Transit via Bangladesh ports for NE India to give impetus to BBIN construct

Economics Times, July 24, 2020

The first trial container ship from Kolkata to Agartala and Karimganj through Chittagong port has opened up huge opportunities not just for Indo-Bangladesh trade but also sub-regional cooperation that could give impetus to Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal or BBIN construct which is pathbreaking concept in sub-regionalism.

It was for the first time that Bangladesh has allowed its ports to be used as transit for cargo movement to India’s north-eastern states. Access to Chittagong and Mongla seaports in Bangladesh are critical to opening shorter and alternative routes to connect the Northeast region with the rest of India. It drastically cuts short the distance between Kolkata and Agartala via Assam from about 1600km to just about 450 km.

The Standard Operating Procedure for use of Chittagong and Mongla ports for movement of goods to and from India were concluded in 2019 during the visit of Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in October 2019.

This model can feed into BBIN and subsequently into Indo-Pacific construct. Following the signing of the second addendum to the protocol at Dhaka on May 20 this year, each country now has 11 ports of call and two extended ports of call. New ports of call include Jogighopa in Assam which will provide connectivity to Meghalaya and Bhutan as well.

Assam Cabinet has recently granted its approval to allotment of 200 bighas of Ashok Paper Mills for setting up of a Multimodal Logistics Hub at Jogighopa. The proposed multimodal hub will have connectivity through waterways, road and railways and will facilitate in-bound and outbound cargo movement between India and Bangladesh.

NE India’s access to seaports in Bangladesh is expected to give momentum to BBIN. The restoration of the access of the India’s northeast to seaports can influence Bhutan to ratify the BBIN Motor Vehicles Agreement (MVA) that aims at enhanced regional connectivity through facilitation of regional cross-border road transport.

A joint project on multi-modal connectivity in the BBIN sub-region, is being implemented by CUTS International (from India), Bangladesh’s Unnayan Shamannay, Bhutan Media and Communications Institute and Nepal Economic Forum. Coinciding with trial run of container ship from Kolkata to Agartala and Karimganj through Chittagong port, these four entities held a brainstorming session on BBIN multi-modal connectivity.

In recent years Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal (BBIN sub-region) have realised that connectivity precedes trade, stated Bipul Chatterjee, Executive Director, CUTS International, a leading public-policy body. “It is also needed to ensure that the political momentum percolates down to grassroots levels in order to effectively balance the socio-economic and environmental costs and benefits. Considering the communities, private sector and local governments as essential pillars of connectivity can significantly help people on the ground not just to appreciate the larger political will but also understand the value of cooperation,” according to Chatterjee.

Addressing the session Swarnim Wagle, Chairman, Institute for Integrated Development Studies and Former Vice Chairman of the Planning Commission of Nepal, said, “in response to the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, the emerging paradigms of trade and investment need to focus on normalising as well as further scaling up people-to-people linkages in a sustainable manner while addressing quality and efficiency challenges.”

“As a way to advance infrastructure connectivity and address developmental challenges including those resulting in from the COVID-19 pandemic, the G20 Principles for Quality Infrastructure Investment should be fundamental to regional or sub-regional response,” said Shohei Hara, Director General, South Asia Department, Japan International Cooperation Agency.

Arun Roy, an Expert on River Engineering and Inland Waterways Transport, stressed upon the need to unleash the scope to optimise sub-regional linkages between waterways and industrial corridors.

“It is important to improve national and sub-national access as well as to maximise their linkages with the larger world in a cost-effective and environmental friendly manner. It is also important to focus on micro connectivity initiatives such as those by smaller boats between India and Bangladesh to boost people confidence,” he said.

According to Selima Ahmad, Member of Parliament of Bangladesh and President, Bangladesh Women Chambers of Commerce and Industry, “Connectivity is increasingly becoming one of the most important tools to reduce poverty and maintain stability in the sub-region. In doing so, we need to manage vested interests who pose challenges to the grassroots needs and the larger political will.”

Shakti Sinha, Director, Atal Bihari Vajpayee Institute of Policy Research and International Studies, MS University, Vadodara, who also participated in the session stated that “it is essential to adopt an incremental approach to figure out and address implementation challenges facing the sub-region. Other than improving project and process values, we have to do it amid varying political economy considerations of the countries involved.”

Rajeev Singh, Director General, Indian Chamber of Commerce, Kolkata, India, said that “it is an imperative to capture success stories of cooperation between and among the BBIN group of countries.” According to him, the intent is there at the government level but local trader bodies and other cross-border interest groups have been posing implementation challenges.

Talking about the post-COVID scenario in the BBIN sub-region Sandeep Raj Jain, Economic Affairs Officer, Transport Division, United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, shed some lights on key lessons which, according to him, is about realising the importance of digitalisation.
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