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How India, Bangladesh can help SAARC follow the EU model

India and Bangladesh have a whale of an opportunity to show to the world that the eight-nation SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) can truly emulate the 27-nation European Union (EU). This can only be done if the SAARC countries put their political differences on the back burner and focus on boosting the intra-SAARC infrastructural connectivity.

This has proven to be an elusive dream for decades but it is an idea whose time has finally come when the developed world unanimously agrees that the 21st century is the Asian century. India and Bangladesh have shown in the past few years how it is doable. Today, the two neighbours took another significant step in this direction when they signed a Memorandum of Understanding on Agartala - Akhaura rail link during the ongoing visit of External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid to Bangladesh. Khurshid is on a bilateral visit to Bangladesh for the second Joint Consultative Commission Meeting.

This rail link, which the two sides want to see operational in two years, will be a win-win situation for both the South Asian neighbours. It will give a tremendous boost to India’s northeast which is Bangladesh-locked. It will act as a major confidence building measure between the two sides which are beset with the past baggage of mutual distrust and are even prone to acrimonious flashpoints off and on.

On the bigger canvass, the move will spur Indo-Bangladesh connectivity, which is already a work in progress, and will also catalyze a pan-South Asia and eventually South Asia-South East Asia infrastructural connectivity. Why? This is because BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multisectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) countries have already decided to have their headquarters in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

BIMSTEC has recognized the unique geographical location of Bangladesh which can serve as a crucial commercial gateway for two land-locked mountainous SAARC countries – Nepal and Bhutan. Bangladesh is blessed with two sea ports (Chittagong and Mongla) and has the potential for developing a deep sea port. The Chittagong and Mongla ports have 40 percent and 80 percent spare capacities respectively and thus can take SAARC countries’ trade workload immediately without augmenting their capacities.

A Maldives army soldier stands guard near the flags of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). Reuters

A Maldives army soldier stands guard near the flags of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). Reuters

Bangladesh can be a very important cog in the wheel for greater intra-SAARC commerce and transportation of goods for more distant locations like Europe if its port infrastructure is expanded and spruced up in double quick time.

Bangladesh can emerge as a major transport hub for all SAARC nations and provide a much cheaper and quicker trade route for far-away lands like Europe and Africa. Needless to say, the Indian Northeast will be the first beneficiary as and when this miraculous infrastructural connectivity is achieved.

Regional trade is badly hit because of the extremely poor (and at times non-existent) intra-SAARC Infrastructural connectivity. It takes 30 to 45 days and at least $2500 for moving a container from New Delhi to Dhaka. Why? Because it takes a tortuous bi-modal route; first the maritime route via Mumbai and Colombo/Singapore to Chittagong Port and then by rail to Dhaka.

If there is direct rail connectivity between India and Bangladesh, the same container can be moved between the two destinations (New Delhi and Dhaka) in just about four or five days at a less expensive cost of just about $800.

The Importance of Agartala-Akhaura Rail Link

With this new rail link Tripura would become the second state in India to be connected through rail link with Bangladesh. West Bengal is the only state which is connected at present.

Opening of this rail link would help in promoting trade and people-to-people contacts across the border. It will provide access to Tripura through Bangladesh and the other North-Eastern States of India and will open up a new market in these States for goods manufactured in Bangladesh. The rail link will supplement the riverine protocol routes for enhanced connectivity between the two countries.

Talking about the bigger picture, this link would also be vital for the Trans–Asian Railway (TAR) Network, of which both India and Bangladesh are members. As part of TAR, India is already constructing a 350 km rail link from Jiribam (India) to Moreh (Myanmar). Bangladesh can also benefit by using this connection.

Akhaura was the rail head for Agartala, prior to 1947 and served as a major link between Chittagong port and Tripura. Agartala is now linked on the Indian Railways meter gauge rail network, which will shortly be converted to broad gauge. The linking of Akhaura and Agartala by rail was suggested in 1974 with the signing of a protocol between Bangladesh and India for cross traffic movement. It was revived during Trade Review Talks between India and Bangladesh in December 1998. In the Joint Communiqué issued during Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s India visit in January 2010, it was agreed that the construction of the proposed Akhaura -Agartala railway link would be financed by grant from India.

The new line would be from Agartala (India) to Gangasagar (Bangladesh). This would involve a double line from Gangasagar to Akhaura and additional loop lines at two stations of Bangladesh Railway viz., Gangasagar and Imambari.

India’s Northeast Frontier Railway (NFR) would soon begin a final survey to lay the 11.5 km-long rail link for which the Indian government has sanctioned Rs 2.52 crore. By June this year, rail will reach to Udaipur in Gomati district, about 50 km from Agartala, the capital of Tripura. By March 2014, rail will reach up to Sabroom, about 110 km from Agartala. Sabroom, southernmost subdivision of Tripura is very close to India-Bangladesh border and just about 70 km from Chittagong Port.

Incidentally, Agartala itself was brought within the Indian Railways’ network as recently as in 2008 and the NF Railway operates passenger trains between Agartala and Silchar in southern Assam. The Ministry of Railways has already started works on upgrading the Silchar-Agartala rail-line from meter gauge to broad gauge. Besides, surveys on extending the rail-link to Sabroom in southern Tripura have also been taken up.

The writer is a New Delhi-based journalist-author and a strategic affairs analyst who can be reached at bhootnath004@yahoo.com.