Sub-regional connectivity initiatives such as BBIN MVA (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal Motor Vehicle Agreement) can be fully optimised if the national development plans relating to connectivity infrastructures are considered and linked with the partner countries. Seamless connectivity is the major challenge in the BBIN sub-region. Bangladesh's trade with its neighbours India, Nepal, and Bhutan has been on a positive trend over the course of last decade. However, the true trade potential could not yet be utilised. Now the question arises, what are policy-level barriers which hinder the growth of trade among the BBIN nations. Another issue to consider is-- why is the cross-border supply chain not growing within the sub-region? Everyone might profess that the sub-region's geographical proximity is a huge advocacy point for better regional integration just like the MEKONG sub-region. But true economic integration is absent in the BBIN sub-region which is considered the stepping stone to broader regional integration measures.
Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, and Nepal made an agreement on the free movement of cargoes and passenger vehicles in the sub-region. That agreement, namely BBIN MVA, was not ratified by the government of Bhutan. They cited environmental concerns and the potential damage free movement of cargos would cause to the road infrastructure of the country as the primary reasons behind the pullout. It can be understood from Bhutan's action that they felt that partner nations were not giving enough emphasis about their environmental sensitivity. This argument now leads to another interesting field of study which is the issue of sub-regional interest and ethics. Though our geographic proximity is a major advantage, the sub-regional respect for each other countries' interests is important too. Keeping Bhutan aside, three countries made a tripartite MoU to initiate the motor vehicle agreement. The draft protocol of 'BIN' MVA is in the finalisation stage. The negotiation among the countries and even within the countries' different departments are going on. Hopefully, the finalisation process will be expedited to make the 'BIN' MVA operational. So, let's look at what will change on ground after the enactment of 'BIN' MVA?
At present, if any product is being exported from Bangladesh to Nepal via India, the cargo must be loaded into an Indian vehicle at Bangladesh's border crossing points as Bangladesh's trucks do not yet have permission to go through Indian territory. 'BIN' MVA will allow Bangladeshi trucks to directly reach Nepal through Indian territory. There will be no need for cargo transhipment at border crossing points.
'BIN' MVA can definitely be a game-changer. Alongside this policy level connectivity initiative focused on the roadways, mix-modal connectivity routes can be considered to reduce the congestion at the crossing points as well as the environmental pollution caused by the current road network based sub-regional connectivity focus.
North-East India and the rest of India are connected only through road and rail network via the Chicken's Neck. But they have to traverse a long distance to reach North-Eastern India. Transit through Bangladesh is the only faster gateway to communicate via land-based transportation. The distance between Kolkata to Agartala via Bangladesh reduces by 1100 km compared to the route via Chicken's Neck. Currently, only passenger vehicle is allowed to operate in the transit route.
The 'BIN' MVA will make the provision to ply along with the Kolkata to Agartala via Dhaka. Alternatively, Indo-Bangla Inland Waterways Trade and Transit Protocol allows transport from Kolkata to Agartala via the Class-I route from Mongla-Chandpur-Ashuganj. After reaching the port of Ashuganj, Bangladeshi trucks are used to cross the Akhaura border crossing for Agartala ICP. This mix-modal transit route will be more efficient then opting for a static single mode transport method because the Indian truck can now enter into Bangladesh and transverse easily Agartala and beyond.
Another mix-modal route starts from Kolkata and ends at Agartala via the port of Chattogram. This is an alternative for the Kolkata to Agartala route via Dhaka route. This route is sanctioned under the 'Coastal Shipping Agreement between India and Bangladesh', MoU, and Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for uses of Mongla and Chattogram Port for movement of goods to and from India. These two mix-modal routes are now available for connecting the rest of India with North-East via Bangladesh. The Chattogram to Agartala route will be connected via Ramgarh-Subroom crossing point which will reduce the distance by 135 km.
Now, let's look at the mix-modal connectivity options for Bangladesh in the context of connecting with Nepal and Bhutan.
Burimari Land Port is the main crossing point connecting Bhutan with Bangladesh and Banglabandha Land Port connects Bangladesh with Nepal. An alternative route to connect Bhutan with Bangladesh can be achieved by using the road network from Thimpu to Phuntsholing to Jogigopa or Gelephu crossing point and further head to Jogigopa/Dhurbi and then from Jogigopa/Dhubri via Chilmari to Narayanganj by inland waterway route. This mix-modal route is rarely being used by the exporters due to the navigation issues along the route. This route allows Bhutanese trucks to carry products up to Jogigopa/Dhubri river ports.
Alongside the mix-modal route, Nepalese trucks can utilise the newly revived Haldbari-Chilahati railway link. The new railway route will benefit the increased focus and growth of South Asian sub-regional connectivity. Nepalese goods need to be loaded from Haldibari (West Bengal, India) Station, then the connection with Mongla and Chattogram seaports can be made possible via railways. However, there are some missing railway links -- one is the connection from Khulna to Mongla and the other is the Jamuna river railway bridge. The first missing railway link from Khulna to Mongla is under development and the second missing link is under the very first stage of development. The latter rail link will change the connectivity perspective over the overall sub-region with the centre shifting to Bangladesh.
It is well understood that 'BIN' MVA initiative will help to remove the hassle of transhipment in the India and Bangladesh border crossing points and trade time will be reduced significantly. However, the existing mix-modal connectivity options for trade and transit in the BBIN sub-region can be utilised too. The main obstacles for the mix-modal connectivity are the river navigability in the selected route like the Dhubri-Chilmari-Sirajganj route, missing railway networks, and the lack of emphasis given to the river-based infrastructure development for future trade opportunities. Bhutan, Nepal, and North-East Indian States can use the riverway centric mix-modal connectivity options if the river route from Dhubri to Sirajganj is developed focusing not only on the dredging plan but also on river training to guide the Brahmaputra-Jamuna river network. Besides that, the major connecting river ports such as Chilmari, Bahadurabad, Narayanganj, Ashuganj, and Daudkandi need to be upgraded with customs facilities and container handling facilities for future trade and better connectivity in the sub-region.
The third goal of the Bangladesh Delta Plan (2100) is to ensure sustainable and integrated river systems. This goal can be achieved if the development plan of inland waterways and river-based networks is taken into account considering the utilization of the international river routes within Bangladesh which will facilitate the trade and transit process in the sub-region.
Robart Shuvro Guda, Lead Economist, UnnayanShamannay;
Dr Mahabub Hasan, Political Analyst, UnnayanShamannay.