Enhancing Siliguri corridor for ease of trade and transit in South Asia

The Economic Times, February 20, 2021

By Bipul Chatterjee and Prashant Sharma

Siliguri in northern West Bengal has a natural advantage for accelerating and epitomising inclusive and sustainable transit transport connectivity for the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal (BBIN) sub-region. As a fulcrum of connectivity as well as transit point between the northeast and the rest of India and with Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal, Siliguri has the potential to accelerate economic recovery and growth for the benefit of the people in this sub-region.

All three immediate neighbours of India on its eastern side – Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal – depend on this trade and transit corridor for their direct as well as third country trade to connect with ports in India and Bangladesh. It provides transit access to Bangladesh for its trade with Nepal and Bhutan. Furthermore, being the most important tri-junction in the Asian Highway-2 (AH-2), it serves as an intersection point between this highway and the Asian Highway-48, which connects India and Bhutan.

With established and emerging trade, transit and logistics connectivity, the potential of Siliguri can help materialise an inclusive transport-led growth for this region, keeping northeast India at its centre. However, the performance of this corridor is currently plagued with asymmetrical trade and transport infrastructure as well as policy, practices and people’s participation gaps.

For example, the promise of realising integrated infrastructure for cross-border trade and movement of people in the form of Integrated Check Posts (ICPs) at the Indian sides of the borders to Bhutan, Nepal and Bangladesh is not yet fully exploited.

A primary reason for this delay is absence of proper cooperation between the Union and the West Bengal State government. As a consequence, the efforts to develop ICPs at Jaigaon and Panitanki – connecting Bhutan and Nepal, respectively – are getting adversely affected despite the fact that the other sides of these border areas are equipped with better infrastructure to facilitate the movement of goods and people.

In terms of access-to and availability-of inter-modal connections, Siliguri is connected to Bagdogra International Airport and New Jalpaiguri Junction Railway Station of the Northeast Frontier Railway, and also has a dry port. The dry port is developed under a public-private partnership with a potential to cater to transit trade and domestic movement of containerised cargo from roadways to railways. However, it is yet to be fully operationalised despite receiving the award for its construction in 2015.

Similarly, its connectivity to Hasimara through the rail link is a potential service to Bhutan. In this context, the feasibility of zero to five rail-links between India and Bhutan including that of a 17.52 kilometre line between Hasimara in West Bengal to Phuentsholing/Pasakha in Bhutan is to be considered. Not only that it can encourage the development of dedicated freight corridors of international importance but also to facilitate cross-border movement of people.

As of now, the rail link to Hasimara has a single and non-electrified track for both passenger and freight trains. Besides expediting the development of cross-border dedicated freight and passenger railway linkages, Indian and Bhutanese governments should ensure private sector and civil society participation from its concept to implementation for an improved capability.

With that, the potential to transform road-borne freights to rail-borne in a containerised format over electrified rail networks will be significant with less congestion yet more robust and resilient infrastructure network. The containerisation of freights is also critical for efficiently utilising the established and emerging inland waterways linkages available in and around these locations.

Similarly, the performance of border infrastructure at Panitanki is to be enhanced in order to improve the quality of trade and transit cargo movements to and from Nepal. The AH-2 and the Mechi River Bridge can play a transformative role. However, problems such as inadequate parking space for trucks, conditions of labourers, absence of testing and certification capacities at the Panitanki border and in Siliguri tend to dampen the infrastructure and trade facilitation reforms undertaken by two countries.

Furthermore, recurring impact of infrastructure and trade facilitation reforms on the lives and livelihoods of border communities remains non-existent. For example, as part of land acquisition for AH-2, the border communities were compensated and land-use conversions were coordinated with an in-principle assurance to resolve problems pertaining to drinking water needs. In reality, while the Indian side of the AH-2 is yielding commercial benefits to public and private entities, its impact on the border communities is still insignificant.

On the other hand, the cross-border infrastructure at Phulbari that caters to Banglabandha border in Bangladesh is relatively better in terms of integrated facilities and operations pertaining to the movement of trade and transit cargo and that of the people. Several lessons can be drawn from its operational experiences and should be replicated.

However, a larger issue is despite catering to crucial linkages, the experience of people living as well as moving through Siliguri is pitiful. Jam-packed roads and haphazard movement and parking of trucks, among others, is a usual sight. A long-held political demand to resolve the problem of congestion by negotiating and developing an additional corridor linking different parts of West Bengal via Bangladesh and bypassing Siliguri remains unattended.

On the lines of the Tinbigha corridor, which connects different parts of Bangladesh via an Indian territory, this can be done in Tetulia connecting North Dinajpur with Jalpaiguri districts of West Bengal via Bangladesh. This is just about a six kilometres stretch and can even be in the form of an elevated road. There is, of course, resistance from transporters’ cartel which is exploiting trade and transit infrastructure in Siliguri for their profiteering.

In short, trade- and people-centric infrastructure development in and around the Siliguri corridor that promotes ease of doing business as well as ease of living while enabling socio-economic welfare of border communities is an imperative and its time had arrived. With that, the Siliguri corridor will act as a test bed for framing and implementing inclusive and sustainable trade and transit connectivity linkages with our immediate neighbours.

Bipul Chatterjee and Prashant Sharma are Executive Director and Assistant Director respectively, CUTS International, a global public policy think- and action-tank on trade, regulations and governance

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