Bangladesh's transshipment arrangements with India come amid a surge in infrastructure development, meaning that the passageway from Kolkata to Agartala will see automatic benefits, writes Imtiaz A. Hussain
Bangladesh is the missing link in India's transshipment policy pursuits: access through its deltaic plains would better integrate Arunchal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura with the country's heartland. These, in addition to West Bengal, Assam and Meghalaya, share the net 4,096-kilometre border with Bangladesh. Indian transshipment particularly feeds West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee's hopes of cultural integration and joint exploitation of the sensitive Sundarbans for holiday-makers, as part of her hopes to make her province punch higher in the Indian hierarchy of states than it presently does. So too must Bangladesh see Indian transshipment as an essential step towards tighter bilateral relations: there will be obstacles, since every new measure does displace some ongoing practice, but should the opportunities this entails be elevated, both countries could indeed find bilateral ties on an escalator of progress.
Taking trade, for example, as Rejaul Karim Byron and Md. Fazlur Rahman recently pointed out in an article in a local English-language daily, the river-based Kolkata-Agartala transshipment route through Ashuganj and Akhaura would reduce Bangladesh exports of iron rod, possibly the stone that comes from India for crushing in Sylhet before being shipped back to Tripura, as well as other commodities. These are minor inconveniences compared to the opportunities opened.
First of all, Bangladesh's transshipment arrangements with India come amid a surge in infrastructure development, meaning that the passageway from Kolkata to Agartala will see automatic benefits. Already the mid-June opening of Ashuganj port in Brahmanbaria paves the way for all kinds of storage, power, and communications networks, not to mention the security and supervisory functionaries of the government, as well as all the ancillary business destined to benefit from projects like this, such as banks, markets, and shipping. From there, the 52-km land route to Akhaura on the border must be upgraded for the type of merchandise expected, not just now, but into the foreseeable future when trading iron rods may easily be dwarfed by even larger and heavier exchange products. These developments also capitalise on the growth of the newly established Akhaura border outpost, giving it a boost when it needs that stimulus the most. Ultimately, all of the above improvements strengthen our infrastructural stock.
Given Bangladesh's friendly relations with Tripura, especially through the age-old familial and business networks between Agartala, Comilla and Chittagong, in the second place, any infrastructure will only build upon existing transactions, expanding them for sure, but also diversifying the contents in the process. Our duty-free fish exports have a bright future in river-starved Tripura; but that is only a peek into the many more commodities that may be traded both ways if there is private sector incentive and interest. Given that interactive past, neither should be a problem.
Thirdly, the promise of expanded potential trade hastens the day of reckoning with India: we cannot just exchange products by meandering around tariffs and other barriers; these have to be downsized as a step towards complete elimination if the Comilla-Tripura, Chittagong-Tripura, and Sylhet-Tripura commercial and camaraderie benefits are to ripple across both countries, Bangladesh and India. We cannot reach that goal through piecemeal measures when other countries have been going full speed over comprehensive trade-easing policies. That is the way trade-building castles were made: the European Union, even amid its current hiccups, still remains the most advanced form of economic integration, but only because far-sighted leaders in the late-1940s and early-1950s sought to convert cross-border transactions and resource deposits into a common entity, beginning modestly, not with the national economy, but from 1950 with sectors (coal and steel), whose resources straddled national boundaries, before expanding beyond the national/regional into the continental, that is, the 1957 European Economic Community (EEC), through the Treaty of Rome (note, signed not where the coal and steel were originally concentrated), implemented from January 01, 1958. To miss such an opportunity now over transshipment should be the way the trade-building cookie will crumble.
A final opportunity stemming from putative transshipment obstacles is simply that the Kolkata-Agartala river-road network is set to witness (a) the opening of the Padma Bridge, and all the hinterland developments that that entails across the Meghna, Munshiganj, and Jessore areas; (b) the completion of the Kolkata-Kunmin Highway, which is guaranteed to bring much heavier and far higher volumes of both traffic and merchandise; (c) the unfolding of the adjacent Bangladesh-Myanmar-India-China (BMIC) Highway, close enough on the east for any networks into Tripura to branch off to, thus opening larger chunks of territory needing development and peoples with infinite demands; and (d) the similar unravelling of the Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal (BBIN) Highway to its west also opening up branches for goods and services to flow. Far from being figments of the imagination, these projects have progressed sufficiently for prudent businessmen, politicians and citizens to start expanding their horizons, adjusting and cutting their cloth.
Given its newly-elected BJP (Bharitiya Janata Party) government, driven as it was by a stern immigration platform that blasted Bangladesh, Assam is not likely to easily accept developments of these kinds; but for the sake of simplicity, should human flows be kept under stricter rules for long enough so that the dust of intra-regional flows could settle, a softer migration problem might then be evaluated for agreement: if the hostile people of France and the Federal Republic of Germany could be brought together almost immediately after World War II, and similarly for West and East Europeans immediately after the Cold War ended, there is hope that (a) centuries of mistrust can also be overcome across the eastern part of India, including Bangladesh, as a step towards better economic exploitation for the entire South Asia one day soon; and (b) the thorny immigration issue can be effectively tamed. Opening mutually respectable border outposts, not just to manage smuggling, trouble-makers, terrorists, and travellers, but ultimately goods and work-related services, would go a long way to help that dust settle: Rajshahi mangoes on Assami plates and Darjeeling tea in Rajshahi cups, Meghalayan coal and limestone for Bangladesh cement and energy factories and Bangladesh agricultural products for Meghalayan growth, Meghna hilsa for Agartalan restaurants and Tripuran tourists for Bangladeshi sites are the kinds of dreams that Jean Monnet, Rober Schuman, Alcide de Gasperi, and Konrad Adenauer once had across West European products and peoples which their successors belaboured to materialise for over 50 years. If the sun rises in the east, then there is no reason why Bangladesh and India, where each sunrise happens before it does in West Europe, cannot do as much. Mamata Banerjee sometimes envisions targets, very much like those West European integrationists, like the cross-border Sundarbans cruise project. We only hope, half a century down the road, our successors will be not just relishing the fruits of her vision, but also breed more of their own to consolidate a still very slippery transshipment notion today.
Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.