In a conversation with the Dhaka Tribune's Shohel Mamun, international relations professor and connectivity expert Prof Lailufar Yasmin discusses how Bangladesh can gain from road connectivity with India and other neighbouring countries, the existing problems regarding said connectivity and their possible solutions that may come during Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's visit to India on April 7-10.
Road connectivity will be on the agenda during the PM’s India visit. Can you please shed light on the benefits we are likely to get from transborder connectivity?
Transborder connectivity will definitely be beneficial for us. For example, the Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal (BBIN) Motor Vehicle Agreement is a good initiative to strengthen the interregional connectivity in South Asia. People can travel to India, Nepal and Bhutan on their own vehicles; this will boost both trade and tourism in the member countries.
However, Bhutan has not yet ratified the BBIN treaty because of their local trade body’s objections, which stems from the fear that their local businesses may be adversely affected.
As far as trade relations with India is concerned, Bangladesh has much to gain from better road connectivity with the country. Some of our products such as ceramic and jute items and batteries are popular in India. Immigration between the two countries still remains an issue as it is usually time-consuming, eating up three or four hours of a traveller or a vehicle in most cases. But this issue can be resolved through a dialogue.
Chances are high that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina will address these and other issues during her talks with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, so their solutions are also likely to come out of this visit.
The BBIN agreement will allow heavy Indian freight vehicles to move through Bangladesh. Can we afford the huge maintenance cost incurred by such heavy vehicular movement on our roads?
Well, it is true that condition of the roads in Bangladesh suggested for the BBIN network are not entirely up to the mark, but we have time to develop our road infrastructure as it will take time for the BBIN treaty to take effect.
Bangladesh should be careful in fixing the tariff, taxes and duties in accordance with international standards, because Indian cargo vehicles are likely to use Bangladeshi roads frequently after the deal comes into effect. The transit fee can also be determined based on how frequently they will use our roads, if that can be estimated.
Passenger bus service between Khulna and Kolkata is likely to be launched under the BBIN agreement during the PM’s India visit. If it is, it will be a landmark achievement as Bangladeshi buses will be able to run on Indian roads.
Are there any security concerns regarding the BBIN treaty? Is there a risk of militants using this route to move to other countries, or of Indian military convoys randomly entering our territory?
Security is certainly an important issue in cross-border travelling around the globe. But if the countries concerned can come together on a common platform with mutual trust, any security crisis can be averted or effectively dealt with. As an added measure, the BBIN governments could use GPS tracking system to easily monitor their vehicles.
There certainly is a high risk of militant migration, given that it is on the rise in South Asia. But militants or criminals are highly unlikely to use known or public routes for their movement; they will rather choose discreet routes.
In case of Indian military convoys frequently entering our territory, that is also very unlikely as the BBIN treaty does not include any such provision. So, that will still require permission from our government.
Could BBIN connectivity adversely affect us in terms of commerce? Could we lose access to the markets in north Indian states?
The BBIN route will make Indian cargo vehicles moving to the northern states of the country easier. However, India is developing its own road network along its border with Bangladesh which will also facilitate its cargo transport to North India.
So, India is not exactly dependent on Bangladesh. In addition, it is clear that the BBIN agreement has brought great chances for Bangladesh to connect with India and the other countries in the region and promote our trade and tourism.
Our markets in north Indian states can only be expanded further with this agreement. India imports products from Sri Lanka, China and Thailand. With the BBIN connectivity, Bangladesh has more possibilities of increasing export to India.
How will it affect the trade disparity between Bangladesh and India, as well as other countries? Will it aid smuggling between Bangladesh and India?
Connectivity has little or nothing to do with trade disparity anywhere in the world. We are an independent country; we have our own trade policy to protect us. As I said before, transborder connectivity will boost our trade and bring us more revenue.
As for smuggling, we cannot deny the fact that illegal trade takes place in this region. Around $23-$25 billion worth of formal trade takes place among the Saarc countries annually, whereas illicit trade generates around $25 billion.
I think this road connectivity will help with this issue and boost legal trade.
India wants to use our seaports in Chittagong and Mongla as transit for goods transportation between their states. Such a deal may be signed during the PM’s visit. How will it affect us logistically and commercially?
The seaports in Chittagong and Mongla have enough unused space. The Indian government wants to develop the port space with their own fund and use it for cargo transportation between their states. Bangladesh can earn revenue here by renting that space in the ports. We have yet to learn of the details of this deal, and we do not know how the transit tariff will be fixed. If the government fails to fix the standard tariff, the deal may be questioned. However, deals such as these usually have a tenure, and can be revised.
The Khulna-Kolkata passenger train service is likely to be launched by the premiers of Bangladesh and India. The Dhaka-Kolkata train service is already in operation. How effective will the new service be, given the slow response to Dhaka-Kolkata service?
I think the Khulna-Kolkata train service will gain a quick and good response because of the historical connection between the cities. I am from Satkhira district, so I know how significant this service will be for the people in that region.
Bangladesh government is planning to launch freight train service with India. Is it financially viable and beneficial to Bangladesh?
Freight transport by train is more cost-effective than maritime transport. Transporting goods by a ship needs at least 22-60 days to unload in Delhi, whereas a freight train requires only three or four days. Ships are also more expensive then truck and train services.
So, Bangladesh is likely to be financially benefited through freight train service with India.
How does connectivity with India aid our links with international networks such as the Asian Highway, BCIM and Bimstec road corridors?
India is a big country and we share most of our border with it. So, it is significantly important in our connectivity to the Asian Highway, especially with the South Asian countries.
Bangladesh especially needs support from India to join the Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar (BICM) corridor – if we cannot resolve our political issues with Myanmar, we can connect with Thailand via India.