Improving the state of the country's land ports is an issue that surfaces only occasionally. No doubt, there have been improvements over the decades, but the unfortunate part is the absence of proactive initiatives to match the improvements made with the growing needs of the traders. In other words, keeping up with emerging needs of cross-border trading, which should have been a major objective to carry things forward, has been missing.
Land ports or land customs stations (LCS) are crucial for Bangladesh's trade with its neighbours. Being landlocked from all but the southeast side, Bangladesh's bilateral trade is heavily dependent on the cross-border land ports with its immediate neighbour, India. Except bulk cargo, a good number of traded products, especially the perishable ones, are better suited for over-land transportation, because of cost-effectiveness and lead-time advantage.
The situation has indeed improved, as mentioned, from what it was half a decade ago, but in the absence of long-term measures infrastructure development has resulted in only temporary and makeshift improvements which could not withstand the increased and diverse nature of facilitating requirements.
The number-one land port at Benapole caters for around 80 per cent of the total overland movement of goods. Given the importance of Benapole land customs station (LCS), improvement to it is brought about from time to time but clearly, the overall infrastructure needs a lot to be done. As for the remaining functional LCSs, save only a few, there is very little in place to facilitate movement of traded cargo.
It is true that the National Board of Revenue (NBR) at times has to succumb to pressure from influential quarters in setting up land customs stations (LCSs) in the border belt. A couple of reports in the print media, lately, have clearly mentioned that there are a good number of LCSs which were set up mainly on considerations not complying with NBR's criterion and priorities.
For obvious reasons, these LCSs though opened for cross-border movement of goods are languishing in inactivity. While there is very little in terms of infrastructure and manpower, there is virtually no prospect of any sizeable movement of traded goods through these LCSs. Besides, there are reportedly a large majority of the LCSs that are suffering from required infrastructure, although some of these have the potential for facilitating trade with the neighbouring countries, predominantly India.
It has been gathered that the NBR is contemplating on reducing the number of non-functional and inactive LCSs and improving the facilities in some of the active ones. Needless to say, the process is taking too long.
The Cabinet Division of the government, reportedly, recommended in early 2013 that the NBR close down inactive LC stations and not set up any new station within 50 kilometres of the existing ones. While closing down the inactive and unnecessary land ports is a matter that requires immediate attention, adding more facilities to the functional ones calls for quick actions. Keeping the nonfunctional ones with no trading operation costs the government both money and manpower and doing away with those would make the NBR well disposed to concentrate more on the functional land ports.
As for the functional land ports, there is a common perception that not all of them are utilised up to their potential. There were repeated reports in the newspapers pointing out lack of adequate logistic and infrastructure-related facilities in a number of those ports such as the Sutarkandi and Burimari LCSs, to name only a couple. Proper facilitation, including those for movement of vehicles carrying import and export cargo could generate more trading activities in these and a number of other LCSs.
Strengthening the operational LCSs in Bangladesh as well as in India figures prominently in the bilateral Joint Customs Group meetings held once a year. But the issues keep lingering on both sides, unfortunately at the expense of trade.
However, the decision to improve the condition of the countries' land ports by way of automation with the aid of integrated software sounds good. There can be no arguing about the merit of digitisation, but a lot needs to be done to improve physical infrastructures of the major ports, including Benapole. It is argued that digitised automation can smoothly take place only after the physical aspects are addressed adequately. According to reports, the government is set to take up a Tk 319 million project for automation of four land ports aimed at strengthening their operational processes to promote regional trade. The ports identified for the automation project are Benapole, Bhomra, Burimari and Akhaura.
One of the reasons often attributed to the less than adequate facilities is that not all the land ports are operated and controlled by a single authority, the Land Port Authority of the government. In fact, except for the Benapole land port, development of the remaining ports lies with private agencies under built-operate-and-transfer (BOT) mechanism. Another pertinent problem sometimes overlooked in this regard is that development of the land ports on the Bangladesh side can only go half-way for unhindered bilateral trade. Unless the corresponding land ports on the Indian end are simultaneously developed, including posting of customs and immigration personnel as well as synchronisation of working hours on both sides, building adequate infrastructure on the Bangladesh side will not be of much help, especially for export of merchandise.