The last eight years under Prime Minister Narendra Modi has witnessed a dramatic improvement in bilateral ties with Bangladesh.
This has led to a slew of trade and transit agreements primarily aimed at neutralising the ‘land-locked’ disadvantage that has kept North East India from realising even a fraction of its economic potential.
One such major route, which will be operational by early next year, is the Agartala to Chattogram land route via the Maitri Bridge over Feni river that forms the boundary between India and Bangladesh in the Tripura sector.
The 1.9 kilometre-long bridge between Sabroom in south Tripura and Ramgarh in Bangladesh was inaugurated jointly by Prime Minister Modi and his Bangladesh counterpart Sheikh Hasina in March last year.
The Rs 133 crore bridge, whose foundation stone was laid by Modi and Hasina in June 2015, has been funded entirely by India.
But due to a variety of reasons, Bangladesh could not set up immigration and customs facilities on its side of the border.
“We have been informed that Bangladesh is now making hectic preparations to make these facilities ready by next month. This route will, hopefully, become operational by end-January and will make Tripura a gateway to Southeast Asia,” Tripura Chief Minister Manik Saha told Swarajya.
Once the land route from Sabroom to Ramgarh opens to goods traffic between the two countries, it will lead to easier, faster and cheaper transportation of cargo to and from the rest of India to the northeastern part of the country.
That’s because it (the route) will make it much easier to gain access to the deep sea ports at Chattogram and Cox’s Bazar for goods originating from or destined for Tripura and then the other states of that region.
Once the route through Maitri Bridge becomes functional, Tripura’s capital Agartala will be just 231 kilometres from Chattogram port and 370 kilometres away from Cox’s Bazar.
Taking into consideration customs and other formalities, a cargo truck from Cox’s Bazar will be able to reach Agartala in about 10 hours and one from Chattogram port in less than six hours.
It takes a sea-going vessel sailing at an average and moderate speed of 10 knots about 30 hours to cover the 338 nautical miles between Haldia port in Bengal to Chattogram port in Bangladesh and about 28 hours to sail between Haldia and Cox’s Bazar.
“Chattogram and Cox’s Bazar are deep sea ports where large ocean-going vessels dock and these two ports are easily accessible from not just Haldia, but all other ports on our eastern coastline. So transporting goods, including heavy machinery, from any part of India to the North East through our ports on the eastern seaboard will become cheaper and faster,” Union Ports, Shipping and Waterways Minister Sarbananda Sonowal told Swarajya.
At present, most cargo from the rest of India to the North East (and vice-versa) travels mostly by the land route (and a small portion by rail) through the narrow chicken’s neck corridor in North Bengal. That is a circuitous and congested route which is also vulnerable because of its proximity to China-occupied Tibet.
It takes at least six days, and often even more, for a cargo truck to travel the nearly 1,600 kilometres between Kolkata and Agartala. This land route passes through landslide-prone hills that get cut off during the monsoon season.
But a cargo container from Kolkata can be transported in less than three days, and at much lower cost, from Kolkata to Haldia by road, and then on a sea-going vessel to Chattogram before being taken by road to Agartala.
“The states on the eastern flank of North East India like Tripura, Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland and even eastern Arunachal Pradesh and south Assam will benefit a lot once the land route from Agartala to Chattogram port via the Maitri Bridge becomes operational,” said Union Minister Sonowal.
Tripura chief minister Manik Saha said that once the land route through the Maitri Bridge becomes operational, it will “open up immense possibilities of trade between North East India and Southeast Asia”.
“The easy access to Chattogram and Cox’s Bazar ports that this route will facilitate will also open up trade with Southeast Asia. It will become very easy to transport goods, including perishable goods like agricultural products, from this region to Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia through the sea route,” said Saha.
The Hadia-Chattogram-Agartala multi-modal transit route also serves as a strategic alternative to the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project through Myanmar.
Chief Minister Saha said the cost of transporting goods from Kolkata to Agartala through this route (via Chattogram port and then Maitri Bridge) will come down by as much as 80 per cent.
“It is also very difficult now to transport very heavy machinery from other parts of India to Agartala, Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland and southern Assam by the existing land route through the chicken’s neck corridor in North Bengal because the route is narrow and bad in some stretches. But the new route will pose no hurdles,” he said.
New Indo-Bangla Rail Link
The road transit route from Agartala to Chattogram via the Maitri Bridge over Feni river will be complemented by a rail link.
“The rail link between Belonia (Tripura) and Feni (Bangladesh) that was snapped after the 1965 (India-Pakistan) war will be revived soon,” said Chief Minister Saha.
It now takes a little over two hours to travel from Agartala to Belonia by train. Journey time between Belonia and Feni (Bangladesh) will be an hour (add another hour for customs and other formalities for cargo movement through the Indo-Bangla border). From Feni, it takes less than two hours to travel by rail to Chattogram.
Thus, a goods train will take about six hours to run from Chattogram port to Agartala once the Belonia-Feni rail link is revived.
The survey work for reviving the Belonia-Feni rail link was completed by the Northeast Frontier Railway (NFR) a few months ago and was sent to the Railway Board for approval.
Tripura Chief Minister Saha said that this rail project is expected to be cleared by the Railway Board soon. The Prime Minister’s Office, said Saha, is taking a keen interest in this project.
Saha pointed out that once this rail link between Belonia and Feri becomes operational, cargo can also be transported from Chattogram port to Agartala and then to other places of the North East by rail.
“This rail route will be an alternative to the land route from Chattogram and the two will be complementary to each other,” he said.
Saha added that earlier, there was “only perfunctory and idle talk of connecting the North East through Bangladesh”.
“Under Prime Minister Modi, this (connecting North East by multi-modal means) is becoming a reality very fast. And this will boost the economy of the entire region,” he said.
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