As the much-awaited commercial railway services commence between Haldibari in West Bengal and Chilahati located across the border in Bangladesh’s Nilphamari district on Sunday, the two countries are moving fast on resuming other critical trans-boundary rail links, especially as the measure to cope up with the post Covid revival. Last year, the Haldibari-Chilahati rail link was inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bangladesh counterpart Sheikh Hasina. The Haldibari-Chilahati rail link has been revived after almost 55 years.
Bangladesh’s vision document for Master Plan for 2041 underlined that to move to industry 4.0 a change in trade and industrial policies in tune with 21st century cross-border transactions of goods and services will be key.
Foreign policy experts said that India must align itself with this mega plan.
“South Asia, as a region, needs to be looked at holistically if the true growth potential is to be achieved. The countries must look at increasing connectivity which in turn will boost trade further,” Bipul Chatterjee, Executive Director, CUTS International told India Narrative. “Multimodal connectivity—roads, rail and waterways – is the focus now. Connectivity in the region was good even after independence but then things changed. We need to revive that to boost development in the region,” he said
The Border Haats – local markets aimed to improve livelihoods of the people living near the border areas— have already been a success.
According to the World Bank, seamless transport connectivity between India and Bangladesh has the potential to increase national income by as much as 17 per cent in Bangladesh and 8 per cent in India.
“Once connectivity is boosted and people to people contact increases and this in turn automatically pushes trade,” Nazneen Ahmed Senior Research Fellow, Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS) said earlier.
“While trade between India and Bangladesh has increased substantially over the last decade, it is estimated to be $10 billion below its current potential. The World Bank is supporting the Government of Bangladesh to strengthen regional and trade transit through various investments in regional road and waterways corridors, priority land ports, and digital and automated systems for trade,” Mercy Tembon, World Bank Country Director for Bangladesh and Bhutan said in a statement.
Weak transport integration makes the border between Bangladesh and India thick. Crossing the India–Bangladesh border at Petrapole–Benapole, the most important border post between the two countries, takes several days. In contrast, the time to cross borders handling similar volumes of traffic in other regions of the world, including East Africa, is less than six hours, the World Bank report highlights.
Progress has been made
The two governments have been working on further integration. “Good progress has been made in securing energy trade agreements with India. As a result, imports of power have gone up from zero in FY2010 to 1160MW in FY2019. This is a good sign and opens up prospects for more and better energy trade with India and other neighbours including Bhutan and Nepal,” the vision document said.
Analysts also said that the countries in the region have common culture and history. “These countries need to draw lessons from each other to be able to develop collectively,” said one of them. While India’s Economic Survey underlined that India needs to learn from Bangladesh on issues relating to exports, the Bangladesh vision document said that there is considerable research ongoing in India in the context of its Housing for All by 2022 Initiative19. “Bangladesh will draw on this experience,” the document said.
Importance of the Northeastern states
The importance of India’s northeastern states which border several countries such as Myanmar, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China and Nepal, has been increasing with the changing geopolitical contours amid a belligerent China. The Australian Institute of International Affairs in a study noted that although the states of Northeast India are small—physically, numerically and economically—they are increasingly gaining a significant strategic value. “With ASEAN engagement becoming a central pillar of India’s foreign policy direction, these states play an important role as the physical bridge between India and Southeast Asia,” it said.
Sources in New Delhi said that Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, a former Congressman, now a trusted lieutenant of Modi will play a key role in the development and integration process not just within the northeastern region but also internationally.