For the Agartala airport expansion to take off, it is important that it benefits both India and Bangladesh.
The Narendra Modi government has asked Bangladesh for land to expand the existing airport at Agartala. Bangladesh is learnt to be considering the proposal favourably, and the matter will top the agenda during the visit of Bangladesh Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan to New Delhi next week.
Former Union home minister Rajnath Singh (who is now the Defence Minister) made this proposal to Dhaka during his visit there in July 2018. Bangladesh requested India for a formal and complete proposal, including detailed maps of the land in Bangladesh it wants for the airport expansion.
Bangladeshi authorities subsequently discussed the proposal at a few meetings where aviation and defence ministry officials provided their inputs. Officials in the Ministry of Civil Aviation in New Delhi said that Bangladesh has informed India that it is considering the proposal favourably.
The Maharaja Bir Bikram Airport, which is about 20 kilometres from Tripura’s capital city Agartala, is just a kilometre away from the India-Bangladesh border. After having upgraded the Guwahati and Imphal airports to international standards, the Airports Authority of India (AAI) plans to do the same with Agartala airport.
The expansion of the Agartala airport, from where three airlines currently operate 14 daily flights to Delhi, Kolkata and Guwahati, is part of AAI’s Rs 3,400 crore project to upgrade various airports in the North East.
The Tripura government has already handed over 72 acres of land for the upgradation of the airport. But, say AAI officials, land is required from Bangladesh to install perimeter fences and landing lights as well as other gadgets.
“Even now, aircraft approaching the existing runway fly low over Bangladeshi territory before landing. Both the primary and secondary runways start just a few metres from the zero line of the international border and both have to be lengthened to their south and south-west (see map). For that, land would be required from Bangladesh,” said a senior civil aviation ministry bureaucrat posted at the ministry’s headquarters at Rajiv Gandhi Bhawan in Safdarjung airport.
The bureaucrat said that a concrete and revised proposal will be handed over to Bangladesh shortly.
“We will propose that Bangladesh gives us the land on long-term lease. Bangladesh has also sent feelers saying it wants to be part of the project so that traders and travellers from eastern Bangladesh can also use the airport. We are open to that,” said the bureaucrat.
He said that the potential for an upgraded airport at Agartala is huge.
“The Shahjalal International Airport in Dhaka is already very congested and cannot handle any additional load. But Dhaka is just three hours away by road from the Agartala airport. Passenger and cargo traffic from Dhaka and its hinterlands can easily be serviced by the upgraded Agartala airport. A lot of issues have to be sorted out, but the possibilities are immense. Exporters (mainly of garments) having their units in industrial areas around Dhaka face immense problems due to chronic congestion at Dhaka’s airport. They can easily use the Agartala airport once it is upgraded to international standards,” said the bureaucrat.
The New Age, a well-known daily of Bangladesh, published this report on Thursday quoting Bangladesh foreign secretary Shahidul Haque.
Haque was quoted as stating that at a meeting between officials of various ministries held in Dhaka in October last year, India’s preliminary proposal was examined in detail. Haque also said that the Indian proposal was received positively at the meeting.
In fact, Haque appears to be an enthusiastic supporter of the Indian proposal; at the October 2018 meeting, he reportedly pointed out that the Geneva airport’s northern boundary extends into French territory and the airport is accessible from both Switzerland and France.
Serving and former ministers of the ruling Awami League in Bangladesh that Swarajya spoke to said that the Indian proposal can pass muster only if a joint venture is proposed with Bangladesh.
“There will be a terrible outcry in the country if any land is proposed to be handed over or leased outright to India. The opposition will raise a hue and cry that the government will find hard to ignore. So the best bet is a joint venture in which Bangladesh has a stake. India has to sugarcoat the proposal so that Bangladesh also appears to benefit immensely from it. The benefits to Bangladesh have to be tangible and attractive,” said a former civil aviation minister of Bangladesh who did not want to be named.
Indian officials point out that there is a precedent for this.
“India leased out the Tin Bigha Corridor to Bangladesh in 1992. The lease for this corridor, measuring 178 metres x 85 metres (total area: 1.62 lakh square feet), is in perpetuity and allows Bangladesh unrestricted and round-the-clock access through Indian territory to Dahagram-Angarpota enclaves. So there is a precedent for this and we expect Bangladesh to respond favourably to our proposal,” said a senior bureaucrat in the Ministry of Home Affairs who has been involved in pushing the Indian proposal for land for the Agartala airport.
Bangladeshi experts say that the ruling Awami League has to invest a lot of political capital in selling the proposal to the people of the country.
The Daily Star, Bangladesh’s leading English news daily, in this report published in Today’s (Friday’s) edition, quotes Dr Rozana Rashid, associate professor of international relations at Dhaka University, as saying that though Bangladesh and India are good friends, a good number of Bangladeshi people have some level of anti-India sentiments.
“The government needs to be very cautious before taking any decision about the matter,” she says.
That newspaper also quoted Dhaka University international relations professor, Dr Imtiaz Ahmed as citing the example of the Geneva International Airport situated both in Switzerland and France.
“However, the context of South Asia is not comparable to that of Europe. It is because of the structures of immigration, currency and politics,” he said. "There are questions of sovereignty, security and political implications,” he said.
Ahmed also indicated that the proposal would be acceptable if Bangladesh also gets a stake in the Agartala airport and benefits from giving out land for the airport to India. An aviation expert, Kazi Wahedul Alam, was quoted as saying that after addressing sovereignty and security issues, the Bangladesh government has to ensure that the project benefits people of both countries.
There is, thus, a fairly favourable climate for this proposal in Bangladesh. New Delhi has to make the proposal attractive for Bangladesh and project the enormous advantages that can accrue to the people of that country to help the Awami League government sell the proposal easily to the people of that country.
Also, once this happens, the Maharaja Bir Bikram airport will be the only one in Asia to straddle two countries.