The Financial Express

Dealing with transit in another name will not help

Dealing with transit in another name will not help

India has requested for a full-scale transit operation through Bangladesh sea ports. One may not possibly be wrong to wonder if it is vaccine diplomacy that has prompted India to place the request at an opportune moment. Newspaper reports quoting official sources say India has requested for use of the two Bangladesh sea ports Chottogram and Mongla for regular transit of cargoes.

Transit, for good reasons, has been an issue fraught with many controversies ever since it came up for negotiations years back. Clearly, this was mostly because of a lack of understanding as regards the implications of a massive operation involving roads, rails and waterways (including seaports) as well as the need to follow standard international protocols. It is commonly believed that the government's less than resolute stand in dealing with matters on transit with India is due mainly to unprofessional handling. Many tend to believe that at the heart of the matter, there is an appalling lack of expertise, prompted largely by the absence of a designated agency to handle such an important subject. Ideally, it is the ministry of commerce that should be the focal point to deal with transit related matters. But as things stand now, it is sometimes the ministry of shipping, sometimes the NBR which are called upon to act, albeit in a reactive manner. 

India, it has been learnt, while requesting for transit facilities, has sought electronic filing of the import general manifest (IGM) for transit cargo instead of the manual IGM available at present. From Bangladesh side, reportedly, there are other issues, too, that need to be resolved before considering operationalisation of transit. A trial run was conducted around six months back on the use of both the Bangladesh ports under the bilateral deal-- namely agreement on the use of Chattogram and Mongla port for the movement of goods to and from India. The agreement was signed in October 2010.

It is obvious that by dubbing it an agreement on 'movement of goods to and from' and not as one on transit and transshipment, both India and Bangladesh wanted to stay away from the sensitivity of the subject. But is this not a misrepresentation, distortion too, of a transit operation that needs a whole gamut of standard procedures to be in place?

Concerned quarters are aware that both sides have resorted to dealing with the matter in bits and pieces, instead of putting things under a comprehensive framework--- which will require sorting out things once and for all, and that can only be done if both sides sit down to work on a proper transit agreement setting out all standard operating procedures (SOPs).

Bangladesh and India are signatories to a bilateral protocol on inland water transit (IWT) for quite a long time. Although this is the only recognised transit operation meant to facilitate movement of Indian cargo through Bangladesh territories, it has not been a transit mechanism per se in conformity with standard international practices. Given the small volume of cargo movement through the designated river routes under the protocol, Bangladesh did not consider it an important source of revenue and was content with the yearly conservancy charges realised from India. Lately, the IWT protocol was amended to include more ports of call and also to allow transshipment and overland movement of transit cargo from Ashuganj to Agartola. The amendments have rendered the protocol far more handy in facilitating the movement of Indian transit cargo between Tripura and other northeastern states. With increased activities, the conservancy charges were raised. But what still continues to be lacking is a proper framework under which the transit operation should have been conducted.

In order to address the entire issue-- transit through all  modes such as land, rail and waterways (including sea ports), the government of Bangladesh had set up a core committee comprising communication experts, economists, transport specialists and all relevant stakeholders to prepare an analytical report on how to go about the transit issue. The core committee's report, not made public, has reportedly dealt with the subject at length, suggesting among others the routes under various modes of transports, fees and charges to be levied in the light of standard international practices, and the cost of infrastructure building that Bangladesh as the transit-offering country will have to bear. The report, it has been learnt, also mentioned the protocols that will have to be in place to sustain the transit operation.

The report, as experts involved in its preparation mentioned, should have formed the basic premise for negotiations between Bangladesh and India. This has not happened and it is far from happening. Bangladesh has not asked India to sit for negotiations. India, in its turn, has resorted to what under the circumstances it considered appropriate- signing piecemeal deals with Bangladesh on transshipment facilities at Akhaura, carrying of transit goods overland without handling charges, arrangement for regulation of passenger and cargo vehicular traffic, and lastly for use of Chottogram and Mongla sea ports.

Transit operation is a gigantic activity involving not only massive investment on the part of the country offering transit, but at the same time it is integrally related to a host of economic, political, security and management issues. Standard international practices confirm that a sustainable transit operation is essentially about taking into account all such issues with as much accuracy and precision as possible in order that it is rendered win-win for the contracting parties. Hence, an ad-hoc or piecemeal approach or treating one mode of transit in isolation from another will make way for misleading propositions.

A comprehensive transit agreement involving roads, waterways and railways calls for extensive negotiations. Since Bangladesh is the transit giving country, the onus is understandably on Bangladesh to propose how it wants the transit mechanism to work. There are recognised international practices to follow, and bilateral negations alone can strike such a deal. However, given the extensive nature of the subject, chances that such negotiations would take time are quite likely. Experts and economists alike are of the opinion that as a starter, both countries can agree to sign a framework agreement - a broad outline of the key features and obligations of the respective sides. Once such a framework is done with, both sides should be prepared for the key task - a continuous process of negotiations to decide on matters such as routes, charges, transportation modalities and all other relevant issues that constitute standard parameters for a transit agreement. Things cannot be sorted out to the mutual benefit through piecemeal deals.

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