A lesson for the entire sub–continent

The opening up of Chittagong Port stands to greatly impact regional connectivity for Bangladesh and India

A potential Eid gift for the northeast region (NER) of India came from Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on April 28 as India’s External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar called on her in Dhaka. Prime Minister Hasina offered to make available the Chittagong Port for usage by India in connecting India's NER with the rest of the country. 

The offer is very pertinent in terms of connectivity, and it is also important when it comes to the cultural and tourism perspectives. Historically, the Chittagong port was the major port for connectivity of an undivided India and particularly what comprises the NER of India today. In the colonial era, the Chittagong Port was one of the largest ports of eastern India through which cargo was carried to the borders of Myanmar through railways and roadways. 

During the Second World War, Chittagong Port was considered extremely important in supporting the Allied forces. The communities in NER that share culture and traditions with Chittagong, especially the Chittagong Hill Tracts region. Much of that also came out during the recent visit of Bangladesh Commerce minister Tipu Munshi to the state of Mizoram, where trade routes via waterways and hills were also explored, including the setting up of border haats and an ICP in Thegamukh, Bangladesh. 

Since the birth of Bangladesh in 1971, regular bilateral engagements have occurred in the first three decades as relations were stabilized despite a few years of ups and downs. However, with the historic land boundary agreement signed in 2015, a series of developments have taken place between the two countries in almost every field, and the NER visibly became a major focus of that change. Around the same time the Indian government was giving fillip to the Act East policy that entailed more engagements, with countries in the eastern neighbourhood as well as the ASEAN bloc, the gateway to such an effort was Bangladesh and Myanmar. 

The focus on trade and commerce naturally brought attention to Chittagong Port in Bangladesh and the Tamu and Sittwe Port in Myanmar. In the last few years, India and Bangladesh have signed and initiated several projects which ultimately brought India’s NER into the limelight even from the Bangladesh perspective. The 2009 India and Bangladesh Protocol on Inland Water Transit and Trade, the India and Bangladesh Agreement of Coastal Shipping in 2015, and the 2018 Indian and Bangladesh agreement for trans-shipment through Chittagong and Mongla Port are the three important deciding factors which brought Chittagong and its port into focus for improving connectivity for the NER. 

An Asian Development Bank (ADB) briefing from July 2021 stated that using Chittagong Port as a trans-shipment hub is economical for India for the transportation to and from NER, and that it will help in saving an approximate of 8-20% per ton. Also, the shorter road distance between Chittagong Port and Agartala, as compared to the Kolkata Port to Agartala through Siliguri corridor, would help in reducing the transportation cost greatly, which can hugely benefit India’s trade and commerce corridor. 

The time it takes for the transportation to go through would also be reduced by several days.

Connectivity is one of the key factors which plays an important role in trade, and today Chittagong Port is well connected with Tripura through two of its cities -- Comilla and Feni -- whose distances are 212km and 241km respectively from Agartala, the capital city of Tripura. Today Agartala is well connected by road, railway, and airway from the rest of the NER states of India, and so the possibility of regular formal trade through these routes is a reality. 

In the near future, railway connections will be taken further down to Sabroom which is a town just 111km away from Chittagong Port.  At the same time, through Sutarkandi in Assam, which is one of the only two existing functional Integrated Check Posts (ICP) in NER after Akhaura in Tripura, there will be an alternate access to Chittagong Port via Sylhet. The direct connection between Sutarkandi to Chittagong port is about 400km. With two new ICPs under construction in Meghalaya and Mizoram, the connection between NER and Bangladesh will only get better from here on in. 

The Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, and Nepal Motor Vehicle Agreement (BBIN-MVA) is another key development that can enhance the trade potential of Bangladesh with India and Nepal and further to Bhutan once Bhutan formally joins the MVA. This will provide further opportunities for the use of the Chittagong Port, not just as a connection for India’s NER, but also extend to the Himalayan countries of Nepal and Bhutan through the NER and West Bengal. Earlier in March this year, a meeting was held between Bangladesh, India, and Nepal, with Bhutan as an observer, to discuss the cargo protocols under the BBIN-MVA. 

While Chittagong Port and the connectivity around it was understood well and progress is happening, other avenues of water connectivity via rivers and the India-Bangladesh Protocol Route (IBPR) have also been brought into action. March also saw the first out of the four cargo ships carrying foodgrains reaching Pandu Port near Guwahati in Assam from Patna in Bihar through Bangladesh, covering a distance of 2,350km along the IBPR as per the Protocol of Inland Water Transit and Trade (PIWTT) signed way back in 1972. This is only a sign of things to come. 

The focus on connectivity definitely enhances the prospects of Chittagong Port as a major hub for India’s NER. In the upcoming days, when all the trade points around the region start to get into action taking advantage of the multi-modal capacity-building being undertaken, regional connectivity will only advance even further. Clearly this can be seen as a lesson for regional connectivity in South Asia.

Subimal Bhattacharjee writes on issues of connectivity, and has been a corporate leader in the cyber security and digital space. He can be reached at [email protected]