Towards establishing transit/trade routes | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, January 02, 2008 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, January 02, 2008

Towards establishing transit/trade routes

The year 2008 is upon us: eight years after the new millennia and thirty six years since the independence of Bangladesh. It is time to get a move on. It is about time that Bangladesh started to go forward and make progress in some pivotal national socio-economic aspects so that we don't fall too far behind the progress made by our immediate neighbouring countries.
It is unanimous that Bangladesh has made poor progress when it comes to the development and sustenance of such aspects. Reasons are plenty, and to be honest, we (Bangladeshis) don't seem to have much luck.
Poverty, natural disasters, and lack of leadership and infrastructure have always halted the momentum of progress. But this article is not about how, when and where Bangladesh went wrong, but about what we can do now to get some things right in the near future.
I am referring to the issue of opening and reopening the various transit/corridor transportation links between Bangladesh and its neighbouring countries, especially India.
India, as well as its eastern neighbours Bhutan, China, Myanmar, Nepal and Bangladesh have a total population of more than 2.5 billion, and the pattern of economic development in these regions has showcased the dire need for improved regional cooperation (RIS Policy Briefs 2006; No. 29).
India shares overland borders with Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal and Bhutan, and sea routes with Sri Lanka, Maldives, Pakistan and Bangladesh (RIS Policy Briefs 2007; No. 30). Numerous studies show that the economies of these countries have the potential to significantly benefit from higher trade between them if the transport barriers were removed -- the European Union (EU) serves as the perfect example.
As such, it is obvious that geographically close countries should give higher priority for developing appropriate policies that facilitate overland trade and improve relevant infrastructures (RIS Policy Briefs; No. 29). Greater regional cooperation also means more income generating economic activities for the local people (RIS Policy Briefs 2006; No. 29).
Overland trade between India and Bangladesh can be made a lot easier by utilising the infrastructure that already exist, which date back to the time of the British Empire. Some of the rail links between these two countries, which were developed before 1965 but are not in commission today, are the East Bengal Express between Sealdah and Goalandu Ghat via Gede; the East Bengal mail between Sealdah and Parbatipur via Gede; and the Barisal Express between Sealdah and Khulna via Petrapole (Thapliyal, India Bangladesh Transportation Links; Vol. 12 No. 12).
Some road links which existed prior to the independence of Bangladesh include National Highway No. 35 which 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; and Bangladesh and India are also connected by a number of state highways passing through Murshidabad, Balur Ghat and Haldibari (Thapliyal, India Bangladesh Transportation Links; Vol. 12 No. 12).
The Research and Information System (RIS) studies show that Bangladesh can earn transit revenues of over $ 1 billion per annum once the overland transit between India and Bangladesh is granted; and even more if other corridors between these two countries are commissioned (Policy Briefs 2007; No. 30).
While discussing these aspects of transit arrangements, it also makes more sense if the focus moves from bilateralism to multilateralism.
Research shows that an Afghanistan-Pakistan-India-Bangladesh-Myanmar (APIBM) corridor can be most efficient and productive. If the border connections are re-established, an overland road link can go from Kabul to Yangon, via Lahore, Delhi, and Kolkata, making it possible to cover a distance of 5272km in about 12 days (RIS Policy Briefs 2007; No. 30).
The railways of India and Bangladesh can also be brought in under the Trans-Asian Railway (TAR) network, which comprises of the railways of Pakistan, India and Bangladesh: connecting Pakistan through Sibi, Rohri and Lahore junctions and passing through Amritsar, Delhi, Mughal Sarai and Calcutta in India, and extending to Bangladesh Railways via Goalnanda Ghat (Thapliyal, India - Bangladesh Transportation Links; Vol. 12 No. 12).
As stated by Thapliyal in her journal article, the rail link can be further extended from Bangladesh 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 Bangladesh Transportation Links; Vol. 12 No. 12).
The Jamuna Bridge is designed to be a part of the Trans-Asian Railway project, which will make it possible to reach Istanbul from Dhaka, and the transportation of goods will be faster and more cost effective (CPD 1999; Report No. 13).
In light of the above information, I would like to point out some practical suggestions stated originally in various transit/corridor policy briefs, which would help in taking the first steps towards transforming the South Asian corridor project into a reality.
A regional transport and transit agreement is required so that goods, vehicles and passengers can move uninterrupted across borders in South Asia -- seeking to emulate the success of Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) Cross-Border Transport Agreement (CBTA), which has been very successful since its implementation in 2003, permitting single window customs clearance at all border crossings in this region, thus saving time and money; the Land Custom Stations at the borders need to be upgraded and technologically modernised as these are very important for any cross border transportation of goods; harmonisation of customs procedures is also important -- proposing software based infrastructure e.g., computerisation and e-filling of administrative documents, connecting all custom points via a common network and usage of e-business; and finally, a South Asian Common Transport Policy would contribute greatly to the utilisation of existing utilities as well as expansion of new facilities in the region (RIS Policy Briefs 2007; No. 30).
The importance of an overland corridor route connecting numerous countries in and around South Asia via Bangladesh is important not only for competent trading, but also for benefiting these countries by facilitating the establishment of different investments and businesses.
Pakistan and Afghanistan could become hubs for India's trade with Iran, Middle East and Central Asia, and Bangladesh could become a hub for India's trade with Myanmar and other Southeast Asian countries.
The corridor route would not only bring steady revenues of transit fees, it would also help with the development of industries and enterprises in the border regions.
Most of what is discussed in this article is the subject matter for many different seminars and colloquiums taking place around Bangladesh -- each time new and better supportive statistics and arguments are brought forward.
Yet, the result of all this is a big zero, because the governments of both India and Bangladesh remain sceptical. Furthermore, cries of national security, national integrity, lack of regional cooperation, lack of desire for regional cooperation echoes around the conference halls.
I am, at no point, disagreeing with the fact that security is a big issue whenever the subject of border linkages is considered. I am simply suggesting that the pros outweigh the cons when it comes to the establishment of the South Asian corridor routes, especially when considering the need to revive the various transit routes connecting India and Bangladesh.
So, the sooner we resolve the relevant issues and start taking steps towards opening the India-Bangladesh transit routes, the better it will be for the economic development of both countries. It is the year 2008, we are falling behind, and time is running out.
Shams Bin Quader is Junior Lecturer, Media and Communication Department, Independent University.

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