Alternative Idea to Transit facilities

Alternative Idea to Transit facilities

India wants transit facilities through land territory of Bangladesh. The request is not new. Since 1972 India has sought for it. The successive governments of Bangladesh during the 37 years could not agree to it except granting transit through its waterways for Indian cargo vessels.

The challenge is to make sure that transit facilities as a whole work for the benefit of the countries involved, namely Bangladesh and India

During India’s External Affairs Minister’s visit to Bangladesh on 9th February, the Bilateral Trade Agreement was renewed. This Trade Agreement, originally concluded in 1972, amended in 1980, continues to be renewed for three year periods under Article XXIII of the Agreement.

Article VIII of the Agreement states that the “Two governments agree to make mutually beneficial arrangements for the use of waterways, roadways and railways for commerce between the two countries for passage of goods between two places in one country through the territory of the other.”

Although the both governments agree in principle to give transit access to each other through its roadways and railways, arrangements for such have to be agreed between them and there is no such agreement as of to- day.

When India seeks transit through Bangladesh land territory to its northeastern part of seven states, it turns into a prickly political issue in Bangladesh for various reasons, and some of the reasons deserve mention as follows:

First, India has poor record to show on transit issue among its neighbours. For example in 1978 a Bangladesh trade delegation was scheduled to go to Bhutan through India’s territory and India’s permission came almost after one year. (the air link between Bhutan and Bangladesh did not exist then).

Furthermore, the bilateral trade agreement between Bangladesh and Bhutan could not be signed in 1978 because India was reluctant at the time to provide transit facilities for Bangladesh and Bhutan for trade. Another instance is Bangladesh has given transit facilities to Nepal but India does not allow Nepal transit facility to use Bangladesh ports.

Second, fencing with steel and barbed wire of Bangladesh-India border is viewed as distrust on people of Bangladesh and hurts their sentiments. Against the backdrop, transit issue is perceived to be contrary to the spirit behind the sealing off border of about 4,096 kilometres with Bangladesh.

Third, Bangladesh is a much more desnsely populated country than India is (1045 per square kilometre in Bangladesh and 326 in India). Existing infrastructure for transit facilities through Bangladesh is very much inadequate. The government has to widen the highway through requisition of private lands in dense-packed populated areas. This will involve displacement of people and their re-settlement in another area and this could turn into a huge social problem for Bangladesh.

Fourth, , there is a health factor involved.. The highest HIV prevalence rates in India are found in the south and Manipur, Mizoram and Nagaland in the north-east. It is reported that AIDS and drug addiction have been detected among a huge number of truck-drivers/helpers in India.. They cannot pass through in one day (about 347 kilometres from entry to exit in Bangladesh) and have to stay overnight for rest and recreation in various places in Bangladesh. This has given an apprehension, that AIDS and drug addiction may further spread in Bangladesh (about 12,000 HIV individuals already in Bangladesh) through transit facilities.

Fifth, trucks containing hazardous materials that meets with accidents in the transit may have catastrophe effects among the people who live near the transit route. Furthermore, the constant flow of hundreds of trucks and vehicles on the road will have impact on environmental degradations through emission of greenhouse gases in the country that is being seriously affected by climate change. Bangladesh is currently experiencing environmental problems which put pressure on human development and these will be further exacerbated by such environmental degradations.

Sixth, during the 37 years of Bangladesh’s independence, India has little contribution to building infrastructure development in Bangladesh, although Japan and China have built eight bridges on its rivers for internal connectivity for economic and social development. India is perceived as more interested in developing itself into regional and global power. This has not gone well for image of India in Bangladesh.

Seventh and finally, bilateral issues, such as maritime boundary, land border implementation treaty and sharing of waters of trans-boundary rivers have been pending for years together and India does not seem interested to resolve these “bread and butter” issues for people of Bangladesh. Furthermore dams and barrages built on many trans-boundary rivers (including the proposed Tipaimukh dam on the Barak River close to Sylhet district) without discussions with Bangladesh have regretfully created an impression that India wants to keep Bangladesh on its“toes”, reflecting hardline towards Bangladesh.

All these facts seemed to have created negative environment on the transit issue and provided ample fuel to make it a hot political issue.

Aternative to Transit facilities through land:

Almost all researchers working in the area of Bangladesh-India economic relations have mentioned the desirability of a closer integration of Bangladesh’s economy with the northgeastern states of India.

Such an integration it is argued will have several beneficial effects for both Bangladesh and India including: (a) it will create a market for Bangladeshi consumer goods in the northeastern states (NES),and (b) for India, the consumer goods will meet the demands of people of NES.

It is further argued an alternative device to transit facilities is to seriously consider in setting up joint Bangladesh-India manufacturing industries in bordering districts in Bangladesh of NES with a view to catering the needs of people of NES. Such industries, by many economists, considered as mutually beneficial to both countries and demonstrate the integration of economies of two countries.

There is an important political dimension to the integration of economies. Interdependence between economic and political relations cannot be overemphasised. Both aspects are two sides of a coin. Empirical evidence suggests that overtime, interest groups in both countries which participate in and gain from trade, investment and other bilateral economic transactions are likely to act as a positive influence on the development of political relations.

As regards the other issue, access to Chittagong port from Agartala (Tripura state), India may create a political climate by resolving the pending core bilateral diputes what affect “bread and butter” for people and the Bangladesh government may find easier to carry people with it to grant access to the port.

Trust begets trust, goodwill begets goodwill and Bangladesh-India relations must be made a “win-win” situation for all. India needs Bangladesh as much as Bangladesh needs India in an increasingly interdependent world.

By Barrister Harun ur Rashid
Former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva.

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