The inauguration of a new multi-modal route to connect Kolkata with the southwestern part of North East India through Bangladesh promises to be a game-changer for that landlocked region that suffers from the ‘tyranny of geography’.
A Bangladesh-registered cargo ship MV Shejyoti commenced its journey from the Kolkata docks on Friday (17 July) morning and is expected to reach Chattogram Port in southeastern Bangladesh by 21 July. The cargo — steel bars and pulses — will then be transported over about 200 kilometres to Tripura’s capital Agartala.
This journey marks the beginning of a new chapter in connectivity between the North East and the rest of India. In early November last year, a river cargo service was flagged off from Kolkata to Guwahati through Bangladesh.
The Kolkata to Guwahati route is part of the four river transit routes finalised under the Indo-Bangladesh Protocol on Inland Water Transit and Trade signed in June 2015. But the latest multimodal sea-and-land route from Kolkata to Tripura via Chattogram Port was finalised under the initiative of junior shipping minister Mansukh Mandaviya, who pushed the project and ensured the protocol on standard operating procedure (SOP) was finalised in record time.
The Kolkata to Agartala land route through the narrow chicken’s neck corridor in North Bengal and then through Assam and Meghalaya stretches over 1,500 km and takes nearly a month for a truck to traverse. The route passes through hills and landslide-prone zones that can prolong the journey.
“This new route from Kolkata through sea to Chattogram and then to Tripura and beyond to the southern part of Assam, Mizoram and Manipur will reduce journey time for cargo by less than half and will also bring down the cost of transportation substantially,” said Mandaviya.
The minister said the new initiative, like the four routes finalised earlier, is a win-win deal for both the countries.
“We get to transport cargo much faster and at a much lesser cost to the North East. Bangladesh also gains since the cargo will be transported from Chattogram in Bangladeshi trucks. That will be a revenue earner for Bangladeshi transporters and also generate employment in that country,” the minister said.
The four routes finalised under the 2015 protocol were Kolkata to Guwahati, Kolkata to Karimganj (Assam), Karimganj to Guwahati and Rajshahi (Bangladesh) to Dhulian (Bengal).
But while the first three routes facilitate faster and cheaper transportation of goods to and from Assam’s Brahmaputra Valley, the latest sea-and-land transit route inaugurated by Mandaviya will benefit a vast swathe of the eastern and southern part of North East India comprising Tripura, Mizoram, Manipur and the Barak Valley area of southern Assam.
To facilitate easier navigation of cargo vessels and to ensure that they do not run aground, India and Bangladesh have also reached an agreement to dredge two stretches of the inland waterways in Bangladesh — Sirajganj-Daikhawa and Ashuganj-Zakiganj — at a cost of nearly Rs 310 crore. India will bear 80 per cent of this cost.
While opening up these transit routes that have resulted in faster and cheaper transportation of goods to the North East from Bengal (and the rest of India), the Narendra Modi government has initiated a slew of measures to boost exports from the North East.
“The North East has tremendous export potential. Horticulture, agriculture, minerals, bamboo and cane, tea, rubber, processed foods, handlooms and handicrafts are some of the sectors that are being focused on. Many measures have been initiated to boost production and also on value-addition. Over the past five years, packaging and design interventions to enhance the value of products and produce from the region up to international standards has been undertaken,” said a senior officer at the Ministry of Development of North Eastern Region (DoNER).
All those initiatives, including the fresh ones on the anvil, will start showing results “very soon”.
“Once the ships and vehicles that take goods from or through Bangladesh to the North East also carry cargo (produce and products of the North East) during their return journeys, the cost of transportation will come down much more. And it will also result in the economy of the landlocked (North Eastern) region getting a huge boost,” said the DoNER official.
New Delhi is also talking to Bangladesh to allow transit of passenger vessels through its inland waterways and through Chattogram and Mongla ports. This, too, has huge potential.
“Apart from movement of our own citizens from the North East to other parts of the country, it will also open up the North East to tourism in a very big way,” said a senior official of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) who is part of the ongoing talks.
Apart from reduction in transportation time and costs, the transit through Bangladesh will also ease pressure on the 'chicken’s neck corridor' that is a choke point.
“The chicken’s neck corridor is of vital strategic importance, but is choked now with road and rail transport carrying goods and passengers. Our aim is to ease this pressure on that region (North Bengal) to address our strategic concerns,” said the MEA official.
Also, the transit agreements with Bangladesh will enhance movement through the Kolkata port and, hence, its earnings which are very modest at present. If things go according to plan, New Delhi will take up the prospect of transporting cargo directly from ports in Odisha, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu to the North East through Bangladesh.
That, as and when it happens, will be another game-changer for the North East. The landlocked North East is, thus, shedding the ‘tyranny of geography’, thanks to the many initiatives of the Narendra Modi government.
Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.
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