Friendship (maitrayee) between India and Bangladesh has graduated to bonding (bandhan) with Thursday’s hi-tech inauguration of the Bandhan Express between Kolkata and Khulna. The video-link grandstanding with Narendra Modi, Sushma Swaraj, Begum Hasina, and Mamata Banerjee as the pre-eminent participants is bound to strengthen connectivity several years after the Kolkata-Dhaka Maitrayee Express was flagged off.
Seventy years after Independence, the trains are faintly reminiscent of the journey between the two Bengals… partly by rail from Sealdah station and partly by steamer in which passengers were feted with delectable chicken. That connectivity, indeed the hallmark of recent bilateral agreements, was further buttressed on the same day with the opening of two rail bridges over the Meghna and Titas, recalling the great film-maker, Ritwick Ghatak’s seminal film, Titas Ekti Nadir Naam.
Constructed with Indian assistance, the bridges across the two rivers will streamline communications and symbolise friendship, aside from facilitating the movement of passengers and goods between the port city of Chittagong and Dhaka. That said, the forward movement must be tempered with the fact that an agreement on Teesta remains ever so contentious. While the Meghna and Titas showcase rivers of friendship, the Teesta flows as a channel of discord. The striking feature of the new train service is the long-overdue streamlining of immigration formalities.
Instead of the tedious wait at Gede, a border town, for the passport and visa checks, the International Rail Passenger Terminus (IRPT) at Kolkata station and another in Benapole in Bangladesh will take care of trans-border compulsions. As a rule, immigration/transit papers are checked at the point of origin. This is without question a passenger-friendly initiative; no longer will a trainload of passengers, including women with babies in arms, have to disembark en route to get their papers verified… needlessly extending the journey time between Kolkata and Dhaka by at least three hours.
The IRPT in Kolkata envisages what they call “end-to-end immigration” and Customs checks. Also to be welcomed is Begum Hasina’s signal of intent ~ to restore all rail links that existed prior to the India-Pakistan war in 1965. Logistically, this ought to include the revival of the train connection to Barisal; its absence in the first half of the 20th century was one major reason for the district’s relative backwardness.
Mamata Banerjee had mooted the proposal during her stint as Railway minister; it urgently needs to be followed up by the present dispensations in Delhi and Dhaka. It is a measure of the popularity of the Maitrayee Express that its frequency has had to be increased every week to four days from two.
That demand for more train links has prompted the introduction of Bandhan Express, whose five-hour run needs to be extended from a weekly service.
The forward movement is profound; both countries have entered a new phase in bilateral ties.