The story so far: Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina offered India use of the port of Chittagong when Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar visited her in Dhaka last month for an invitation to New Delhi. Ms Hasina said the port would be beneficial for the north-eastern states of India, particularly Assam and Tripura. Bangladesh’s other two northeastern neighbors – Meghalaya and Mizoram – could also benefit from access to the port.
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How has the division affected business in the Northeast?
India’s north-east, prior to independence, had easy access to seaports via the Brahmaputra and Barak river systems, particularly Chittagong in present-day Bangladesh. Partition in 1947 did not immediately affect the movement of tea, timber, coal and oil through these rivers and local border trade, and helped maintain undivided Assam’s status as the highest-per-capita-income state until in to sustain the early 1950s. But trade volumes began to fall as ties between India and Pakistan – Bangladesh was then East Pakistan – broke up before the 1965 war severed the northeast. The movement of goods through the Chicken’s Neck, a narrow strip in West Bengal, became a more costly alternative for the region after river and land routes through East Pakistan were denied access.
Did things change after Bangladesh was formed?
The founding of Bangladesh with India’s help in 1971 did not result in a revival of the traditional river and land trade and communication routes for the Northeast. A degree of distrust between the two countries, largely over the “Bangladesh” issue and the camps set up in Bangladesh by countless extremist groups from the north-east, did not help matters. Also, the two countries haven’t looked closely at trade and trade opportunities. The scenario began to change when Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League government took charge in 2009 and mistrust eased after the signing of the land border agreement ending the dispute in 2015. The two countries made efforts to improve capacity on waterways, roads and railways. From a bus service between Agartala and Calcutta via Dhaka to the transport of goods on barges, test runs and transshipments have been successfully carried out.
What does Bangladesh Prime Minister’s offer mean?
The Northeast has been key to the increase in bilateral ties between India and Bangladesh over the past five years. India’s “Act East” policy, which focuses on the region, and a renewed sense of cooperation between the two countries can help the Northeast, four states in particular, to make the most of the potential for economic activity. These states – Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram – share a 1,879 km border with Bangladesh. With special attention to railroads and waterways, many of the pre-partition trade routes are being revived. Most of these roads lead to Chittagong Port, which historically has been the region’s largest and most convenient for trade and commerce. The importance of this port prompted British administrators to build the Assam-Bengal railway to transport goods from the Chittagong port to the most remote parts of the region, such as the now-disused Lekhapani station near the Arunachal Pradesh-Assam border .
Are there activities on site?
The need to connect India’s ‘mainland’ and the Northeast via Bangladesh through a multimodal approach has long existed. It has been put into action on the ground over the past five years after it was determined that reopening pre-partition trade routes would reduce transport costs and times for the Northeast and generate revenue for Bangladesh. India has been working on infrastructure on both sides of the border. In March 2021, the prime ministers of the two countries inaugurated the Maitri Setu, a bridge built across the Feni River that has reduced the distance between Sabroom in southern Tripura and the port of Chittagong to just 111 km. The government is working on a multimodal transit hub in Sabroom, including road and rail links, which can help goods reach Chittagong Port in a matter of hours. Road connectivity at Dawki in Meghalaya, Sutarkandi in southern Assam and Akhaura in Tripura, which connect east and south-east Bangladesh, will also be improved. Mizoram is very interested in bridges over the Khawthlangtuipui River (Karnaphuli in Bangladesh) for faster access to Chittagong Port. Apart from the India-Bangladesh Protocol route using the Brahmaputra, Bangladeshi cargo ships have reached Tripura via the Gomati River and Assam’s Karimganj via the Kushiara River.