The latest high profile India-Bangladesh connectivity initiatives underscore the imperative for India to implement projects speedily and efficiently, to help alter its image of a laggard. The Prime Ministers of India and Bangladesh, Narendra Modi and Sheikh Hasina reiterated their resolve to further enhance vital connectivity links towards strengthening bilateral cooperation while inaugurating the other day via video conference some major projects, including the construction of a 15 km rail line between Agartala and Akhaura (Bangladesh); rehabilitation of the 45 km Kulaura-Shahbazpur section of Bangladesh railways; and 500 MW additional power supply from India through the existing Bheramara (Bangladesh)- Beharampur (India) interconnection.
It is essential that the projects materialise in terms of region-wide integrated value chains. The theme of “connectivity” has assumed a new paradigm of importance. Economic growth rides on transport. Recall how PM Modi at the 18th SAARC summit in Kathmandu defined its vital role: “Our relations become stronger when we connect the lives of the ordinary citizens of our countries. That is why connectivity and services by rail and road are so important “. His allusion to Sheikh Hasina’s vision of restoring connectivity between India and Bangladesh in the way it was prior to 1965 deserves to be the very bedrock of bilateral thrust in this regard.
After 1947, India’s northeast wedged up against the border with China, suffering the pangs of isolation from the mainland: the distance between Agartala to Kolkata increased from 350 km to 1,645 km. Assam tea now travels 1,400 km from Guwahati to Kolkata port for export; it would traverse 60 per cent less distance if it could move instead to Chittagong port. Akhaura, earlier a rail-head for Agartala, served as a major link between Tripura and Chittagong port. The river routes from Kolkata to India’s North-east states via the then East Pakistan were the mainstay of profits both of Calcutta and East Pakistan’s river transport companies.
So was the cross rail traffic a major source of revenue for the East Pakistan Railway. These communication links were disrupted following the Indo-Pak 1965 conflict; Pakistan withdrew transit rights to India. The Chilahati (Bangladesh)-Haldibari (India) rail link formed a part of the main rail route from Kolkata to Siliguri in undivided India. Reopening the link will benefit interchange of traffic; the track on both sides is broad gauge (1,676 mm). Indian and Bangladesh railways can be conjoined at Akhaura-Agartala by adding a mere 15 km of rail track.
The rail network of the South Asian region, prior to Partition, constituted an organic system. Existence of old road, rail and water linkages, if only reconnected and refurbished, would entail minimal investment, and result in maximum gains, in the shortest time-frame. The simplest option is to revive pre-Partition rail links or create new ones, e.g., Karimganj-Sylhet; Agartala-Akhaura-Chittagong; Malda-Sirajganj-Jamuna Bridge- Karimganj. The broad gauge rail route linking Raxaul with Khulna, if extended to Mongla, just about 35 km away, will also provide valuable through rail connectivity for Nepal and Bhutan to Mongla gateway in Bangladesh.
Dhaka is connected with Kolkata by road and train service and to Agartala by bus service. Against the Maitree Express that now operates between Kolkata and Dhaka and the Bandhan Express between Kolkata and Khulna, prior to 6 September 1965, three main passenger trains ran between India and Bangladesh: (i) East Bengal Express between Sealdah and Goalandu Ghat via Gede, (ii) East Bengal Mail between Sealdah and Parbatipur, again, via Gede, and (iii) Barisal Express between Sealdah and Khulna via Petrapole.
Bangladesh’s main prospect lies in resuming its historic role as the natural hinterland to India’s North-east and a new geo-strategic role as the crossroads of Asia linking East Asia and South Asia. With its unique geography, twice the size of Germany in population, the world’s 7th most populous country, Bangladesh can well be the gateway, connecting the entire subcontinent to South-east Asia and, surely, a bridge between India and South-east Asia.
India-Bangladesh relations essentially hinge on West Bengal for the Indian side. About 75-80 per cent of India’s exports to Bangladesh take place through the land border routes, mainly Benapole- Petrapole, Hilli and Changrabandha. What indeed is of crucial significance is to instil confidence among the entrepreneurs in both countries by simplifying and harmonising customs nomenclatures and other procedures, quality controls and standards, augmenting banking infrastructure, streamlining visa regime, developing a common EDI platform.
The pathetic state of roads and bottlenecks on the Indian side up to the Petrapole- Benapole border, for example, have persisted for years, leading to very long transit time, cost and harassment for trucks, the 80 km journey taking up to as many as ten days, including the enforced detention en route at Bongaon.
After settling the long-pending land and maritime boundary imbroglio, the two countries have steadily been intensifying their cooperation in economic, social, and strategic sectors. PM Modi on a visit to Dhaka in 2015 said, “We are not just neighbours. We are two nations bound by the threads of history, religion, culture, language and kinship…”. Sheikh Hasina too has been unwavering in her support even for India’s security concerns; Bangladesh under her oversight has been relentless in the crackdown on ULFA and other Northeastern insurgents, in curbing Pakistan’s notorious ISI extremist elements fomenting terror or promoting fake currency. She has effectively addressed several of India’s connectivity requests, involving transit facilities through road, rail, and waterways.
An inevitable impression the country seems to be leaving is of remaining content with the label of a laggard ~ slow and tardy, unambitious and niggardly. The whole machine here moves in a slovenly manner. It is often perceived to be dragging its feet on even the projects of immense importance for providing a life-line of connectivity to its vital North-east with the mainland via Bangladesh. Despite securing a go-ahead from the neighbour during Sheikh Hasina’s state visit to India in January 2010, the missing rail link between Agartala on the Indian side and Akhaura railhead in Bangladesh, a mere 15 km stretch, is nowhere to be seen.
Eight long years have passed by. No less than six years elapsed just for the foundation stone that was laid at Agartala on 31 July 2016 by railway ministers of the two countries, Suresh Prabhu and Mohammed Mazibul Haque. Contrast it with what the no-nonsense governance apparatus could achieve, even with no hi-tech tools and equipment then available.
The 143-mile (c. 225 km) Assam Link traversing impenetrable forests, rugged terrain with some 380 water channels of varying magnitude, including the swollen rivers, involving the construction of over a hundred bridges and bunds, was completed in less than two years ( January 1948 to December 1949) ~ all at a cost of Rs 9.3 crore!
The writer is Senior Fellow, Asian Institute of Transport Development, and former CMD, Container Corporation of India.