India-Bangldesh connectivity is one-sided and not ‘regional’

Shafiq Rahman, October 10, 2019

India has clearly mapped out its road, river and railway routes over Bangladesh territory. It even has proposed expansion of the air routes which will entail constructing an airport in Bangladesh for a direct air link to its northeastern destinations of Guwahati, Silchar, Agartala, Tejpur, Dimapur and Aizawl.

But questions remain as to how “regional” this connectivity is.

Nepal is still cut off by India’s ‘chicken neck’ and Bangladesh’s Bhutan-bound trucks are stopped at Assam. So, in concrete terms, all this interconnectivity is for India and India alone, it seems.

The Bangladesh government is implementing two projects: the South Asian Sub-Regional Economic Cooperation Road Connectivity Phase-1 and South Asian Sub-Regional Economic Cooperation Road Connectivity Phase-2. Drafts are underway for the third and fourth phases of the project.

Under Phase-1, 74 km of road from Jaydevpur in Gazipur up till Elenga in Tangail will be made six-lane. Under Phase 2, 190.4 km of road from Elenga via Sirajganj’sHatirumrul-Bogura up till Modern Mor (intersection) in Rangpur will be made six-lane too.

Under the proposed Phase 3, the road from Modern Mor in Rangpur up to the Burimari land port in Lalmonirhat will be upgraded to six lanes. This will lead up to Chengtabandain India’s West Bengal.

Under Phase 4, the road from Modern Mor to Panchagarh’sBanglabanda land port will also be made six-lane. This will connect with India at the Fulbari border of Jalpaiguri.

Implementation of the project has begun and will end in 2021. Project expenditure has been estimated at Tk 118,990.12 million, of which the Asian Development Bank is providing Tk 93,549.64 million as project assistance. The Bangladesh government is providing the remaining Tk 25,440.48 million.

The government’s Roads and Highways Division (RHD) is also implementing the Cross Border Road Network Improvement Project. Under this project, 600km of 8 highways will be developed. This has been named the CrossBorder Road Network Improvement Project because the 8 roads of Sharshaand Jhikargachha in Jessore district;Narail district’s Sadar and Lohagara, Chattogram’sMirserai, Fatikachhari, Patia and Chandanaish, and Chakoria in Cox’s Bazar; all lead up and connect to India.

Back in 2005, the process to connect Bangladesh to the Asian Highway along the route of Yangon in Myanmar via Teknaf-Dhaka-Benapole up till India had begun. However, afterAwami League came to power, the route was changed in keeping with India’s transit plans.

The changed route was via Yangon-Tamu to Imphal in India. Then it would go through India, reach Tamabil and enter Bangladesh. From there it would go via Dhaka to Benapole and enter India once again. Another branch of this changed Asian Highway route is through Banglabandha to India, which will then go up to Nepal and Bhutan.

The government has chosen to implement, albeit in an undeclared mannerthis route. But it has been criticised as a circuitous one.

Work on upgrading the Sylhet-Tamabil highway to a six-lane one has begun. This road will go fromNarsingdi’sKanchpur via Sherpur in Sylhet, to Tamabil and then connect with India at Meghalaya. The project expenditure is estimated to be Tk 3885 crore 72 lac.

Survey has begun on joining the Sylhet-Charkhai-Shewla highway with the Asian Highway. The highway will come from India’s Suratkandi land port though Shewla in Sylhet’s Bianibazar, via Chakhai-Gopalganj-Chandipul up till Kanchpur in Narsingdi covering 280 km.

A land port is also being set up at Shewla in Bianibazar. The port will be 50 km from Sylhet and 14 km from Bianibazar upazilasadar. Land port authority chairman Tapan Kumar Chakraborty said that construction will be complete by 2021 at a cost of Tk 122 crore.

An initial survey has been taken up on the Benapol-Bhanga road under the Asian Highway project. It will be made a six-lane highway going from the Padma Bridge link road to Benapol and on to India.

The Bangladesh India Friendship Bridge-1 is being constructed across river Feni along the border of Mahamuni in Ramgarh and Anandapara in India’s state of Tripura. The Chittagong sea port is just 72 km way from the site, offering direct export and import facilities for India’s seven landlocked northeastern states.

On October 5, 2019, seven agreements and MOUs were signed between Delhi and Dhaka. A StandardOperating System (SOP) agreement has been signed for goods from and to India to be transported though the Chattogram and Mongla ports. So Tripura will be the first northeastern Indian state to have direct international trade.

Previously Ashuganj had been used as the transshipment point for the Akhaura-Agartala route. Using the Ashuganj-Akhaura route from Kolkata to Agartala meant a 350 km journey. Prior to that, it was a 1650 km trip from Kolkata to Agartala, Tripura, via Guwahati in Assam. But now India will be able to use the Chittagong sea port to travel 72 km to the Ramgarh border in Bangladesh and then another 133 km through Subrum-Udaipur on the other side uptilAgartala.

Financed by the Indian government, there will be a road via Nabinpur-Thakurpalli to the Subrum-Agartala national highway. On the Bangladesh side, a four-lane 38 km approach road will stretch from Ramgarh-Baroiyarhat to the Dhaka-Chattogram highway. This is being financed by the World Bank and implemented by JICA. A land port is being constructed at Ramgarh. It will be complete by 2021 at a cost of Tk 120 crore.

There are plans to set up land ports at Bakhshiganj in Jamalpur, Halwaghat in Mymensingh, Balla in Chunarughat of Habiganj, and in Feni’s Belunia.

River links

The last shipping protocol on inland water transit and trade (river protocol) signed between Bangladesh and India includes three routes over Bangladesh territory. India can transport cargo from Kolkata-Haldia-Raimangal via Bangladesh’s Chalna-Khulna-Mongla-Barisal-Narayanganj-Aricha-Sirajganj-Bahadurabad-Chilmari to Dhubri Pandu in Assam in India.

The second route is from Kolkata-Haldia-Raimangal to Bangladesh’s Chalna-Khulna-Mongla-Kaukhali-Barisal-Narayanganj-Ashuganj-Ajmeeriganj, Markuli-Sherpur-Fenchuganj-Zakiganj to Karimganj in India’s Meghalaya. Another route will be from Dhulian in India to Rajshahi-Godagari in Bangladesh.

In the meantime a project has been taken up to keep the route of Kolkata-Haldia-Raimangal to Bangladesh’s Chalna-Khulna-Mongla-Kaukhali-Barisal-Narayanganj-Ashuganj-Ajmeeriganj, Markuli-Sherpur-Fenchuganj-Zakiganj to Karimganj active at the Kanai Kushiara river route, particularly 295 km from Ashuganj to Zakiganj. Dredging began in March this year under the project being implemented with joint investment of Bangladesh and India.

Chief Engineer of Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority (BIWTA) Abdul Matin has said that in the first two years, 15 lac cubic meters will be dredged and in the next five year, 4.5 lac cubic meters will be dredged to keep up the river’s navigability.  The project cost is an estimated Tk 95, 49,37,000, and 80 percent of this  will be borne by India, 20 percent by Bangladesh.

Dredging is being taken up of the Jamuna river route, particularly 178 km from Sirajganj to Dhubri, of the Kolkata-Haldia-Raimangal via Bangladesh’s Chalna-Khulna-Mongla-Kaukhali-Barisal-Narayanganj-Aricha-Sirajganj-Bahadurabad-Chilmari-Dhubri Pandu route. In the first two years, 36 lac cubic meters will be dredged and 10 lac 80,000 cubic metres ever year for in the next five years.

This project cost is estimated to be Tk 227 crore 46 lac 44,500. India will finance 80 percent and Bangladesh 20.

A dredging project has also been taken up for the river Padma along the Dhulian-Godagari-Rajshahi route, particularly the 90km from Dhulian to Rajshahi.

The joint technical committee has also recommended dredging of the rivers Gumti and Haroa in Tripura and Bangladesh.

At the meeting, Dhaka and Delhi signed several agreements including for the use of Chattogram and Mongla ports to provide India transit to its northeastern states, tourist cruises through Bangladesh and a new ‘port of call’ between the two countries. It was agreed that India’s Dhubri and Bangladesh Pangaon would be used as new ports.

The two countries also agreed to include Gaonkahli on India’s Rupnayaranriver to Kolaghat in the protocol route and to declare West Bengal’s Kolaghat and Bangladesh’s Chilmari as ports of call. It was also decided to set up ports in Badarpur on Borakriver in Assam and in Bangladesh’s Ghorasal near Ashuganj.

Railway transit

India wants railway transit through Bangladesh. It has proposed a container transport agreement, ‘Memorandum of Understanding between Container Company of Bangladesh Ltd (CCBL) and Container Corporation of India Ltd (CONCOR) to Promote and Expand Cooperation between India and Bangladesh in the field of Container Transportation for Mutual Benefit of Both Countries. ’

There are eight railway route interchanges between Bangladesh and India. These are Benapol-Petrapol, Darsana-Gede, Rahanpur-Singabad, Biral-Radhikapur, Kulaura-Mahishasan, Chilahati-Haldibati, Butimati-Changrabanda and Moghalhat-Gitaldaha.

Inter-country passenger trains are presently running on the Benapol-Petrapol, Darsana-Gede, Rahanpur-Singabad routes. Trains will use the Biral-Radhikapur route when it is upgraded to broad gage.

Of the remaining four, renovations are underway on the Kulaura-Mahishasan route. Discussions are on to revive the Chilahati-Haldibari route.

Maitri, Bandhan and Souhardabus service

Direct Soharda bus service between Dhaka and Kolkata began in 1999, run by Bangladesh’s BRTC and India’s WBTC. In 2015 this was joined by the Dhaka-Shillong-Guwahati-Dhaka and the Kolkata-Dhaka-Agartala bus service. In 2017 the Dhaka-Khulna-Kolkata-Dhaka route bus service started.

The Dhaka-Kolkata passenger trains service, “Maitri” began in 2008. In 2017 the Khulna-Kolkata train route, Bandhan Express was added. On 29 March this year, on a trial basis, the Dhaka-Kolkata-Dhaka river route started for passenger vessels.

The prime ministers and other ministers of both the countries have been very vocal about increasing and expanding connectivity between the two countries. There has even been a proposal for direct flights to start between Dhaka and Agartala.

India certainly stands to benefit, but Bangladesh is yet to make a tangible assessment of its gains. print

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