From a report published in this newspaper on January 4, it is known that China has come up with US$ 400 million for "upgrading the Mongla seaport that holds potential to promote sub-regional cooperation." The project termed 'Expansion and Modernisation of Monga Port Facilities', which would be facilitated through a Chinese government concessional loan (GCL), is likely to have far reaching impact on the economy. As it would significantly cut down time taken to reach goods for export from factory to a port since Mongla is about 100 km nearer to Dhaka than Chattogram Port.
Indeed, going by media reports published elsewhere, it is already clear that the south-western seaport has seen an uptick of incoming ocean-going vessels. With the inauguration of the Padma Bridge, Mongla port's viability and future have apparently been secured and maritime commerce using this port will only increase. The port authority has completed dredging of the "outer bar of a nearly 140-kilometre channel to improve navigability and enable the movement of vessels that require a higher draft", an activity that was completed back in 2020. The Mongla Port Authority (MPA) has made substantial investments in the procurement of different types of equipment and machinery which will enable the port to receive and handle larger vessels at a certain point of time. By all indications, Mongla is destined to become a regional port because of it is location.
The GCL framework will oversee the funding of the project. It is evisaged that Mongla seaport will serve as a backup to the BCIM (Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar) arrangement. As stated before, given the 100km shorter distance from the capital than any seaport, exporters and shipping lines are bound to take full advantage of the port as time is literally money. As per documents available, the government has asked its Chinese counterpart to come up with a consortium led by Chinese business entities / enterprises to act as implementer once business contract is signed and sealed. This is at the initial phase. One can only hope that the bidding process and loan agreement will not take an inordinate amount of time, as time is of the essence.
It is understood that China wishes to have the responsibility of implementation, operation, maintenance and management of the port. Frankly speaking, this makes sense, because it would bring a level of expertise and efficiency that are not present here currently. Should things go awry during operation, the MPA can take the agencies responsible to task for it. The negotiation to upgrade Mongla port has been under discussion since 2019 and now that the feasibility study is done, it is imperative that a decisive move was there to ink the deal so that the ball could roll in the right direction.
Our policymakers need to act fast. Years have been lost because of indecision on long-term policy for crucial sectors like energy. Let us hope there is no wavering whatsoever on Mongla Port's modernisation. The MoU (Memorandum of Understanding) between the MPA with a Chinese company CNCEC was signed on August 12, 2015 and an agreement reached on October 6, 2016. This dragged on till 2019 when the deal was scrapped. This time around, the MPA has signed an agreement with CCECC. Now the need is to take the matter seriously and work for a speedy implementation of the project under consideration.
Looking at the data, it is seen that in 2020, Mongla saw a turnaround of 170 ships ---the highest in its history --- and earned a profit of Tk1.30 billion from the existing facilities. With the modernisation plans that sre being undertaken, the volume of cargo handling and revenue generation could be much larger. When one takes into account the volume of cargoes that could potentially be coming from landlocked Bhutan and Nepal - which could use a much-expanded and efficiently-run Mongla port. Thus the impact it would have to make BCIM a reality will definitely provide the required momentum.
Bangladesh has the potential to become a regional hub for trading. There is international consensus on this. What has been lacking is the political will to make it happen. Perhaps this time around, policymakers will go about the business seriously in order to make it happen. According to a recent article published in The Financial Times of London, the IMF has predicted that a third of the global economy may go into recession in 2023. Bangladesh has always defied world pundits on economics as being a nation of paradoxes that continues to grow despite all indicators stating that it ought to be going in the opposite direction. The country can ill afford to sit on past laurels as the world has become an uncertain place. Regional connectivity, regional business opportunities and increasing revenue generation need to become realities today instead of tomorrow. The country's strategic location gives it an edge over many of its neighbours and it should not be allowed to go abegging.