakistan then) stopped in 1947, trains between West Bengal and East Pakistan continued to ply until the 1965 war. The Kolkata-Dhaka Maitree Express started in April 2008 — but neither this passenger train nor the freight trains that have been running between these cities for several years now, has benefitted the Northeast in any way.

But this is about to change. Nearly seven decades after Partition, trains are set to run from Kolkata to Agartala through Bangladesh. India is building a Rs 1,000 crore, 15 km railway line connecting Agartala with Akhaura in Bangladesh. The line — 5 km of which will be in India, the rest in Bangladesh — is expected to be completed by 2017, and cut the distance between Agartala and Kolkata to 499 km from the existing 1,590 km route via Badarpur, Lumding, Guwahati and New Jalpaiguri.

The Agartala-Akhaura rail link will also be part of the ambitious multination Trans-Asian Railway (TAR) project, of which both India and Bangladesh are members. The 350-km Manipur leg of the TAR, from Jiribam to Moreh on the Myanmar border via Imphal, is progressing despite numerous hurdles.

The Kolkata to Guwahati and Dibrugarh waterway via Dhaka, started in 1844 by the East India Company and shut after the 1965 war, has reopened a few years ago. Cargo vessels have been plying through Bangladesh under an Inland Water Transit and Trade Protocol signed by New Delhi and Dhaka, and heavy machinery and equipment for the Numaligarh refinery in Assam and the 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.

The Inland Water Transit and Trade Protocol between the countries allows transit of inland vessels of one country through specified routes of the other. There are four protocol routes — Kolkata-Pandu (Guwahati)-Kolkata, Kolkata-Karimganj-Kolkata, Rajshahi-Dhulian-Rajshahi and Pandu-Karimganj-Pandu — besides four designated ports of call in each country.

While the cargo movement trial this month was part of the BBIN protocol, the India-Bangladesh joint declaration of June 2015 promises more. These include an international Internet gateway in Agartala connecting Tripura to Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh’s far south through Akhaura, evacuation of power from the Northeast to Muzaffarnagar through Bangladesh, and a petroleum product pipeline from the Numaligarh refinery to Parbatipur in Bangladesh through Siliguri. The Northeast currently gets Internet connectivity through the Mumbai and Chennai international gateways, and the opening of Agartala is expected to bring stronger, faster connections to the region.

According to Ranjit Barthakur, chairman of FICCI’s North East Advisory Council, lack of connectivity is the biggest hurdle to the development of the Northeast. “While renewal of the Inland Water Transit & Trade Protocol and the MoU on the Chittagong port will go a long way in removing the region’s connectivity bottleneck, improving relations between the two countries should be leveraged to create seamless connectivity through Bangladesh by road, river and railways and undo some of the economic injustice that the Northeast suffered due to Partition,” he said.

R S Joshi, chairman of the Federation of Industries and Commerce of Northeastern Region (FINER), said, “Connectivity by road, rail, river, sea, transmission lines, petroleum pipelines and digital links will lead to tremendous economic activities and provide a real boost to cross-border trade between Bangladesh and Northeast India. It will usher in a never-before win-win situation for all, particularly the landlocked Northeastern region, which will help India connect further to Southeast Asia and even southwestern China.”

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