A whimsical decision by former communications minister Col (retd) Oli Ahmed in choosing the entry\exit points for the proposed Asian Highway (AH) that would go through Bangladesh, has been delaying the country's inclusion in the network, said experts.
The former minister chose a mountainous route, instead of a short and more viable one for all, without offering any explanation. His decision neither reflected the interest of Bangladesh nor did it help the interest of any other member-country of the network, rather the decision seems just a result of the erstwhile government's bias against India, the experts added.
But former communications minister Oli Ahmed emphatically denied the allegation to The Daily Star over the phone last night, calling the accusers 'liars'.
According to official records, the routes proposed by Bangladesh under the leadership of Oli Ahmed and finalised by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UN-ESCAP), are AH1 that passes through Benapole-Jessore-Kanchpur-Dhaka-Sylhet and Tamabil, and AH2 passing through Banglabandha-Hatikamrul-Dhaka-Kanchpur-Sylhet and Tamabil. Both international sea ports -- Chittagong and Mongla -- are connected to AH1 and AH2 by AH41, so the ports may also serve the regional trade needs.
Bangladesh initially offered four entry/exit points for AH including two at the north-east corner of the country, when UN-ESCAP in 1993 asked member countries to indicate which roads of their national networks could become parts of the network.
One of the two entry\exit points in the north-east of the country was at Tamabil and the other was at Astagram, both of which are in Sylhet. The route through Astagram was much shorter for linking Tamu of Myanmar with the AH network through Imphal, the capital city of the Indian state of Manipur. Tamu is a border point between India and Myanmar, which the latter offered for AH connection.
But in 1995 the then communications minister Oli Ahmed scrapped the proposed route through Astagram, and retained only the route through Tamabil in the north-east.
"The Tamabil route is about 600 kilometres to Imphal from Sylhet. It was a suicidal decision for Bangladesh," said Dr M Rahmatullah, former director (transport) of UN-ESCAP.
"There was no reason for choosing this route, since the other route through Astagram could have been much shorter with a distance of only around 200 kilometres."
Showing maps and documents, the transport expert said the only route now chosen in the north-east, passes through a mountainous region across four Indian states, through which travel is time consuming and costly.
Sources said the Tamabil exit\entry point is neither suitable for India and Myanmar, nor for Bangladesh. When countries submitted their route proposals in response to UN-ESCAP request, India proposed a route through Karimganj of Assam into Bangladesh via Astagram.
An independent study of UN-ESCAP also found the Astagram route as the most suitable. "But the then Bangladesh authorities were unable to understand it," said Rahmatullah, now transport policy adviser for the Transport Sector Management Reform (TSMR) Programme of the Bangladesh Planning Commission.
He said the only reason for not choosing the more viable route through Astagram, was the then government's bias against anything proposed by India.
"I heard some communications ministry top policymakers saying: since India had offered the route, it must had some vested interest in it…..so, we couldn't go for it," he told The Daily Star last week.
The present route-related trouble of Bangladesh, where the country is wanting to change the proposed routes once again, but being vetoed by India, has been the outcome of the wrong decision taken in 1995, Rahmatullah said.
In 1998 the last Awami League government tried to revert the route proposal, and offered Astagram as the entry/exit point again, but failed to get India on board.
Later the successive BNP-led four-party alliance government offered a completely new route through Teknaf, but failed to get any attention from any member country.
Rahmatullah said Bangladesh could still resolve the route dispute by becoming a member of the network through signing the AH agreement, which it has been putting off for decades now.
For amending the proposed route, Bangladesh now must convince both India and Myanmar, he added.
Asian Highway, a proposed international network of 1,41,000 kilometres of standard highways criss-crossing Asian countries with links to Europe, was conceived in 1959 with an aim to promote regional cooperation among the main land countries of Asia.
Once Bangladesh becomes a part of this global network of roads, it will be connected with countries located both on the east and the west. The transnational highway will also open up enormous economic opportunities for Bangladesh.
Col (retd) Oli Ahmed vehemently denied that he had chosen Tamabil as the entry/exit point. "Rather it was Rahmatullah and some officials of the World Bank, who tried to push the route through that point, with a vested interest of keeping all entry-exit points only with India."
About the current proposed routes on the book, he said UN-ESCAP finalised those not any Bangladeshi government. "Asian Highway can never enter from and also exit to the same country. It must connect capitals of multiple countries," Oli asserted.
He said Bangladesh has always been trying for a route through Chittagong-Cox's Bazar to reach Gundum of Myanmar, which complies with all criteria for the network stipulated by UN-ESCAP. In November 1996, the then Awami League government also proposed the Chittagong-Cox's Bazar route in a meeting held in Japan, but that was not accepted, he added.