Bangladesh can be a game changer for northeast India

By Saleem Samad

Landlocked northeast Indian states do not have easy access to cost-effective seaports.

Imports and exports of northeast Indian states are very time-consuming, loaded with frustration, and most importantly, the high cost of transportation.

Politicians, business bodies and state governments of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim and Tripura underscores boosting connectivity, transit and trade with Bangladesh and through Bangladesh territory, which is expected to be a game changer for the northeast.

They have realised that connectivity with Bangladesh to access the ports is vital to economic growth and rapid industrialisation in the landlocked region.

Bangladesh ports to ease northeast trading

The connectivity projects have gained momentum after Bangladesh allowed the use of its Chattogram and Mongla ports and transit facilities to India’s northeastern states.

The road distance between Kolkata and northeastern states is more than 1,200 km, while Chattogram and Mongla ports are located at almost half the distance.

Recently, Tripura Chief Minister Manik Saha said Tripura will be the gateway to southeast countries by using Chattogram Port in Bangladesh, which will substantially reduce the time and costs associated with transporting goods to the northeastern states.

Bangladesh has already allowed India to use its Chattogram Port through South Tripura's Sabroom sub-division. The Maitri Setu (bridge) built on the Feni River has already been inaugurated for transportation and passengers through the bridge.

Once the bridge is operational, Tripura will have direct access to Chattogram Port and will widen new possibilities in business and trade.

Saha said, that not only South East Asian (SEA) nations, Tripura will have access to many countries by using Chattogram Port on the Bay of Bengal.

Saha also highlighted the Indo-Bangladesh railway project connecting Bangladesh's Gangasagar station with Agartala railway station.

Agartala-Kolkata train via Padma Bridge in 10 hours

Union Minister of State for Social Justice and Social Empowerment, Pratima Bhoumik, said the Indo-Bangladesh rail link will be a game changer once the connectivity is operational.

The 32-hour train journey from Agartala to Kolkata through Bangladesh will be completed in 10 hours. It will boost trade, business, investment, and people's movement in the northeastern state into the heart of India, she added

Dhaka-Delhi relation enhances connectivity

Dhaka and New Delhi have been closely cooperating in implementing numerous bilateral and sub-regional rail, road, and waterway initiatives.

In recent years, the two countries have launched several bus, train and air services, opened immigration checkposts and upgraded border infrastructure boosting bilateral ties and enhancing trade and connectivity.

In a significant development in November 2023, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her Indian counterpart Narendra Modi jointly inaugurated three New Delhi-assisted infrastructure development projects including the Agartala-Akhaura cross-border rail link and Khulna-Mongla rail line through video conferencing.

Earlier, External Affairs Minister Dr Subramanyam Jaishankar noted that five operational bus services, three cross-border passenger train services and two inland waterway routes are facilitating greater trade and people-to-people contacts, which are integral parts of India’s broader engagement with South Asian neighbours.

After the Indo-Pakistan 1965 war, six decades ago the river transportation began to connect Rajshahi to Murshdabad in February. A cargo vessel carrying two tonnes of cotton departed from Sultanganj port to Maya port in Murshidabad.

Similarly, the first cargo vessel sailed from Kolkata in the first week of August 2022 carrying 16 tons of iron pipes in a container via Mongla Port with destination Meghalaya using the Tamabil-Dawki border points and 8.5 tons of pre-foam in another container for Assam using the Bibir Bazar-Srimantapur border points.

Once the official protocols are completed, the passenger ships will soon connect Dhaka with Kolkata.

The four northeastern states, namely, Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura, and Mizoram share a 1,879 km-long border with Bangladesh and India has sought transit facilities through the neighbouring country for the transportation of goods to and from these states.

In August 2022, the Union Minister of Development of North Eastern Region (DoNER) G Kishan Reddy told the Lok Sabha (parliament) that enhancing comprehensive connectivity between India and Bangladesh through the northeast was crucial for strengthening bilateral ties and significant progress has been made in recent years.

During a parley between Hasina and DoNER Minister Reddy in September 2022, in New Delhi, the Bangladesh government proposed that the chief ministers of the seven northeastern states could visit Dhaka for a sharing meeting for enhancing cooperation in connectivity, trade and security.

Reports say the union government accepted the proposal in principle, and, work is underway to decide on a suitable time for the visit which will involve coordinating the schedules of seven chief ministers.

Unfortunately, the grand meeting of the Chief Ministers of northeastern states did not materialise for the coronavirus pandemic and national elections in Bangladesh.

Awami League's commitment

The ruling Awami League government of Sheikh Hasina is keen on engaging northeastern states to expand trade, connectivity, and people-to-people ties with Bangladesh.

The AL leaders have pointed out that Hasina decided on principle to grant transit facilities to India’s land-locked northeastern states in 2015, when her government was facing severe political instability in the country, and this demonstrated her firm conviction in forging friendly ties with India.

The AL leaders maintain that Prime Minister Hasina has taken a big political risk and steadily cemented Bangladesh’s ties with India.

In a major development in April 2023, Bangladesh’s National Board of Revenue (NBR) granted permission to transport goods from one Indian state to another using the country’s key ports under a bilateral agreement signed in October 2018.

The NBR issued the permanent standing order to use Chattogram and Mongla seaports for transit and transhipment to carry goods to and from India through Bangladesh’s territory following the completion of trial runs for the operationalization and regular movement of goods.

India has extended three Lines of Credit (LoCs) amounting to $7.35 billion over the last 12 years for the development of infrastructure in various sectors, according to Dr. Rupak Bhattacharjee, an independent public and foreign policy analyst.

Exploring riverine routes for trade

Bangladesh and India have plans to develop an Eastern Grid with 5,000 km of navigable waterways connecting neighbouring countries including Bangladesh.
Both countries believe that the development of this grid will accelerate development but will further deepen eastern India’s trade with Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, and Nepal (BBIN) Motor Vehicle Agreement (MVA) initiative.

With the seamless connection between National Waterway (NW)-1 (Ganges), NW-2 (Brahmaputra) and NW-16 (Barak), India is keen to create an economic corridor linking the northeast with the rest of India via Bangladesh.

During the September 2022 bilateral summit, the prime ministers of India and Bangladesh directed their respective officials to work together to address the issues of pollution in rivers and to improve the riverine environment and river navigability concerning common rivers.

Bangladesh has decided to dredge in the old Brahmaputra River for the restoration of its dry season flow, which will enable navigation through the Brahmaputra will vastly improve and reduce the 116 km distance in the Indo-Bangladesh Protocol Route.

Road connectivity with northeast

Dr Bhattacharjee writes, that the Bangladesh government has initiated 42 infrastructure development projects under Indian LoCs, of which 14 have been completed, and the remaining 28 projects are at various stages of implementation till February 2023.

The construction and timely maintenance of high-quality roads capable of taking ever-increasing loads of passengers and goods, the building of modern, user-friendly river ports for ensuring safe and easy navigation and the development of a multimodal logistics hub are key components of India’s overall framework of cooperation with Bangladesh on the connectivity front.

The ongoing four-lane project, which is expected to be operational by June 2026, will connect the Sylhet-Chattogram National Highway as well as the Ashuganj river port and Akhaura land port.

The approved routes include transportation to Dawki in Meghalaya via Tamabil in Sylhet, Sutarkandi in Assam via Sheola, and Srimantapur in Tripura via Bibir Bazar in Cumilla, as well as the reverse directions. Cargo originating from India and arriving at Chattogram and Mongla ports can be directed to Agartala, through Akhaura in Bangladesh will reach the northeastern states quickly.

Delays in fund disbursement

However, reports suggest that the Cumilla-Brahmanbaria road project is progressing slowly due to delays in loan disbursement.
Similarly, the Benapole-Jashore-Narail-Bhatipara-Bhanga road project is facing funding issues.

The Ashuganj-Sarail-Dharkar-Akhaura road project is also moving slowly due to a cash flow problem of the Indian contractor.

Both the Benapole-Bhanga and Ashuganj-Akhaura road projects have been taken up to improve cross-border connectivity between India and Bangladesh and need to be fast-tracked.

The delay in the execution of various projects has led to cost escalation. For example, the cost of the Ashuganj inland container river port project will increase by 10 to 15 per cent.

The Bangladesh government’s Economic Relations Division has noted that some slow-moving projects including the Bay Container Terminal Project at Chattogram Port (with a $400 million loan) and the Saidpur Airport Project have to be reviewed.

Air connectivity with northeast

India has greenlit four new air routes that connect the country's northeastern states with international destinations, including Dhaka and Chattogram, under a project for improving regional air connectivity called "Udan".

Officials of the Indian civil aviation ministry said fares on these routes – Guwahati-Bangkok, Guwahati-Dhaka, Imphal-Mandalay and Agartala-Chattogram – will be subsidised by the state governments of Assam, Manipur and Tripura to facilitate air travel.

Guwahati is all set to get its first international flight under the International Air Connectivity Scheme (IACS) Guwahati-Dhaka flight from 1st July. The northeastern passengers on their onward journey to the Gulf, South-East Asia and European destinations will have lesser layovers during transit in Dhaka and Chattogram.