Report On Transit
Bangladesh lies astride the Indian mainland and its North Eastern Region (NER) comprising seven relatively small Indian states. Prior to the partition of India in 1947, the trade and commerce of the NER with the rest of India and the outside world used to pass through the territories of what is now Bangladesh. Rail and river transit across the erstwhile East Pakistan continued till 1965 when, as a consequence of the Indo-Pak war, all transit traffic were suspended. Although river transit was restored in 1972, no progress has been made on the issue of road and rail transit/transshipment. From the Indian point of view, transit or transshipment across Bangladesh is important because it will greatly boost the economy of the NER. While Bangladesh could greatly benefit from transit fees and potentially huge Indian investment in the transportation network, there is doubt in various corners in Bangladesh regarding the security implications of such a deal. The writer studied the issue in-depth, identified the pros and the cons and came up with recommendations that could benefit both countries and pave the way for future cooperation between the two friendly neighbors.
Transit and transshipment issues have raised a lot of controversy inside Bangladesh in recent years. In Indo-Bangladesh trade talks; ‘Transit’ refers to the passage across Bangladesh territory of Indian goods to and from the North-Eastern States of India using Indian-owned surface transportation, while ‘Transshipment’ refers to the same movement using Bangladesh-owned means of transport. In this paper, ‘Transshipment’ means either transit or transshipment as agreed by the states. The issue is a matter of geographic and economic necessity for India, while for Bangladesh it has security, political and economic dimensions. Bangladesh lies astride the Indian mainland and the North Eastern Region (NER) comprising the states of Assam, Mizoram, Nagaland, Manipur, Arunachal, Meghalaya and Tripura, collectively known as the Seven Sisters.
A long and narrow link around the northern tip of Bangladesh, the so-called ‘chickens neck’ or
‘Siliguri corridor’ connects these states to mainland India. Prior to the partition of India in 1947, most of the trade and movement of goods to and from this region took place through the area that is now Bangladesh. Chittagong Port had served the needs of the NER. River, road and especially railway communications laid out during the British colonial period amply reflects this reality. The NER has age-old socio-economic ties with Bangladesh. Its outlets to the sea were either through Chittagong port or via the rivers of Bangladesh to the port of Kolkata. Before partition in 1947, the NER was the largest tea-producing region in India and shipped its output through Chittagong. Mizoram’s main outlet to the outside world was down the Karnaphuly River to Chittagong port. Tripura was linked through the rail, road and river communications of Bangladesh. East Bengal was traditionally the natural market for the agricultural produce of the NER and was a source of supply of capital and services.
The rail and river links between India and the NER survived the partition of 1947. The river routes from Kolkata to the NER via the then East Pakistan earned profits for both Indian and Pakistani river transport companies. In 1963 for example, 1.74 million tons of goods were dispatched to Assam via the rivers of East Pakistan. The rail traffic across East Pakistan was a good source of revenue for the railway. The rail and river traffic were disrupted following Indo- Pak war in 1965 when Pakistan withdrew transit rights to India. 3. River traffic was resumed in 1972 following the signing of a protocol between the two countries. Some waterways are still being used for the movement of goods but the volume has reduced considerably; in 1985-95, it averaged only about 64,000 tons per year and now stands at about 10,000 tons yearly. Most river traffic has been lost to roads and railways. The issue of transit/transshipment needs to be examined against the infrastructure capacity in Bangladesh including roads, railways, waterways, and sea and river ports. An examination of transportation infrastructure will focus on available excess capacity and the modes that could be used most beneficially. This will also help to pinpoint specific areas where improvement and development will be required. Although this is primarily an economic issue, there are security concerns such as increased smuggling of Indian goods and increase of Bangladesh’s vulnerability to the insurgencies in North-eastern India.
This paper will examine the transportation infrastructure of Bangladesh to determine the possibilities of transshipment. The issue is a part of transportation cooperation between countries of the region. Cooperation in transportation cannot be considered in isolation; it has to be evaluated in the context of regional or sub-regional cooperation. This approach has the ramification of wider cooperation, widening the scope of regional interaction and increasing the number of stakeholders. A multi-lateral arrangement inherently contains greater safeguards for smaller and weaker countries, thereby partially allaying fears of domination by the more powerful country. Political and strategic considerations are equally important and need to be carefully considered.
What is transit?
The action of passing through a second country to a third one or access to water or land .In another word Conveyance of people or goods from one place to another, especially on a local public transportation system.
Difference between the three concepts: Corridor/Transit/Transshipment:
The connotation of transit is to be distinguished from that of a corridor. In the corridor, a country gives some kind of rights or control on the land to the other country making it a defector of its territory, while in transit there is no question of rights involved in the land territory allowed for transit. It provides only transit facilities under certain conditions and can be withdrawn.
For example, under the Bangladesh-India 1974 Land Boundary Agreement, Bangladesh wanted a lease in perpetuity an area of India’s territory 178 meters X 85 meters near Tin Bight to connect enclave Datagram with main land of Bangladesh. Eventually some days ago Bangladesh got “corridor” from India.
In pre-partition days, Jinnah wanted a corridor from East Pakistan to West Pakistan through India but India rejected it because Pakistan would have control on the land territory of the corridor. Russia wants a corridor from its territory Kaliningrad to Russia’s mainland through Lithuania but it has been rejected because of the same reasons.
In the instant case, India wants to dispatch goods and other materials from western parts of India to its seven land-locked northeastern states through Bangladesh and no kind of rights exists on the land territory of Bangladesh. This is transit, an inter-country passage, like waterway-transit already provided to India since 1972.
Transshipment is distinct from transit. Transshipment refers to the same inter-country passage using Bangladeshi-owned transportation, whereas in transit Indian –owned surface transport move through the transit from one end to the other.
In Europe, Germany or Austria sends goods to Italy through Switzerland. Another instance of transit, Alaska dispatches goods to mainland US through Canada.
The Reasons why transit is an important issue:
BD is located between the western parts of India and its Eastern and North Eastern States, physically separating the two parts of India.
Because of this geographical separation, transportation between the two parts of India takes place by long-winding railways and hazardous mountainous roads along the Shiliguri corridor, causing huge cost to the Indian economy in terms of time and resources.
Shiliguri Corridor (Chicken Neck) is about 17 miles connecting New Jalpaiguri in the West and Kuchbihar in the East.
What we need to know about Transit:
§ The existing road infrastructure in Bangladesh and whether it will permit transit facility
§ The cost of road development and maintenance
§ The required security measures and their costs
§ Convenient points/routes through which transit will be allowed
§ The items of cargo that can be legally moved
§ What type of fees can be charged for transit?
§ What methods/procedures are followed by other countries in matters of transit Possibilities of using alternative modes, such as rail or IWT, or a combination of road and rail, or rail and IWT, or all three transport modes?
History of transit between Bangladesh and India
The transit was used by India till 1965 war, since then it got stopped. The war was between India and Pakistan. In the mean time, Pakistan broke, Bangladesh was born, but situation remained unchanged. Though after independence, Bangladesh allowed India the transit in air-routes and river, the major issue of road-transit is still not tackled. The river-transit is almost abandoned for being uncompetitive; the mutual air-transit is still in use.
Transit through waterways: British period (since 1847)- Water transport directly carried goods from Assam to West Bengal.
Pakistan period (mid-1950s to 1965): Three Routes (under Protocol on Inland Water Transit and Trade) Dhubri (Assam)-Chilmari-Goalondo-Chandpur-Narayangonj-Bhairab Bazar- Chhatak or Zakiganj Border of India (Assam). Dhubri-Chilmari-Chandpur-Barisal-Mollarhat-Khulna-Bihari Canal (India) Godagari (Rajshahi)-Goalondo. From there one sub-route is to Dhubri, and another sub-route is via Chandpur to Chhatak or Zakiganj Border of Assam.
The old Protocal was revived on 28 March 1972, which allowed transit transportation on 4 routes (two way traffic): Calcutta-Haldia-Raimongal-Chalna-Khulna-Barisal-Nandibazar-Chandpur-Aricha-Sirajganj-Bahadurabad-Chilmari-Dhubri. Calcutta-Haldia-Raimongal-Mongla-Kaukhali_Barisal-Nandibazar-Chandpur-Narayanganj-Bhairab Bazar-Ajmiriganj-Markuli-Sherpur-Fenchuganj-Zakiganj-Karimganj.Godagori (Rajshahi)-Dhulian Karimganj-Zakiganj-Fenchuganj-Sherpur-Markuli-Ajmiriganj-Bhairab Bazar-Chandpur-Aricha-Sirajgonj-Bahadurabad-Chilmari-Dhubri.
Transit declined to a trickle because of lack of round-the-year navigation as well as absence of night navigation. Benefit accrued to BD in revenue was small.
Transit by Rail: Rail link between Chittagong and Assam as well as between Calcutta Port and Assam via East Bengal was discontinued as a result of the partition of India in 1947.
What is this transit issue altogether?
The transit for a country is mainly access through a country to the third one. For example, India has a transit to Afghanistan through Iran. So, Indian goods can board from Iranian ports and go through to Afghanistan. However, due to geographical complexity, in this case, the transit refers to connectivity between North-East Indian seven states with mainland India, especially West Bengal. The goods carried from North East, comes to mainland India through a strip of Assam and North Bengal, taking a route miles longer than what could have been a shortest through Bangladesh. Bangladesh govt. never allowed India to have a transit in return of a hefty transit fee offered by India. The transit, that could have been a win-win situation, has been refused as a threat to National security. The other point of interest here could be the transshipment. Here, Transit refers to the passage across Bangladesh territory of Indian goods to and from the north Eastern states of India using Indian owned surface transport, while transshipment refers to the same movement using Bangladesh-owned transport
Is transit an economic issue?
Some argue transit is an economic issue. It facilitates trade and therefore it may be perceived as such. I would argue that this is conceivable but for most of the cases political relations define economic relations. In other words, political relations cannot be separated from economic relations. History is replete with examples of friendly political relations providing the climate and the incentive for forging closer economic relations.
It has been seen that in most case progression has been from close political relations to the deepening of economic relations. For example, why does Bangladesh not have economic relations with Israel? It is because there is no political relationship with that country.
Political relationships that are not characterized by mistrust or suspicion allow first steps in economic relationship which would then expand and generate vigorous inter-state economic activities.
In that context, for creating an appropriate political climate, India has to come up with fair and just proposals to resolve some of the bilateral issues that affect Bangladesh people with “bread and butter issues”. The issues of top priority are (a) maritime boundary, (b) land boundary including the exchange of enclaves, (c) reduction of huge trade deficit and (d) equitable sharing and management of water of trans-boundary Rivers.
They are long-standing disputes and Bangladesh cannot force India to resolve these issues either bilaterally or through third parties intervention including mediation, arbitration or adjudication.
India has to take initiative in building confidence measures pursuing the “Gujral doctrine” with its small neighbors to manifest its good will.
Transit – How India gains out of it
The main gainer of this whole process would be the people of North-East of India. Right now, anything produced in that region cannot be marketed in the rest of India, due to the distance from port (Kolkata). From past decade, India is becoming more dependent on foreign and private investments in growth picture. But, no company will want to invest in this remote corner of the Northeast, because of the logistical problems of Sevens Sisters linking in with the rest of India. So the only real economic future of Northeast lies in reopening its route through Bangladesh to its West and with Myanmar and South-East Asia to the East. For additional benefit, if they are allowed to use a Bangladesh port, the export oriented business can also come up in this region. The region is rich in energy resources, like natural gas and hydro-electricity. The economic progress in this region can stop a long-standing grievance and insurgency resulted. The demand of India for transit through Bangladesh are the followings presumably, a major portion of goods, not all, currently transported from Western parts of India through Shiliguri by road and rail will be transited through BD.
At present about 4 million MT of goods are transported by rail, and about 10 million MT of goods are transported by road through Shiliguri. Assam-bound Cargo originating from Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Delhi, Punjab, Haryana and other northern states of India will be costly to transit through BD. Hence only a portion of this traffic may be diverted through BD.
Mostly, road transport is used for moving goods from Shiliguri through Assam to other sister states- Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Nagaland, Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram- because these states, other than Tripura (45 km) and Arunachal Pradesh (25 km) have no rail network. Goods originating in West Bengal, Orissa, Bihar, and Maharashtra, Madras and other southern states of India destined to the Eastern and N.E. Indian states may be more economical to transit through BD. From Shiliguri, rail transport carries goods to different parts of Assam.The rail-transported goods may not be transited through BD.
The NER shares about 1500 km of borders with Bangladesh; only 1% of its border is with the rest of India via the Siliguri corridor. These states occupy 8% of India’s geographical area and contain 4% of the total population’s The economy of the NER states is stagnant and its share of national GDP has declined in the last 25 years’ The regional economies are simple, heavily deficit, and dependent on the rest of the country for basic needs. All seven states are Special Category States; the Central government almost entirely funds their development plans with 90% grant and 10% loan There is no agricultural surplus and limited capital formation and entrepreneurial skills in the NER.8 However, the region is endowed with bio-diversity, hydro-potential, oil and gas, coal, limestone and forest wealth. It is ideally suited for a whole range of plantation crops, spices, fruits, vegetables, flowers and herbs much of which could be processed and exported.Presently the cost of transportation alone prevents goods produced in NER from competing in the rest of India. The cost of transporting a 15-ton truckload from Agartala to Kolkata is Indian
Rs. 50,000 to 60,000 (the distance is 1800 km). If this truck were to pass through Bangladesh, the cost would be dramatically reduced (distance is about 450 km), thereby reducing the cost of every ton of goods by Indian Rs. 2000. If transshipment were done by trains, same goods would cost even less. Every year about 10.7 million tons of goods are transported into NER from the rest of India. Another about 2.3 million tons are dispatched from NER to other regions. It could be reasonably assumed that the NER will be interested to transship at least one-third of their goods through Bangladesh i.e., about 4 million tons. This low figure is quoted because the western part of Assam may find it economical to use existing transport facilities due to transport subsidies provided by the government. This figure will rise rapidly as NER producers attain competitive advantage in marketing their products to the rest of India. Indian exporters, especially tea exporters from eastern Assam would prefer to export their products through Chittagong. Indian Railways has lost much of the tea traffic to road transportation because of its failure to reduce transit times and maintain time sensitive delivery schedules’ The NER is called the ‘periphery of the periphery’. Various insurgencies have been going on in the seven states of the NER for much of the last fifty years. Bangladesh’s Requirement There is a massive imbalance of trade between India and Bangladesh in favor of the former in the order of 20:1.10 In addition; there exists a similar imbalance in the ‘unofficial trade’ which passes through the porous borders. The value of this unofficial import to Bangladesh is estimated to equal the official one that now stands at about US $ 1.2 billion. Thus the total import from India, official and unofficial, is over US $ 2 billion annually, and Bangladesh probably exports less than US $ 120 million to India through both channels. The trade imbalance can be partly redressed by allowing more duty-free access of Bangladesh goods to India. Although the Indian side has repeatedly promised increase of access, in practice little progress has been made. The Indian Government had even tried to link the provision of transshipment to the granting of duty-free access of 25 categories of Bangladesh export items to India.11 Non-tariff barriers are used to block entry of Bangladesh goods into India when duty-free access is provided. On the other hand, the liberal import policy of Bangladesh has resulted in a flood of Indian goods. Bangladesh is on the receiving end of all the disputes with India. In the absence of advantage, Delhi pays attention to Bangladesh’s concerns and problems only when a problem threatens to reach major proportions. Transshipment is the only advantage Bangladesh has to wrest concessions from India. This should be used, if possible, to obtain a total duty-free access of all Bangladeshi goods to the Indian market. Bangladesh can claim this right as an LOC under WTO provisions.12 given this facility; Bangladesh may be able to double its exports to India, although even then the difference will remain substantial. Transshipment could generate substantial revenues and this would further reduce the trade imbalance.
A part of India on the North East is separated from the rest of India by Bangladesh, except for a very narrow transport corridor, known as the ‘chicken neck’. Bangladesh does not allow India transit access for trade to the North Eastern states. These seven North-eastern states of India also do not have access to sea except through Kolkata that requires passage through the round-about chicken neck. For example, the distance between Agartala (India) and Kolkata is over 1600 kilometers. In comparison, the distance between Agartala and the nearest seaport in Bangladesh (Chittagong) is less than 100 kilometers. Understandably, transport costs of trade for these North Eastern states are very high. Furthermore, two landlocked countries, Nepal and Bhutan, have not had transit facilities through India to access Bangladesh ports of Mongla and Chittagong.
Fortunately, this limiting restriction on trade movements is about to change. India and Bangladesh are in the process of negotiating a transit agreement to allow traffic between western Bengal and the landlocked Indian states in the North East through Bangladesh. It is expected that this framework will also help Nepal and Bhutan trade internationally through Bangladeshi sea ports.
Is transit consistent with sealing off the Indo-Bangladesh border?
Another prickly issue is fencing by India with barbwire barrier of the Bangladesh-India border,
Does fencing off Bangladesh make India a good neighbour?
India as of June 2007 has been quietly sealing itself off Bangladesh, totaling 2,500 kilometres in the past seven years. The fencing project will eventually reach across 3,300 kilometres, or 2050 miles, hundreds of rivers, and long stretches of forests and fields.
Of the total 3,300 kilometres fencing, 577 kilometres are in the Assam-Meghalaya border. Work of 91 kilometres has been complete and work has been in progress for 129 kilometres and gradually India will seal off this 577-kilometres Bangladesh border in this sector.
In the US, its decision to fence 1,100 kilometres of the Mexican border triggered months of political debate ranging across immigration policy to the environmental impact. When Israel announced it would build a 680-kilometre barrier around the West Bank, an international outcry erupted and the International Court of Justice declared illegal some of the barrier because it was inhuman. But there has been barely a ripple over India’s far larger project began in earnest in
Bangladesh Parliament must now discuss and debate how and in what way does the fencing have impact on environment and the people who live in border area?
While India has been silently sealing off its border from Bangladesh, it wants land transit through Bangladesh. Does it not occur to India that such request is contrary to the spirit behind the fencing India-Bangladesh border? Does fencing manifest its goodwill towards Bangladesh?
Implications of transit facility:
To my knowledge, no detailed study has been undertaken on the possible benefits and non-benefits to Bangladesh. The study may include the infrastructure, viability, cost-benefit analysis, risk analysis and management and security that involve health hazards and environmental impact on hundreds of vehicles moving through Bangladesh.
Furthermore, the study for a regional multi-modal transport system will be useful so that
Bangladesh can also get transit facility to Nepal and Bhutan or vice versa. Bangladesh has already provided transit facility to Nepal to use Bangladesh ports but Nepal cannot use it because
India is reportedly reluctant to provide Nepal transiting through Bangladesh.
India’s Prime Minister Dr. Singh in a speech on 3rd April 2007 at the SAARC New Delhi
Summit spoke of “full regional connectivity” The regional connectivity could be a springboard
for exploiting the vast physical resources of the eastern hub of India, Bangladesh, Nepal and
What Types of Commodities are Likely to be Transited?
Verification of demand in the NE Indian states for goods of Western Indian origin and vice versa, and a physical check at the corridor indicates the following:
To Eastern and NE India- rice, atta and moida, motor vehicles including motor parts, chassis, LPG, diesel engine, pipe and pipe fittings, glass wares, electrical goods and appliances, G. C.sheets, pump sets, plastic goods, machinery and parts, chemicals, powdered milk, medicine, biscuits, cosmetics, cycles, cycle tyre and tubes, autorickshaw, marbles and tiles, two wheelers, cement, crockery, vanaspati, agarbatti, acrylic yarn, pesticide, agricultural implements, T.V., refrigerator, air-conditioners, clock, paints, battery, soft drink, newsprint, mustard oil, sanitary works etc. From Eastern and NE states- mainly coal and coke, vinegar, plywood, LPG, bamboo and papers. Of the total flow of goods between them, inflows to Eastern and NE states from the rest of India are 60 percent, which means that the reverse flow constitutes the remaining 40 percent.
Possible Entry and Exit Points in Bangladesh along land Routes for Transit of Indian Goods.
Western Side Eastern Side
i. Banapole – Petrapole Boder Tamabil – Meghalaya Border
ii. Rohanpur – Sindbad Border Akhaura – Agartala Border
iii. Hilli – Balurghat Border Chittagong – Belonia Border
iv. Banglabandh – Phulbari Border
Possible Transit Routes
|Benapole – Tamabil
Benapole – Akhaura
|Via Dhaka. May serve all states except Tripura and Mizoram
Useful for Tripura, Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland.
|Hili – Tamabil
Hili – Akhaura
|Can serve all Eastern and NE states equally well.
|Banglabandh – Tamabil
Banglabandh – Akhaura
|Longest distance between Western and Eastern border|
|Rohanpur – Tamabil
Rohanpur – Akhaura
|May serve all Eastern & NE states well.
Cost of Transit through Bangladesh
• Because of different origins and destinations of cargo moving through Shiliguri, the transport cost is difficult to assess.
• Information supplied by the Federation of Industries of North Eastern Region (FINER) a decade ago shows that transport cost in medium trucks (15.6 tons) per ton-km from Calcutta to NE states was Re 0.25 by water, Re 0.85 by rail, and Rs. 1.57 by road (in BDT, 0.30, 1.02, 1.88, respectively).
• Transport cost per ton- km along the possible land routes through Bangladesh was Tk. 1.19, which is 37% lower than the cost of transport through Shiliguri.
• These costs include only trucking cost (freight, toll, fees and ancillary charges), not other costs such as insurance, loading and unloading, cost of fuels, lubricants, spare parts, and repairs).
Comparison of Cost of Transiting through BD and Transporting through Shiliguri
• India will save 37% of the costs if the goods are transited through BD.
• There is also a significant saving in time.
• A previous slide shows that the length of convenient routes varies from roughly 400 km to 690 km. within Bangladesh. From the exit points in the Eastern border of BD, the destinations are not very far.
• Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Tripura have common borders with BD. Other states- Monipur and Nagaland – with the exception of Arunachal Pradesh are in the proximity of 100 km.
• On the other hand, goods flowing through Shiliguri will have to traverse more than 500 km after Shiliguri Corridor.
• Thus India will gain in terms of transport cost as well as an enormous reduction in time needed to reach the intended destinations.
Present Volume of Cargo Traffic in Bangladesh Routes
• The estimation of the number of vehicles and the volume of goods moving along the 8 possible routes in BD is difficult.
• Goods from Benapole, Hili, Rohanpur and Banglabadh come to Dhaka first and then move to other destinations.
• Similarly goods from Chittagong, Sylhet and other Eastern Districts come to Dhaka and subsequently move to other destinations.
Movement of trucks from border to border is relatively very small.
Road Maintenance after Transit
• RHD sources say that the possible routes of transit of Indian goods are highly underutilized. The condition of roads is good and they may bear significantly higher load and may also accommodate 2-3 fold trucks without any inconvenience or damages to existing roads. Currently, on average, about 750 trucks ply on these roads every day.
• A transit arrangement will not require any immediate changes in the road infrastructure. No new road will need to be built.
• The most important requirement will be for adequate maintenance and rehabilitation of the relevant roads.
• With subsequent increases in transit traffic, the maintenance and rehabilitation works will need to be increased. Costs will also rise accordingly.
Transport infrastructure in Bangladesh
At the time of the partition of India in 1947, erstwhile East Pakistan inherited the portion of Bengal and Assam Railway that fell within its borders. The track length of the railway then known as Pakistan Eastern Railway was about 2,604 km long.17 This became Bangladesh Railway (BR) in 1971. BR is divided into East and West zones separated by the river Jamuna. East Zone has 1,279 km of Metre- Gauge (MG) track, and West Zone has 553 km of MG and 936 km of Broad-Gauge (BG) track.18 The dual gauge system is complicated, time-consuming and inefficient. The two zones are connected by river ferries that take about 36-48 hours to ferry a goods train across the Jamuna. A railway line is fast nearing completion that would connect the two railway zones with a BG-MG dual track line across the Jamuna Multipurpose Bridge (JMB) eliminating the ferry crossing.19 BR is connected to the Indian railway system in the west at Benapole (Jessore), Darshana (Kushtia), Rohanpur (Chapai Nawabganj), Radhikapur (Dinajpur) and Chilahati (Nilphamari). In the east, it can be easily restored at Shahbajpur (Sylhet) and a link to Agartala can be laid down at Akhaura at reasonable expense. Railway based transshipment can soon be done through Kolkata-Darshana-Ishurdi- JMB-Bhairab Bazar – Akhaura – Kulaura – Shahbazpur – Karimganj (India) route. This main route can use a number of alternative link variations mentioned below.
The Kolkata – Benapole – Jessore – Darshana route can be a variation. The
Radhikapur -Parbatipur – Ishurdi route can also be used. The Rohanpur – Rajshahi -Ishurdi – Santahar route may be used for goods originating in Malda (India).
The traffic density over the proposed transshipment route is generally quite low (Table 1). The highest is between Akhaura-Bhairab Bazar, which is 39.21 trains per day of passenger and freight trains. This segment is only about 32 km in length and has double line compared to rest of the route which is single line. The rest of the route in the East Zone amounts to less than 24 trains per day. In the West Zone, along the proposed transshipment route, the average is less than 20 trains per day. The amount of freight carried and the number of wagons and coaches, which ply per day, is paltry. In 1969-70, this railway system clocked 144-million wagon km in the MG section, whereas in 1999-00, this dropped to little over 61 million.21 In 1969-70, BR carried 4.88 million tons of freight and this dropped to 2.89 million tons in 1999-00. The actual amount of freight moved has remained static in the last thirty years in the East Zone. In the West Zone, it has reduced dramatically during the same period. Container traffic between Dhaka and Chittagong has doubled in the 1995-00 period whereas other freight traffic has reduced considerably as road based movement has proved more reliable and competitive.
Once the railway link over the JMB comes into operation, train travel time between Kolkata and
Assam via JMB will reduce by about 36-48 hours. The traffic density between Tongi and Bhairab Bazar is 37.32, which is high by BR standards. In the short term, this segment will be able to absorb some additional traffic. In the medium term, however, Tongi-Bhairab Bazar route has to be upgraded to double line, even to accommodate traffic growth on the Dhaka-Chittagong route. Meanwhile, some transshipment traffic can be diverted through the Joydebpur -Mymensingh – Bhairab Bazar route, which has a traffic density of only 26 and can easily absorb fifty percent traffic growth. However, this diversion will increase travel times by about six hours.
The difference of railway gauges in the East and West Zone continues to be a serious bottleneck.
Conversion of the entire network to BG will require a huge investment. BR is a losing concern; therefore, World Bank and other international financial institutions are not eager to invest in this sector. On the other hand, if Bangladesh desires to be part of the Trans-Asian Rail (TAR) network, it would entail the total conversion into BG. Paucity of land and population pressure will limit the amount of land available for highway development. Railways and IWT are much more environmentally friendly, cheaper and cost effective than road-based movement. Therefore, it is logical that Bangladesh should develop its railways and waterways for freight and passenger traffic. Better management of BR, including greater privatization of services and outsourcing of maintenance, management and security has the potential to improve financial performance.
At present, it takes BR between 24-48 hours to shift freight from one gauge to the other using manual methods. If container traffic is used for transshipment and mechanical equipment is used for inter-gauge transfer this time can be reduced to six hours. Once the JMB rail link is commissioned, mechanical equipment can be installed at both Ishurdi and Joydebpur to enable inter-gauge transfer of containers. Private operators can be contracted to install and operate these services obviating the need for BR’s own investment. Data given in Table 2 shows that in the present system it will take 6-8 days for a freight train to travel from Kolkata to Karimgonj in Assam. This can be reduced Transit and Transshipment : Implications for Bangladesh by a third or even halved when the JMB rail link is commissioned and if containerised cargo is used with mechanical handling equipment at inter-gauge transfer points. Once the JMB railway link is commissioned, it may be possible to employ about ten freight trains for transshipment traffic every day raising the daily tonnage to about 8000 to 10,000 tons of containerized cargo. In the case of non-containerised cargo, the figure would be somewhat less. Thus, the annual capacity would be about 3.5 million tons without a substantial expansion of railway tracks and infrastructure.
Roads and Highway System
Bangladesh has over 27,000 km of paved roads, of which there are 3,096 km are national highways and another 1,744 km are regional highways.23 The rest are feeder roads not suitable for heavy or sustained traffic. The highway routes, which may be considered for transshipment,
are given below:24
a. Route 1: Benapole – Jessore – Mawa – Sylhet – Tamabil/Karimgonj or Brahmanbaria -Akhaura/Kasba.
b. Route 2: Benapole – Jessore – Aricha – Sylhet – Tamabil/Karimgonj.
c. Route 3: Benapole – Paksey – JMB – Sylhet – Tamabil/Karimgonj or JMB – Brahmanbaria -Akhaura/Kasba.
d. Route 4: Rohanpur – Rajshahi – JMB – Sylhet – Tamabil/Karimgonj or JMB -Brahmanbaria – Akhaura/Kasba.
e. Route 5: Hilli – Bogra – JMB – Sylhet – Tamabil/Karimgonj or JMB
f. Route 6: Banglabandha- Bogra – JMB – Sylhet – Tamabil/Karimgonj or JMB – Brahmanbaria -Akhaura/Kasba.
Routes 1, 2 and 3 will be favored as possible transshipment routes. Vehicles using these routes will have to negotiate the river ferry at Mawa, Aricha and Paksey respectively. The Mawa-Dhaka segment of Route 1 is a regional highway class road and traffic is already quite heavy i.e., over 5000 vehicles per day. Route 2 also has to negotiate the river ferry at Aricha and the quality of road between Faridpur and Rajbari is of regional highway class. Traffic density between Aricha – Dhaka – Narshingdi is very high. Route 3 has to use the river ferry over Padma at Paksey. The road from Paksey to Pabna is not suitable for heavy traffic. The Dhaka segment of the route already suffers from severe traffic congestion. Routes 4 and 5 are goods transported and moderate traffic until JMB. However, these routes are far from the major commercial centers in West Bengal. Route 6 is suitable for traffic emanating from Nepal and to a lesser extent, Bhutan.
The river ferries at Mawa, Aricha and Paksey are major bottlenecks at present. The construction of the bridge at Paksey is progressing well, but all highway routes have to pass through the greater Dhaka area, which already suffers from very heavy traffic congestion, and the system is unable to cope with the projected growth in domestic traffic. A Dhaka bypass highway system and bridges at Mawa and Paksey will be needed before considering road-based transshipment.
With the opening of the bridge over Meghna at Bhairab and upgrading of the Dhaka – Sylhet highway, Routes 3, 4 and 5 may be possible transshipment routes. Road based freight movement has the advantage of flexibility, but the national highway system does not have the excess capacity to absorb additional regional/ international traffic. Creation of such capacity will require massive investment and given the paucity of land, effect on environment and projected growth of domestic traffic, may not be possible at all. Indian roads are built to higher axle load specification (10.2 tons) than those in Bangladesh (8.2 tons)25 and therefore Indian trucks are designed to carry heavier loads than the load-bearing capacity of our roads. Therefore, sustained Indian truck traffic on Bangladesh highways is likely to cause damage in the order of 3.83 times than the normal wear and tear at standard axle-load.26 Major and sustained investment in the roads and highways system by India will have to be negotiated while negotiating transshipment proposals.
Chittagong Port is attractively sited as a port of entry for transshipment to NER using rail or road extension. Chittagong Port is presently considered very inefficient and one of the most expensive ports in the world. It takes an average of 7-10 days to clear a ship. The highest traffic density along the Chittagong –Akhaura route is presently 37 trains per day with the Akhaura -Shahbazpur segment having a density of 24. Therefore, the railway link may be able to take some additional traffic but this will always be subject to traffic growth on the Chittagong-Dhaka route. The Chittagong-Sylhet highway has extremely heavy traffic up to Comilla but there after the density is low. The Comilla-Sylhet highway needs up-grading from regional to national highway category. Therefore, in the present state of infrastructure, road transshipment from Chittagong to Assam has a very limited capacity.
Inland Water Transport (IWT) has historically been the most important mode of transport for the country. In Bangladesh, 30% of all cargo and 15% of passenger traffic (1989)27 are transported by inland waterways.
Waterways are the cheapest mode of transportation for both cargo and passengers. IWT is not only used for intra-country movement but a significant amount of import-export traffic is also routed through it. According to the Inland Water Transport Authority (IWTA), the total length of navigable waterways is about 6000 km of which about 1700 km are navigable throughout the year, and the rest are available only during the rainy season (3-6 months).28 Possible waterwaysfor river transshipment round the year are:
a. Chittagong – Chandpur – Baghabari/Nagarbari – Chilmari – to Assam.
b. Chittagong – Chandpur – Bhairab Bazar/Ashuganj – by road to Assam /Tripura.
c. Kolkata – Barisal – Chandpur -Bhairab Bazar/Ashuganj – by road to Assam /Tripura.
d. Kolkata – Barisal – Baghabari/Nagarbari – Chilmari – to Assam.
Different Modes for Transshipment Traffic
The advantages of using all the available modes of transportation for transshipment traffic are obvious. However, we have seen that in Bangladesh 53% of all goods are moved by roads.29
The road system is already overburdened, is yet to be linked by bridges at Paksey and Mawa and, above all else, the entire road-based transshipment traffic will have to pass through the Dhaka area which cannot even accommodate existing traffic. Road transshipment can only be considered once the bridges at Paksey and Mawa are commissioned, the Dhaka By-pass is completed and the inter-linking highways are upgraded to at least dual carriageway. At present, BR carries only
17% of all freight transported in Bangladesh.30 It has sufficient excess capacity and its facilities are underutilized. BR should be used to carry the bulk of the transshipment traffic. Indian rolling stock can be used or hauled by BR locomotives to overcome shortage of rolling stock. It is felt that BR can be made profitable merely by carrying transshipment traffic both directly from West Bengal to NER and through Chittagong port to NER and vice-versa. Chittagong port facilities can be used for transshipment traffic. It can also handle exports from and imports to the NER.
However, the capacity of Chittagong port and its efficiency need to be radically improved. The concept of a private port must be implemented if Chittagong is to realize its ambition of becoming the hub-port of the sub-region. Studies have shown that even if all the current plans of port capacity expansion are implemented the expected growth of traffic is likely to outstrip supply by 2010. Hence, there is no reason to fear28 that Chittagong port will lose business to the private port, especially if it totally fails to improve productivity.
IWT has the potential to carry transshipment traffic. Night navigability has to be improved. The river ports of Bhairab Bazar/Ashuganj and Chandpur may be developed to berth ships and efficiently handle cargo between ship/barge to rail or road transport and vice versa. Cargo can be moved from Bhairab Bazar/Ashuganj or Chandpur to NER by rail or road transport. This mode of transshipment has tremendous potential and will also invigorate river ports and attract investment to IWT development. Various estimates have been offered about the revenue Bangladesh may be able to earn from transshipment. Figures range between Tk 600 800 crore.31 From the Bangladesh point of view, the railways, which have been operating at a loss, can be turned into a profit making commercial enterprise. Investment can then be attracted to improve the railway and IWT infrastructure, which is likely to have beneficial knock-on effects for the entire economy.
Political and security considerations
Territorial Integrity and Sovereignty
An article published in the Daily Star on 12 August 1999, made the point that use of Bangladesh territory for the transshipment of Indian goods is “tantamount to granting a corridor to India”.
Because, in the writer’s view “Indian goods will have unhindered passage along a demarcated route, also used by Bangladeshi traffic and that Bangladesh government would have no right to touch or inspect the cargo enroute for illegal, contraband and undesirable goods.”32 The writer also went on to say that once the transshipment agreement is concluded Bangladesh will not be able to annul it. He asserted that “the very fact that India will be able to transport any and all the items or commodities of her choice places the people of Bangladesh in a highly dangerous and
vulnerable position because, the items may and will include not only illegal and contraband goods but also arms, equipment and various types of supplies that could be used for direct or indirect military purposes.”33 He suggested that even if regulations are formulated to prohibit the shipment of military goods and supplies, Bangladesh will not be able to enforce this, because of lack of efficiency and corruption of customs officials. The same author also says that India enjoys ‘highly beneficial’ advantages from inland waterway transit through Bangladesh without reciprocal advantage to Bangladesh. In fact, at present only about
10,000 tons of transit cargo per year, pass through Bangladesh waterways and the Indian government pays Tk 2 crore annually for this facility.
The Daily Star of 24 August 1999 published an opinion on the same issue stating that transit, transshipment and corridor have the same geopolitical implication in that it “dilutes the geographical barrier for India to its north-east”. It said that international borders are “sacred, sanctimonious and sacrosanct” and these cannot be opened up for “experimentation on transshipment or tampered with for any other purpose”. It said, “Sovereignty is the core value of national security for any country and sanctity and the impregnability of the border is its first and foremost symbol and is never negotiable”. It also mentioned that the geographical location of the NER is the only influence Bangladesh enjoys with India and questioned ‘what will happen when we will be bereft of the only leverage in our hand.’35 Several other authors have written in the same vein in various papers. It is obvious that the question of national sovereignty and territorial integrity weighs heavily on the minds of opinion makers while considering transshipment. On the other hand, many of the concerns raised can be tackled by properly negotiated agreements, arrangements for supervision and achieving national consensus through open discussion. Passage of goods through transshipment can in no way be called ‘corridor of movement.’36 Transshipment based on railways, IWT and Chittagong port will automatically address many of the concerns voiced and also cause less antagonism in public minds due to relative ‘invisibility’ of transshipment. Modern tools for inspection can easily ensure that contraband items are not carried through transshipment.37 Indian authorities have made it abundantly clear that all transshipment goods will be subject to inspection and supervision by Bangladesh authorities throughout its passage within Bangladesh territory.38 Indeed, transshipment is vital for the development of the NER and the Indians know the cost and benefit of transit in equivocal terms.39 They are not likely to do anything to jeopardize it by violating any agreement signed for the purpose. Bangladesh let the “25 Year Treaty of Friendship” with India expire without any attempts at renewal. There was no Indian effort either. Therefore, any transshipment agreement will be subject to revision by the contracting parties. Furthermore, transit through IWT has been going on since 1972 but it has diluted neither our borders nor our security. Transit using Bangladesh airspace is also in vogue. Commission in Dhaka during an interview with the author on 12 June 2002. Passage of military equipment through transshipment without or against the consent of Bangladesh is untenable. First, this is not necessary for India, unless the Siliguri corridor is severed by a Chinese invasion of India, a highly unlikely scenario at present. India has alleged many times, albeit unfairly, that Indian insurgent groups have taken refuge within Bangladesh, but has never threatened hot pursuit across the border or sought the right to strike at alleged insurgent camps. Therefore, apprehensions of increased security vulnerabilities due to transshipment are not supported by facts. It is also unreasonable to think that India will find it practical to exercise military control of a hostile population of 130 million people just to maintain a passage through Bangladesh. India also aspires to graduate from regional power to world power status, therefore, this ambition compels India to act responsibly in regional and international affairs. Moreover, a study shows that expectation of benefits from trade restrains states from initiating military conflicts.
Reciprocity and Spirit of Cooperation Over the years friendly relations between India and Bangladesh has suffered because of several minor irritants. India initially had allowed Nepal the right of transit into Bangladesh territory, but then imposed so many conditions that road based transit has not taken place at all, in effect paralyzing implementation of the agreement. The issue of duty free access of Bangladeshi goods into India has been dealt with in a manner that prevents Bangladesh from taking any advantage of the ‘concessions’ offered. Bangladesh has two choices in the present circumstances: to do nothing or to tackle the issue of transshipment in a professional manner. In the first option, the trade gap will continue to spiral increasing the deficit. On the other hand, if Bangladesh can negotiate an advantageous transshipment agreement, there can be a tremendous gain, not only in transportation profits but also through increased trade. Bangladesh’s advantage will be increased by giving transshipment to India rather than by withholding it. It will create stakeholders in India who are supportive of Bangladesh. Bangladesh has very few advantages. ‘Its geo-strategic advantage is perhaps the single most precious natural wealth for Bangladesh left fully unattended so far.’41 SAARC has become hostage to Indo-Pak rivalry. President Musharraf stated during his visit to Dhaka in July 2002 that, the future of SAARC depends on Indo-Pak relations. The future of Bangladesh cannot and should not be dependent on such unending rivalry between other nations. If SAARC does not meet the economic interests of Bangladesh, we should divert our energies to regional cooperation responsive to our needs such as BIMSTEC, or sub-regional cooperation such as SAGQ. Sub-regional cooperation is in keeping with the SAARC charter. Bangladesh has to learn to stand on its feet, fend and fight for national interests. Bangladesh should do well to remember Lord Palmerstone’s 18th Century dictum, ‘In international relations we have neither permanent enemies nor perpetual friends, but only permanent interests’. Some writers have suggested that transshipment of Indian goods might provoke or encourage insurgent activities inside the country. There are many Indian business houses and interests in Bangladesh. Not once have these been targeted by Indian insurgents in the past. Although an attack by Indian insurgents cannot be ruled out, the likelihood seems to be low. In any case, the suggestion that India will invade Bangladesh to protect transshipment traffic seems improbable and without precedent. Bangladesh’s economic and political decisions can hardly be deflected on the basis of such far-fetched apprehensions.
Increasing Cooperation The costs for not initiating sub-regional transport and economic cooperation are high for all the countries in the region. Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Bhutan stand to gain substantially through sub-regional transshipment and transit. It is clearly a win-win situation for all. India with its overwhelming population, its large economy, military power and geographical size must take the lead in assuaging the concerns of its smaller neighbors. Attempts at regional hegemony have not, and will not, win India any friends in its neighborhood. Considering its vital interest in developing the NER, India should give as many concessions to its neighbors as possible. Leveling unsubstantiated accusations regarding assistance to Indian insurgent groups by its neighbors only serves to perpetuate hostility and suspicion. India should take the lead in settling irritants and disputes. The settlement of the Ganges Water dispute and the peace treaty in the CHT has markedly improved India’s image in Bangladesh. Countries in all parts of the world have disputes with neighbors but mutually beneficial cooperation is not given up as a result of this. Interdependence enhances security so long as all parties benefit from it.43 The seeds for better cooperation are already evident. It is estimated that about 40,000 Bangladeshi students study in schools, colleges and universities in India. Thousands of Bangladeshis regularly travel to India for medical treatment, religious reasons, shopping and tourism every year. Increased people to- people contacts should remove mistrust. Greater government and private sector interaction will build new highways for cooperation. Hype, hyperbole and jingoism should be replaced by rational thought and exchange of ideas.Bangladesh, on its part, has to assess the relative importance of its disputes with India. Neither the resolution of the Land Boundary Agreement nor that of South Talpatty is crucial to the economic prosperity and, the political and security concerns of Bangladesh. However, redressing the trade imbalance and access of Bangladeshi products to the Indianmarket is of considerable importance for the economic prosperity of Bangladesh. Similarly, transshipment is important to Bangladesh as it would not only lead to economic gains, but would also provide a political advantage in its dealings with India. Once transshipment is provided, the states of NER will develop a stake in maintaining good relations. Comparatively less important issues in India-Bangladesh relations should not be allowed to cloud assessment of substantialmatters.
Effect on Smuggling
Fears have been voiced that transshipment will result in increased smuggling from India to Bangladesh. It has been stated earlier that over US $ 1 billion worth of goods are smuggled from India into Bangladesh every year. There is evidence to suggest that law enforcement agencies on both sides of the border collude in smuggling.44 Given the long and porous border with India, smuggling is a function of demand and supply. If the demand for Indian goods in Bangladesh increases it will be met both through official or unofficial channels, and in the current state of affairs, almost irrespective of government efforts to stem the flow. Cross border trade with India has shown that traders use fraudulent letters of credit, false declaration of goods and incorrect specifications of quantities and values, to abuse the system for smuggling. Recent surveys have indicated that extra 30% to 50% rice, over and above the officially declared import amounts were brought in through land ports.45 Even if pre-shipment and post-shipment inspections are instituted road based transshipment can still be misused for smuggling. However, if transshipment traffic is carried in containers on railways it will be possible to significantly reduce the chances of smuggling during transshipment. In terms of ease of movement, shifting between different railway gauge systems and security of goods, containers provide appreciable advantages. In addition, the government should be able to employ paramilitary forces with transshipment trains to prevent pilferage and/or leakage reroute. Provision of extra security will curtail insurance costs and thus increase earnings of BR and the government. Whatever means of transshipment is used it will be essential to ensure effective independent inspection by different authorities both at entry and exit points to prevent abuse. In case road based transshipment is used, weighbridges have to be installed at all entry and exit points, and other elaborate pilferage/leakage prevention mechanisms have to be implemented. Although the bulk of Bangladeshi imports, as well as smuggling of goods from India, comes through the western border, the ratio of unofficial to official trade is more heavily skewed on the eastern border. In the eastern border, unofficial imports are said to be several times46 more than official imports of about US $ 22 million yearly.47 Improvements in infrastructure, direct trade and duty free access with the NER should raise incentives for more trade through official channels and thus lead to more revenues for the government.
Maintenance and Rehabilitation Costs after Transit
As said before, the potential annual transit traffic at the initial phase could be 8 million MT. For this quantity of goods to be moved annually, roughly 1500 trucks of average capacity of 15 MT will need to play every day.
• Including the domestic traffic of 750 trucks, total vehicular traffic in these routes will be 2250 trucks per day, i.e. 3 times the current traffic.
• While with a doubling of traffic, the maintenance cost will not rise very substantially, according to HRD’s Highway Development and Maintenance (HDM) model, the cost of maintenance may go up by about 30-42 percent it the truck traffic is trebled.
• In absolute terms, for the routes likely to be used to allow transit, the maintenance cost could be about 350 to 400 million taka every year.
• To avoid congestion in Dhaka city, through which nearly all transit traffic passes, the 50 km Gazipur-Narsingdi Feeder road should be upgraded (likely cost Tk. 1500 million).
• A new Tangail-Bhairab by-pass road stretching over 150 km should also be constructed (likely cost Tk. 9000 million).
Financial Benefits and cost
Freight charges will be made by transportation companies i.e., by truckers in case of road based and BR in case of railway transshipment. Profits will be divided between owners and operators. It has been suggested that transport companies will be able to charge a profit of 10-20% over and, above the cost of transportation.48 Transport business will also benefit banking and insurance companies. In the case of road-based transit, repair shops, restaurants and rest areas, toll charges on roads and bridges will also reap additional revenue. However, it is not clear how the public exchequer will benefit from transshipment. Government will have to spend heavily on repair of roads and bridges, maintenance of railway tracks, rolling stock and locomotives, navigation system for IWT, maintenance of river ports, seaports and other facilities. The gains to India are savings on transportation subsidies, which they spend on NER, timesavings and savings on maintenance of infrastructure.49 An estimate of all these savings should be calculated and Bangladesh should claim 50% of those savings. A flat rate charge can also be levied on each truck, container, or railway wagon carrying transshipment goods to be paid in US dollars at the border. Alternatively, Ba