Can trade in the northeast boom with Integrated Check Posts (ICPs)?

India Narrative, March 30, 2022

By Suresh Prasad Singh and Deepmala Ghosh

Efficient cross-border transport connectivity and logistics are building blocks for optimising trade potentiality. The initiative to establish Integrated Check Posts (ICPs) along India’s borders is one such building block for efficient connectivity and logistics. Some of them can be converted into multi-modal ICPs for more cross-border trade with further efficiency.

ICPs, along with well-established transport connectivity up to the border check posts, resembles a single window infrastructure for all import-export activities. These include all necessary support services such as customs processing hall, customs and immigration clearance hall, weighbridges, quarantine facilities, export and import warehouses, area for loose cargo, parking area, security services, canteen for staff, toilet blocks, and administrative building to ensure smooth operation of cross-border trade.

The ICPs in India are operated and managed by the Land Ports Authority of India (LPAI), a statutory body under the Department of Border Management, Ministry of Home Affairs, established under the Land Ports Authority of India Act, 2010. The provisions of the Act came into force in March 2012. It gives powers to LPAI to develop, sanitise and manage the facilities for cross-border movements of passengers and goods at designated points along the international borders of India.

Since its inception in 2012, the LPAI has developed nine ICPs – four at India-Bangladesh borders (Agartala, Petrapole, Srimantapur, Sutarkandi); two at India-Nepal borders (Jogbani, Raxaul); one at India-Myanmar border (Moreh); and two at India-Pakistan borders (Attari, Dera Baba Nanak). Out of them, Dera Baba Nanak ICP at Kartarpur in Punjab is exclusively dedicated to passenger movements.

In 2020-21, as per the LPAI, these ICPs facilitated trade worth Rs 95,488 crore, which constitutes about 40 percent of India’s total trade with neighboring countries. This is nearly threefold jump compared to trade through these check posts in 2012-13 valued at Rs 32,746 crore. Furthermore, in 2020-21, they facilitated cross-border movements of 262,396 persons.

Several new ICPs are planned to be set up in the coming periods, and the number is expected to reach 24 by 2030. Considering their trade and transit potential, it is an imperative that ICPs are connected through other possible modes of transportation such as railways, waterways, and also airways so as to enable them to work as multi-modal nodes to further advance inter- and intra-regional connectivity and trade.

Some ICPs already have more than one mode of connectivity. For instance, a six km long railway line between Raxaul in India and Sirsiya Inland Container Depot (ICD) near Birgunj in Nepal is under operation and used for freight transport between the two countries. Also, the work is in progress to connect Jogbani (India) to Biratnagar (Nepal) and beyond through a 18.6 km long broad gauge line connecting with the industrial area of Biratnagar in Nepal.

Few other ICPs are suitably placed to be connected through more than one mode of transportation. All of them are in Northeast India. The LPAI should take them as priority for multi-modal ICPs.

Sutarkandi, Assam

Sutarkandi, located at a distance of about 15 km from Karimganj district town in Assam, has an operational ICP. This ICP mirrors Shewla in Bangladesh. It has close proximity to different modes of transportation; National Highways, Railways, and Waterways.

Two National Highways (NH 151 and NH 7) pass through Sutarkandi and connects Sutarkandi to Karimganj in India and Sylhet in Bangladesh.

The Mahishasan railway station, defunct since 1966, is located just 10 km away from this ICP and has the potential to be extended to Shahabajpur in Sylhet, Bangladesh and further to Akhaura in Bangladesh, which is close to Agartala, Tripura.

Furthermore, there is a waterway connectivity via the Kushiara River at Lakhi Bazar, which is just three km from this ICP. The nearest airport to Sutarkandi is Silchar, which is 100 km away.

Strengthening of multi-modal transport connectivity at this ICP through the revival of rail route and other modes of transportation can be a game changer for the Barak Valley in Assam and also for western Tripura and adjoining areas of Bangladesh.

Sabroom, Tripura

This is a proposed ICP located in South Tripura district along the international border mirroring Ramgarh in Bangladesh. The foundation stone for the ICP has been laid in March 2021 and construction work has started. The project is likely to be completed in the next one and half year (August 2023). On the other hand, the Bangladesh government is also in the process of construction new infrastructure at Ramgarh. This ICP will have connectivity with NH 08 and NH 208. The construction of 122 km long Agartala to Sabroom section of NH 08, including the Feni Bridge at the international border of India and Bangladesh in the state of Tripura in in progress. The 265 km long NH 208 starts from its junction with NH 08 near Kumarghat and connects various locations of Tripura to the Sabroom ICP, including Kailashahar, Khowai, Teliamura, Amarpur.

The Sabroom railway station is located at a distance of less than 5 km from this ICP. It is well connected with Agartala, the capital city of Tripura. A 114.6 km long railway line between Agartala and Sabroom is operational since October 2019.

Onwards, Sabroom is directly connected to the Chattogram Port of Bangladesh, which is about 75 km from the proposed ICP and is connected through 1.8 km long Maitree Setu (bridge) on the Feni River.

A significant development near the Sabroom ICP is the Indian Government’s decision to set up a Special Economic Zone (SEZ). There are plans to set up rubber, bamboo, agri-based products and food processing industries in this SEZ. The foundation for the same has already been laid in September 2020.

Ensuring effective and efficient connectivity to the Sabroom ICP through different modes of transportation will not only be a huge boost to inter- and intra-regional connectivity in the Northeast region of India, but also it will be an enabling factor for the people and products from the Northeast region to have easier and economic access to the rest of the world.

At present exports from the Northeast region is suboptimal and concentrated in a few states. Out of total exports from eight north-eastern states, valued at $ 455.2 million in 2020-21, Assam alone accounted for US$ 415.6 million. This is in sharp contrast to its potential, as the region has 98 percent borders with neighbouring countries.

Dhubri, Assam

Dhubri, situated about 244 km west from Dispur, the capital of Assam, has a river port known as Dhubri Steamer Ghat on the banks of the Brahmaputra River, and Land Customs Station. It does not have an ICP at the moment. However, its locational advantage makes it a good case for exploring the possibility of setting up a multi-modal ICP.

Dhubri port is well connected by diverse modes of transportation, including roadways, waterways, railways and airways. NH 17, which starts from its junction with NH 10 at Sevoke, Darjeeling in West Bengal passes through Siliguri, Golakganj, and Dhubri districts before terminating at Guwahati in Assam. In Guwahati, it connects with NH 27, which starts from Gujarat in western India and terminates at Silchar in Assam, thereby connecting many other states of west and north India with the Northeast.

Bordering Bangladesh, Dhubri river port has operational waterways connectivity. This port on the National Waterway 2 (the Brahmaputra River) along the India-Bangladesh Protocol Routes 7 and 8 is connected with Chilmari in Bangladesh, and further to Haldia and Kolkata Ports, wherein it connects with the National Waterway 1 (the Ganga River).

As per available information, the Inland Waterways Authority of India is planning to run a fixed schedule sailing between NW1 and NW2 heralding a new era of inland water transport for Assam and other parts of Northeast India. The vessel movement has already been started. Recently, MV Lal Bhadur Shashtri, a self-propelled vessel carrying 200 metric tonnes of rice, started its sail from Patna on NW1 and passed through Bhagalpur, Manihari, Sahibganj, Farakka, Tribeni, Kolkata, Haldia, Hemnagar in India and then through the India-Bangladesh Protocol Route through Khulna, Narayanganj, Sirajganj, Chilmari in Bangladesh and finally on NW2 through Dhubri and Jogighopa. The vessel reached Pandu port in 25 days covering a distance of 2,350 km.

Dhubri post is also an important port for third country trade. Third country goods from Bhutan are sent to Chilmari, Bangladesh through this port.

With regard to railway connectivity, Dhubri is well-connected with Guwahati in the east and New Coch Behar in the west. In order to establish connectivity with the upcoming Jogighopa Multi-modal Logistics Park, a new line is being laid down. Furthermore, the Alipurduar Division of the Northeast Frontier Railway has started operating goods train through the newly-constructed New Cooch Behar-Gauripur-Abhayapuri-Goalpara section, which is a part of New Maynaguri-Jogighopa railway line project.

The nearest airport to Dhubri is the Rupsi Airport, which is presently operating under the UDAN (Ude Desk ki Aam Nagarik) initiative. This airport has connectivity with Kolkata, West Bengal and Guwahati, Assam. In short, the opportunity for realising optimal trade potential on Northeast India hinges on efficient inter- and intra-regional transport connectivity and logistics. Strengthening existing ICPs by connecting them with various modes of transportation and also transforming some locationally-critical Land Custom Stations to ICPs holds the key. These three locations should be considered for converting them from single-mode ICPs/LCS to multi-modal ICPs.

(Singh and Ghosh are Fellow and Research Associate, CUTS International, a global public policy think- and action-tank working on trade, regulation and governance)

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