Patna To Guwahati, Via Bengal And Bangladesh: How Modi Sarkar Intends To Unlock NE India’s Potential By Developing Waterways

Jaideep Mazumdar

Feb 08, 2022, 05:45 PM | Updated 05:45 PM IST

Union Minister of Shipping and Waterways Sarbananda Sonowal
Union Minister of Shipping and Waterways Sarbananda Sonowal
  • Waterways Minister Sarbananda Sonowal recently flagged off a cargo ship carrying foodgrains from Patna that will make its way through Bengal and Bangladesh to reach Guwahati’s Pandu port.
  • The ship will take an estimated 25 days to travel this distance of 2,350 kilometers.
  • A significant but little-publicised development last weekend holds the potential to be a game changer for Northeast India.

    Saturday (5 February) saw Waterways Minister Sarbananda Sonowal flagging off a cargo ship carrying foodgrains from Patna that will make its way through Bengal and Bangladesh to reach Guwahati’s Pandu port.

    As part of its policy to develop waterways for cheaper and ‘greener’ movement of cargo and passengers, the Modi government has been focusing on using rivers to unlock development opportunities for the landlocked Northeast region of the country.

    The flagging off ceremony marked the formal inauguration of the vital link between national waterway-1 (from Prayagraj in Uttar Pradesh to Haldia in Bengal) and national waterway-2 (from Dibrugarh to Dhubri in Assam) through Bangladesh’s rivers.

    The cargo vessel--MV Lal Bahadur Shastri--will sail down the Ganga and Hooghly to reach Haldia and then skirt the sea coast of Bengal and Bangladesh to travel upstream through the Indo-Bangladesh Protocol Route-1 through Bangladesh’s Khulna, Narayanganj, Sirajganj and Chilmari to enter Assam through Dhubri and sail upstream through the Brahmaputra to reach Pandu.

    The ship will take an estimated 25 days to travel this distance (between Patna and Pandu) of 2,350 kilometers. Transporting cargo from Bihar to Assam through this waterway route will cost about 25 per cent less than the overland road route. Apart from being cheaper, waterways also present a ‘greener’ option since river vessels are much less polluting than trucks.

    Senior officers at the Union Ministry of Shipping and Waterways told Swarajya that once more cargo vessels start operating on this route and when they get return cargo (from Assam), freight costs will go down further.

    Sonowal said that waterways will unlock the potential of Northeast India. “Being landlocked and having been totally dependent on the road and rail routes for transportation of goods, the odds have always been stacked against the Northeast. Moreover, with the road and rail links between the Northeast and the rest of the country passing through the narrow North Bengal corridor has always presented many problems since the routes through this constricted corridor are highly congested,” Sononwal told Swarajya.

    The Minister said that opening of the river routes will also result in promoting trade between the Northeast and Bangladesh. “Businessmen, exporters and importers and tour operators of both the countries will benefit immensely from the opening of the Indo-Bangladesh Protocol (IBP) routes,” he said.

    While IBP-1 is the one that MV Lal Bahadur Shastri will take, IBP-2 bifurcates from Narayanganj to head towards Ashuganj (Bangladesh) and ends at Karimganj in south Assam. “National waterway-1 will serve the Brahmaputra Valley, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur while the other states of the region will benefit from national waterway-16 in the Barak Valley. National Waterway-16 will lead to the waterway IBP-2 to take vessels to Chittagong and other ports in Bangladesh or through Bengal to the rest of the country,” said Sonowal.

    These waterways will open up vast markets, both domestic and international, to manufacturers and exporters from the Northeast. The Union Government estimates that in one decade, the volume of traffic passing through National Waterways 1 and 16 and the two IBP routes would be worth at least Rs 800 crore.

    “Successive governments in the past only paid lip service to the development of waterways for cargo and passenger traffic. It was Narendra Modi, after he became the Prime Minister in 2014, who took concrete steps to operationalise river routes, build proper infrastructure, pass legislation and grant clearances and sign the Indo-Bangladesh Protocol in 2015. This protocol is a game-changer for the Northeast since it allows exporters and importers from Northeast hasslefree and seamless access to ports in Bangladesh and use of rivers in Bangladesh to transit to Bengal,” said Sonowal.

    To facilitate more freight movement through national waterways-1 from Bihar, the Union government is constructing an intermodal terminal at Kalughat in Saran, about 40 kilometers west of Patna. This Rs 79 crore project will be completed by the end of next year. Kalughat is on the banks of the Ganga and is connected to National Highway 19 which is a short distance away. This intermodal terminal will benefit traders, exporters and importers from eastern Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Nepal.

    Sonowal said that India is helping Bangladesh maintain the two IBP routes. India will bear 80 per cent of the nearly Rs 306 crore that is being spent to facilitate easy navigation through these two routes by dredging the rivers. Bangladesh will bear 20 per cent of the cost. As per an agreement between India and Bangladesh, the contract for dredging these two routes has been awarded till 2026 and after that, a fresh contract will be awarded.

    Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said that apart from heavy machinery and other goods, the opening of the river routes through Bangladesh for freight and passenger transit would boost exports of agricultural produce, handicrafts and other goods from not only Assam, but the entire Northeast.

    Apart from riverine transport, the Modi government is working with Bangladesh to open up more road and rail transit links for movement of cargo and passenger traffic between Northeast India and the rest of the country.

    “Connectivity is the key to unlocking the potential of the Northeastern region and boost its economy. Apart from facilitating exports and imports, the opening of road, rail and river transit through Bangladesh will also make the region an attractive investment destination. The Northeast has a lot of positives that wait to be tapped. And developing these routes will make the region a logistics and manufacturing hub that can cater to Southeast Asia and beyond,” said economist Pranay Borthakur who is associated with a Guwahati-based financial institution.

    CM Himanta Biswa Sarma puts it succinctly: “The UPA sarkar formulated the ‘Look East’ policy which involved only looking on and twiddling thumbs. The Modi sarkar got working on the ‘Act East’ policy that is resulting in all this. The difference lies between merely looking on and working on set goals”.

    Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.

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