India-Bangladesh Transportation Links: A Move for Closer Cooperation

Sangeeta Thapliyal,Research Officer, IDSA

 

The Trade Review talks between India and Bangladesh held in September 1998 at Dhaka agreed to reopen the old Bongaon (India) and Jessore (Bangladesh) broad gauge railway line which had been lying closed since 1965. This is a welcome step towards fostering closer communication linkages between the two countries which would facilitate movement of goods and people. The opening of the route is an extension of the old linkages existing between the two countries which date back to the British rule.

Rail links existed between the two countries prior to September 6, 1965, when armed conflict between India and Pakistan broke out. Three trains ran between the two countries carrying goods and passengers:

(a) East Bengal Express between Sealdah and Goalandu Ghat via Gede;

(b) East Bengal mail between Sealdah and Partbatipur via Gede; and

(c) Barisal Express between Sealdah and Khulna via Petrapole.1

The customs check for the East Bengal Express and East Bengal Mail was done at Gede whereas the Barisal Express had its cutoms checking at Petrapole. Once cancelled, these trains were not restored even after the change in the regional political scenario with the liberation to Bangladesh in 1971.

The road links between India and Bangladesh existing prior to the independence of Bangladesh were also not resumed. There are three national highways connecting India with Bangladesh. National Highway No. 35 extends from Calcutta to Barisal and Bongaon in India to Dhaka. National Highway No. 35 connects Barisal to Petrapole and National Highway No. 40 connects Siliguri and Guwahati in India to Chittagong and Dhaka via Comilla in Bangladesh. A number of state highways passing through Murshidabad, Balur Ghat and Haldibari connect India with Bangladesh.2

The discontinuation of road and rail links increased the hardships of the passengers travelling between the two countries. There is no facility of booking passenger traffic by rail between India and Bangladesh. Normally passengers have to take trains till the border stations in their country, then they cross over the border and re-book themselves for their destinations. For example, passengers travelling on the Darsana (Bangladesh)-Gede (India) route have to take train till Darsana and then cross the border at Gede in India where they are checked for visa and customs at the check post.3 Hence, restoration of road and rail links would help in facilitating movement of goods and people.

Development of Communication Links Between India and Bangladesh

India and Bangladesh gave utmost importance to restoration of the transport linkages which had gone into disarray after the armed conflict between India and Pakistan in 1971. During the liberation war of Bangladesh, nearly 247 bridges and culverts were damaged. The Government of India commission the Army Engineers to restore the damaged bridges and repair the railway tracks. The Sappers were moved in to restore river communications and airfields at Jessore and Dhaka. The Indian Railways extended assistance in rehabilitating the railway system in Bangladesh, including the repairs of the Hardinge Bridge. The restoration work was essential to bring the socio-economic situation in Bangladesh back to normalcy and to facilitate the movement of refugees and goods from the Indian side of the border. Many in India perceived Bangladesh as an "economic bridge" between its north-eastern states and the rest of the country. Road construction in north-east India is expensive and difficult because of the rough terrain. It has been estimated that construction of new tracks would cost Rs. 2 crore per kilometre.4 Hence, it is but logical to get access to transit facilities for the north-eastern states of India via Bangladesh, be it road, rail links or inland waterways. The close cooperation between the Indian National Congress and the Awami League helped in commencing negotiations on starting road and rail links for expanding trade relations.

On March 28, 1972, India and Bangladesh signed a trade agreement for a period of one year. Article V of the Agreement provided for "mutually beneficial arrangements for the use of their waterways, railways and roadways for commerce between the two countries and for passage of goods between two places in one country through the territory of the other."5 On the occasion of the signing of the trade agreement, the Indian Foreign Trade Minister, Lalit Narayan Mishra, said that Bangladesh's "railways and its roads, can once again be used by India for the benefit of the Indian people on either side of Bangladesh. We, on our part, Excellency, would be only too happy to provide the necessary transit facilities to Nepal and our friends in Bangladesh."6 Political will existed between the two countries to utilise the economic complementaries through joint endeavours and developing communication linkages. In fact, the Government of Bangladesh had extended inland waterways facilities through its territory to the Indian steamers moving from Calcutta or Guwahati to Cachar district in Assam carrying essential supplies at the time of the disruption in the communication links because of the floods in the Brahmaputra and Barak Rivers.7

On November 1, 1972, a Protocol on Inland Water Transit and Trade was signed in accordance with Article V of the Trade agreement of 1972 for a term of five years. The routes identified by the protocol were:

(a) Calcutta-Raimongal-Khulna-Barisal-Chandpur-Goalundu-Ser- ajganj-Bahadurabad-Chilmari-Dhubri.

(b) Calcutta-Raimongal-Barisal-Chandpur-Narayanganj-Bairab Bazar-Ajmirganj-Markulir-Sherpur-Fenchuganj-Zakiganj-Ka rimganj.8

The protocol provided for a uniform documentation for vessels, arrangements for settlement, clearance and remittance, uniform toll charges of vessels, etc.

However, the close relaionship and understanding developed between the two countries did not continue. The government of Mujib-ur Rahman was alleged by the extreme left and right parties to be falling under the policy control of the Government of India. Hence, any talk on bilateral cooperation was viewed as unequal and against Bangladesh's interests. In fact, the Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation signed on November 19, 1972, pledged to "refrain from interfering in the internal affairs of the other side." However, the treaty itself did not remain untouched by criticism and was considered unequal. The assassination of President Mujib-ur-Rahman on August 15, 1975, brought changes in the foreign policy of Bangladesh. To counter any opposition to the regime at home, President Khondaker Moshtaq rallied behind anti-Mujib forces to garner support and tried to appease them by bringing changes in the policies. Subsequent governments were hesitant to provide transit facilities to India for its north-eastern states as it was considered a policy of appeasement towards India. The sharing of Ganges water at Farraka, the issue of border demarcation and the issue of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh to India were the major irritants which strained the relations between the two countries. Unless these issues were resolved, Bangladesh was not ready to pay any heed to restoration of transportation linkages. With the change of government in India and the coming of the Janata Party headed by Prime Minister Morarji Desai, relations between the two countries improved. The Janata government advocated a policy of good neighbourliness. A five-year agreement on Ganges water was signed between the two countries in November 1997 which provided 34,000 cusecs out of 55,000 cusecs of water during the leanest period from April 21 to May 30. Dialogue between the two countries on improvement of economic relations continued.

On October 4, 1980, a new Trade Agreement was signed between the Governments of India and Bangladesh. Article VIII of the agreement agreed "to make mutually beneficial arrangements for the use of their waterways, roadways and railways for commerce between the two countries and for passage of goods between two places in one country through the territory of the other." In pursuance of Article VIII of the Trade Agreement, a Protocol on Inland Water Transit and Trade was signed on November 8, 1983. It identified two more additional routes viz:

(a) Rajshahi-Godagari-Dhulian;

(b) Bhairab Bazar-Mitamain-Itna-Lalpur-Sunamganj-Chhata.9

The protocol was signed for a period of two years and was subsequently extended in 1984, 1987, 1989, 1991, 1994.

In November 1997, both the countries upgraded the existing trade and inland water transit protocol for another two years by adding four additional ports of call. The treaty enables India and Bangladesh to use their waterways for commerce between two places in one country through the territory of another. The new ports of call are Haldia and Pancopara in India and Khulna and Mongla in Bangladesh.10 In 1996, Bangladesh earned nearly Tk 48 million as revenue from the inland water facility. Between August 1995 and November 1996, nearly 49,000 tonnes of cargo was carried by the vessels for Bangladesh utilising the inland waterways, whereas India carried about 88,000 tonnes of cargo and boulders between the two countries.11 In April 1998, the Bangladesh Foreign Minister, Abdus Samad Azad, offered the services of Chittagong port to India to use it as a transit route to move its goods to and from its north-eastern states, especially Assam, Tripura and Meghalaya.

Development of infrastructural linkages is very important for improving economic ties between the two countries. Especially when nearly 70 to 80 per cent of India's total exports to Bangladesh is transported through the land routes, mainly from Petrapole, Hilli and Changrabanda. In 1994-95, the total freight exports crossed over from Petrapole was worth Rs. 1,360 crore. However, lack of infrastructural facilities leads to many major hurdles in the transportation links. Exporters face problems in getting clearance from the check posts and complain of paying heavy detention charges to truckers. Thousands of trucks get stranded for days at the border posts, inflicting heavy damages to the perishable commodities which in turn escalates the costs of the goods. There are no proper warehousing facilities on both sides of the border providing relief to the stranded trucks carrying freight.12 There are also no parking spaces for the trucks operating on the Calcutta-Petrapole route. The narrow road of seven metres width requires repair and widening for the proper movement of traffic. Unless the infrastructural improvements are taken care of, the existing transit links would not be of much help.

Talks are going on between the two countries to establish land routes at Haldibari-Chhilahati; Ghojadanga-Burimari; Barsora-Cheragaon; New Jalpaiguri-Tentulia; Jaldabazar-Betuli-Fultala.13 Starting of a bus service between Calcutta and Dhaka is also on the envil.

On September 20, 1990, India and Bangladesh signed a working agreement for reopening the broad gauge rail route between Singhbad in India and Rohanpur in Bangladesh for facilitating the movement of goods traffic which started from October 1, 1990. The agreed route was an alternative to relieve traffic congestion from the existing Gede-Darsana route.14 Cooperation on the rail link will reduce the trade congestion in the already congested track. Bangladesh Railways have spare line capacity to move in more traffic even after meeting the domestic requirements whereas India has more traffic to move on the tracks than the existing routes can accommodate. Hence, India has agreed to provide modern facilities for training in railways operations to the personnel of Bangladesh Railways. India has also taken steps to improve the facilities at Petrapole Land Customs Station such as restoration of the rail link between Bongaon and Petrapole, construction of a railway siding and warehouses at Petrapole, construction of a four lane bypass at Haridaspur International Checkpost and the development of a truck terminal at Bongaon. The present decision by both the countries to reopen the Bongaon-Jessore route would not only link the railways of the two countries but would open a corridor to boost the economy of the north-eastern states of India. For this, a 10-km line has to be laid between Akhaura and Agartala.

The present Government of Bangladesh under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has agreed to restore the transport facilities despite protests from the Opposition parties. The Opposition parties like the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and Jamaat-e-Islami allege that granting transit facilities to India for its north-eastern states through Bangladesh territory would amount to compromising the country's national interest as the Indian government can misuse the corridor by sending troops and weapons to its north-eastern states, thereby threatening Bangladesh's security.15 By decrying an agreement as compromising a nation's sovereignty, the Opposition leaders can gain public sympathy through narrowly defined nationalism and in turn can undermine the validity of the government at home. The Oppositional politics, though an essential element for democracy to survive, can be detrimental to the development of the national interest if it is narrowed down to serving the elite interest. It is alleged that in 1993, Prime Minister Khaleda Zia was apprised in the Joint Economic Commission meeting in Dhaka about the need to open transit facilities through Bangladesh territory for India to access its north-eastern states. However, Bangladesh made its acceptance conditional on resolution of the Farraka issue.16 Though the Farakka issue has been resolved by signing the treaty on sharing the Ganges waters at Farraka, the trend of Oppositional politics is still to criticise India for the ills of the country. It not only strains relations between the two countries but also hampers the progress of the projects on economic development. The Awami League government has been criticised by the Opposition parties for adopting a soft stance towards India since it came to power in 1996. In fact, to assert the government's independent stance, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said that her government would ensure that the Asian Highway and Railway must cover Bangladesh. She said, "We will not allow Bangladesh to be deprived of the world's road and rail communications link thereby depriving it of economic benefits."17

Moving Forward From Bilateralism: Sub-Regionalism or Multilateralism

Once communication linkages have been established between India and Bangladesh, they can be further extended to the countries that are within or outside the region. Article XII of the South Asian Preferential Trade Arrangement (SAPTA) signed in 1993, provides for "developing and improving communication system, transport infrastructure and transit facilities for accelerating the growth of trade within the region." The Technical Committee on Transport and Communications of SAARC has been looking into this issue. In December 1996, Nepal had presented an approach paper in the SAARC Council of Ministers meeting on the feasibility of sub-regional cooperation among Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and India in the form of growth polygons. The region not only shares the geographical features of mountains, jungles and rivers and landlockedness in the case of Nepal and Bhutan but also the ecological hazards emanating from floods along with economic backwardness and poverty.

In the Colombo Summit (1998), the SAARC members encouraged the development of specific projects relevant to the individual needs of three or more member states under the provisions of Articles VII and X of the Charter. Article VII of the Charter states, "The Standing Committee may set up Action Committees comprising member states concerned with implementation of projects involving more than two but not all member states." Hence, individual projects concerning inland waterways or road or rail links can be taken up for improving the communication linkages in the region. There are immense possibilities for improving the transportation facilities in specific areas like inland waterways and coastal shipping, rail and roadways, and in developing infrastructural facilities like containerisation, multi-modal transport, establishment of inland container depots and container freight stations.18 This would also help the communication linkages to take a multilateral character from the bilateral level and would give a psychological safeguard to the smaller countries from a dominant neighbour who would be forced to act within a regional framework.

Nepal and Bhutan are landlocked countries in South Asia that can benefit from the port facilities in India and Bangladesh for expanding their trade with the outside world. India is the main transit country for both the landlocked countries with which there are treaty arrangements providing transit facilities to people and goods.

The Treaty of Transit signed in 1991 provides Nepal with 22 transit points for India of which nearly 90 per cent of the goods is transported through Raxaul. National Highway No. 23 is linked to Piprakothi which is further linked to the National Highway No. 28 with Raxaul. Nepal is also connected with India through state highways. Rail links with India also extend towards Nepal at Raxaul in India. Other stations on the north-east frontier railway for interchange of Nepal's transit traffic are Jogbani, Golgolia and Naxalbari.19 From these road and rail links, goods are brought in till India's border from where they are transported to Nepal by road. However, Nepal's major exports to the outside world are through the Calcutta port which is already over-burdened and unable to carry out the handling and clearing of Nepalese goods efficiently.20 The distance between Kathmandu and Calcutta port is around 900 km and this makes the transit costs and overhead charges higher for the goods. Hence, on Nepal's demand for additional ports, India provided sea port facilities at Bombay and Kandla in April 1994. India provided a transit route at Radhikapur for Nepal to utilise seaport facilities at Bangladesh in 1978. In September 1997, another route was made available to Nepal at Phulbari which is nearly 50 km from Nepal and is the shortest route to reach Bangladesh.21 It is estimated that nearly 20 per cent of Nepal's imports and exports from Calcutta and Haldia ports would be diverted to Mongla port.22 This would reduce Nepal's dependence on India for seaborne trade and would facilitate more cooperation between Nepal and Bangladesh.

India and Bhutan are connected with each other through National Highway No. 31 at Chalsa in West Bengal which extends till Jhalung on the Indian border from where there are roads connecting to Thimpu. Indian Railways has provided terminal points at Hasimara and Falkata. Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh and India are located in the Ganga, Brahmaputra-Meghna basin which can be developed for facilitating freight movement through waterways. The rivers are integrative and if harnessed for inland waterways, transportation could be developed which would also be cost effective. The Ganga, Brahmaputra and Meghna waterways can be integrated with the sea ports in India and Bangladesh. Nepal can transport its cargo from Calcutta or Haldia port to Patna through river transport from where goods can be transported by road to Nepal.23 Hence, inter-modal transport links are required for the overall development of the transport facilities between India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan. Inter-modal transport requires overall development in all the modes of transport. Movement of goods through containerisation is an essential requirement of inter-modal transportation which takes freight from one destination point to the other point without being opened during the journey. This reduces the risk of damage to the goods or pilferage.24 Hence, India and Bangladesh would benefit immensely if communication linkages could be established with Nepal and Bhutan.

Another option is to link the entire transport and communication plan under the grand Asian Highway which would give a cushioning effect to the criticisms faced by India on any project which comes under the vagaries of the domestic political compulsions of the neighbouring country, in this case Bangladesh. Two priority routes have been identified in the Asian Highway touching upon South Asia. One is a 10,784-km stretch starting from Bazarjam (on the Iran-Turkey border) and crossing Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam and ending at Saigon. The missing links are in Myanmar and Bangladesh where six major bridges have to be constructed. The second priority route of the Asian Highway, passes through Iran, Pakistan, India and meets Nepal at Banbasa from where it re-enters India at Siliguri and further reaches Imphal via Bangladesh and then extends to Myanmar.25

The railways of India and Bangladesh can also be brought in under the Trans-Asian Railway which consists of the railway systems of Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. The link connects Pakistan through Sibi, Rohri and Lahore Junctions and passes through Amritsar, Delhi, Mughal Sarai and Calcutta in India and extending to Bangladesh Railways via Goalnanda Ghat from where ten hours steamer journey has to be taken to reach Narayanganj from where the route extends to Dhaka, Akhura, Chittagong and Dohazari through a metre gauge line.26 From Bangladesh, the rail link can be further extended till Myanmar, which could provide access to the open market in South-East Asia as the road link is available via Guwahati or Nagoan or Silchar to Imphal (India) to Tamu or Mandalay (Myanmar) from where there are road links to Thailand or to China and Laos. India has requested Myanmar for granting access through its territory to the Kaladan river to reache Akyab port in the Bay of Bengal. Though the river begins 50 km away from Aizwal, it covers a long stretch of nearly 150 km in Myanmar before falling into the Bay of Bengal at Akyab port. If the proposal is accepted by Myanmar, India would be able to transport goods by river from Calcutta to Mizoram from where they can be further carried to other places through roadways.27 Hence, development of communication linkages and infrastructure for transportation facilities is essential for the increasing trade between India and the region. The basic idea behind extending transport linkages to the regional or multilateral level is not to substitute the bilateral relations but to adopt an additional measure of cooperation essential for achieving the long-term goal of regional inter-dependence in trade and transportation facilities.

India is the only country in the region which shares land borders with its four neighbouring countries, namely, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal and Bhutan and sea routes with Sri Lanka, Maldives, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Road and rail links between the regional countries have to pass through the Indian territory. For example, the trade between Bangladesh and Pakistan is done through ships from Karachi harbour to Chittagong/Mongla port via the Indian Ocean. This is expensive and time consuming as compared to the land bridge provided by the road and rail links. The goods can be brought from Pakistan to Bombay port from where they can be transported to Calcutta/Haldia via railways and then shipped to Chittagong/Mongla port. Bombay port mainly handles India's imports whereas Calcutta and Haldia ports manage mainly exports. This leads to empty containers in Bombay which have to be repositioned in Calcutta through the railways. The services of Indian Railways can be utilised by Pakistan and Bangladesh for their trade which would result in speedy, efficient and economical transport.28

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee has announced construction of two cross-country highways with six lanes and a length of 7,000 km linking Kashmir in the north to Kanyakumari in the south and Silchar in the east to Saurashtra in the west.29 Development of infrastructure is an essential variable for facilitating the economic growth of a country. But development of infrastructure within the country should be commensurate with the overall development of transportation links in the region which would be in tune with the objective of regional cooperation in trade and economy as has been envisaged by the SAARC Charter. Also development confined within India can create other socio-economic problems within the region in terms of movement of population from neighbouring countries to India, etc. Thus, India has a major responsibility in giving an impetus to the development of transportation and transit facilities in the region.

 

NOTES

1. Studies on Cooperation for Development in South Asia: Transport Linkages: A Regional Synthesis (New Delhi: Indian Council of World Affairs, December 1983) p. 28.

2. Ibid., pp. 10-11.

3. Ibid., p. 21.

4. See B.G. Verghese, Ramaswamy R. Iyer, eds., Harnessing the Eastern Himalayan Rivers: Regional Cooperation in South Asia (New Delhi: Konark Publishers, 1993), p. 146.

5. Refer to the text of the Trade Agreement between the Government of India and the Government of Bangladesh signed in New Delhi on March 28, 1972, in Avtar Singh Bhasin, ed., India-Bangladesh Relations 1971-1994, vol. II (Delhi: Siba Exim Pvt. Ltd., 1996), p. 1209.

6. Refer to the speech of Indian Foreign Trade Minister Lalit Narayan Mishra on the occasion of the signing of the Trade Agreement between India and Bangladesh in New Delhi, March 28, 1972, in Ibid., p. 1206.

7. Press note issued by the Government of India declaring that essential supplies to Cachar district will be allowed through Bangladesh waterways, New Delhi, July 1, 1972, in Ibid., p. 1223.

8. Refer to the text of the Protocol on Inland Water Transit and Trade, Dhaka, November 1, 1972, in Ibid., p. 1233.

9. Ibid.

10. See The Telegraph, November 13, 1997.

11. POT(B), January 29, 1996.

12. See I.N. Mukherjee, "India's Trade and Investment Linkages with Pakistan" in Economic Integration and Economic Cooperation: India and South Asia in the 21st Century (New Delhi, 1998) pp. 52-53.

13. See Minutes of the fifth meeting of India-Bangladesh Joint Economic Commission held in New Delhi from March 10-12, 1997.

14. Press note issued by the Government of India on the signing of a working agreement for opening the broad gauge rail route for goods traffic between Singhbad in India and Rohanpur in Bangladesh signed in New Delhi on September 24, 1990, refer n. 5, p. 1403.

15. The Telegraph, October 16, 1996.

16. Muchkund Dubey, "Indo-Bangladesh Relations" in S.R. Chakaravarty ed., Foreign Policy of Bangladesh (New Delhi: Har-Anand Publication, 1994), p. 106.

17. The Tribune, October 13, 1996.

18. SAARC Meeting of the Group of Experts for the Tripartite Study on Issues of Economic Cooperation, New Delhi, June 6-7, 1996, p. 7.

19. Refer n. 1, p. 29.

20. The Economic Times, November 29, 1996.

21. Rising Nepal, September 2, 1997.

22. Rising Nepal, September 12, 1997.

23. Refer Verghese, n. 4, p. 69.

24. Refer Verghese, Iyer, eds., n. 3, p. 154.

25. Refer n. 1, p. 17. Also refer Asian Age, May 18, 1998; Mary Burdman, "A Year of Progress for the Silk Road," Executive Intelligence Review, vol. 24, no. 1, January 1, 1997.

26. Refer n. 1, p. 36.

27. Prasun Sonuwalkar "River Route May End N-E's Woes," Business Standard, May 11, 1998.

28. Refer n. 1, p. 98.

29. The Observer of Business and Politics, December 22, 1998.