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Why are Indian transportations reluctant to use transit through Bangladesh?

  • Published at 03:48 pm September 28th, 2017
  • Last updated at 05:00 pm September 28th, 2017
Why are Indian transportations reluctant to use transit through Bangladesh?
The transit and transhipment agreements between Bangladesh and India were hotly debated and widely discussed. Arguments were made on both sides for and against opening up a route between the Indian cities of Kolkata in West Bengal and Agartala in Tripura through the middle of Bangladesh. Dissenters said the deal was a “sellout” and would destroy infrastructure, while the Bangladesh government said it would open up greater economic opportunities and bring in business. And yet in the two years since we opened our roads to India, very little traffic has come this way and none of the prophecies made by either side have been fulfilled. Since June 6, 2015, three bus services a week have been running through Bangladesh, but the buses are never carrying more than five or six passengers at a time. An Indian news portal reported that Indian travellers had little interest in travelling between the two cities by bus through Dhaka. Similarly, Indian businesses have been able to avail of transhipment through the Ashuganj river port through the Akhaura border for over a year now, but in the last eight months only seven ships have used this route. Tripura Road Transport Corporation MD Keshab Kar told the Dhaka Tribune that Indian businesses currently had no interest in the Ashuganj port since the rail connectivity between Guwahati and Agartala had improved. “However, when the Agartala – Akhaura rail link is opened, the Ashuganj port will become profitable,” he said. The Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority (BIWTA) still thinks transhipment and transit facilities will prove useful for Indians and it will become popular once several major infrastructure projects that will facilitate transport are completed in the next 18 months. “We will build an inland container terminal at Ashuganj by December of next year to help increase transhipment,” said Commodore Mohammad Mozammel Haque, the chairman of BIWTA. “We have already acquired 31 acres of land (and) the project will be implemented under the Indian LOC (Line of Credit). Although navigability is not a major concern here, as a precaution we are nevertheless dredging the river.” The BIWTA chairman said the road between Ashuganj and Akhaura border must be improved to ensure smooth traffic. “The Road Transport and Highways Division has undertaken a project to upgrade the Ashuganj-Akhauara Highway to four lanes,” he said. “When Indian businesses will get the integrated facilities on our transhipment and transit routes, it will become their preferred network,” he hoped. All these projects have missed their deadlines due to complications over releasing funds from the Indian LOC and because of disputes over land acquisition, government officials have said.

Is the Kolkata – Agartala passenger route viable?

The prime ministers of Bangladesh and India launched the bus service between Agartala, the capital of Tripura, and Kolkata in West Bengal in June 2015. Policymakers from both countries expected the service to be a major hit among travellers since the new route bisected Bangladesh, instead of skirting around the country through the Siliguri corridor or ‘chicken’s neck’ of India. This brought the Agartala-Kolkata road distance down to 500km from 1,650km. Recently, however, the service was suspended for 90 days without anyone raising a complaint. A Road Transport and Highways Division official explained how the long break to the route in Dhaka might be repelling potential users of the service. “Currently buses start in the morning from Kolkata and arrive in Dhaka in the evening, although it is a six to seven hour route, immigration at Benapole-Petrapole takes 1.5 to 2 hours,” he said. “The passengers are then kept in a hotel in Dhaka and the next day they start towards Tripura. This is a four-hour journey but again immigration increases the travel time at the Akhaura port, bringing the total travel time up to about 30 hours.” In contrast, the Siliguri route takes about 35 hours so for Indian passengers the trade-off is not very high. Without the lengthy intervals, the whole journey through Bangladesh would be about 15 hours, but that is not always possible due to shortage of passengers. Another factor is that airfare between the two cities is only a little higher than the bus fare and takes only an hour. The bus fare is Tk2,550, and airfare can range between Tk2,800 and Tk4,000. Most passengers take the Dhaka-Kolkata or Dhaka-Agartola route, so Agartala-bound trips get only five or six people against the capacity of 45 seats per bus. Chandan Kumar Dey, joint secretary to the Road Transport and Highways Division, told the Dhaka Tribune that although the number of passengers between Kolkata and Agartala is still low, it will improve if they can cut short the travel time in the future. “The Kolkata-Dhaka-Agartala trip is active. Bangladesh is benefited by transit because many Indian people now move through Dhaka from Kolkata and Agartala,” he said. (Dhaka Tribune Agartala Correspondent Shilajit Kar Bhowmik contributed to this story)