Increasing Indo-Bangla Connectivity


By Ashis Biswas

Specific bilateral connectivity projects linking India with Bangladesh have emerged as the most effective means to ensure future industrial and infrastructural growth in South Asia. Dhaka-based analysts are stressing the growing importance of India accessing its Northeastern states by using the Tripura rail/ road /river linkage through Bangladesh territory, instead of counting on Myanmar to achieve better regional connectivity..

Mainly on account of the continuing political instability in Myanmar following the February 2021 army coup, a prolonged economically bruising civil war broke out. It shows no signs of ending soon. Governance in Myanmar had been severely disrupted because of deadly clashes involving the army against armed pro-democracy parties and groups. But the situation, instead of improving, thereafter grew more complex as major ethnic groups like Shans and Chins, never really under Burmese control in areas bordering India and China, also got involved in the clashes .

In the process, despite launching serious back channel diplomatic efforts in recent months with Naypitaw authorities as well as various ethnic groups, Indian government remains unable to operationalise the ambitious $484 million Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport Project(KMTTP). Work began on the project since 2010, but since then, there were repeated postponements of its eventual launch.

The reason: continuing unrest/ civic strife involving ethnic groups and the Burmese army, and recurrent attacks by the troops on forces/parties agitating for political democracy .

Overall costs of the project, seeking to develop a river link between Sittwe port (Myanmar) and Kolkata(India), apart from the construction of new road links connecting Paletwa (Myanmar) and Mizoram(India) , have risen from Rs 535 crore to Rs 3200 crore, thanks to repeated stalling of work on the ground.

India’s major interest in the comprehensive, game-changing KMTTP scheme was to ensure an alternate, easier route to access its Northeastern states, by reducing the time, cost and distance involved — factors that have badly hampered normal movement of goods and traffic. The only rail/road link between the Indian mainland and the NE states, for decades, ran through the narrow Siliguri corridor, which was also a major security risk, in the context of deteriorating Indo-China relations.

Following a bilateral agreement with Myanmar, India succeeded in implementing a major part of the work, as the crucial Sittwe—Kolkata port linkage through the Kaladan river was completed. The distance between to two ports was reduced to around 539 kms only. The Paletwa-Zorinpur (Mizoram border) road linkage covering a distance of over 150 kilometres running through disputed and disturbed Burmese territory, was a different matter. GOI had to engage in negotiations with various tribal groups controlling some areas, in addition to the ruling Army.

Various estimates suggest that at present, over 80% of the project is complete. Normal transport, and movement of goods/ people between India, its NE states, even with Mae Sot areas in Thailand through Myanmar, and beyond, can begin once Naypitaw regains its political authority over India’s Eastern neighbour.

What seems certain, despite the progress so far achieved that the regional target of announcing the formal completion and official launch of the KMTTP project in 2025, will not be possible, against the background of continuing political turmoil in Myanmar. Which means in practical terms, India’s highly publicised ACTEAST initiative remains stalled indefinitely. Delhi’s ambitions to extend trade/business to more prosperous South East Asian destinations will not fructify in the medium term. Further, its objective of presenting an effective alternative to China’s mighty Belt- and- Roads Initiative (BRI) in the S. Asian region, will not really take off.

Incidentally, the deadlock affecting the KMTTP contrasts strongly with the prospects of major China-sponsored projects in Myanmar, such as the Kyakphu port building, and construction of a new SEZ, . Work has continued normally, according to reports.

GOI policymakers hope that the situation may improve for India only if pro-democracy forces succeed in assuming power and restoring a democratic government in Myanmar, once the present civil war ends.

As if the situation was not complicated enough already, the Arakan Army (AA) which enjoys considerable local support in the troubled Rakhine province, has staked a territorial claim over Paletwa in Myanmar, according to some reports circulating in Manipur. The AA is not in a position to disrupt traffic along the river Kaladan to stall the Kolkata-Sittwe link, but can effective stall road traffic with Mizoram, it is feared.

GOI’s plans to keep the NE states well supplied with goods from the Indian mainland, avoiding the narrow problematic Siliguri corridor will not succeed until the Paletwa-Mizoram connectivity is assured. This means that as of now, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh will still remain dependant on the Siliguri corridor route!

This is where, Bangladeshi media reports suggest, the present links established through Tripura, can make a significant difference for the better. Already there is a steady movement of goods ranging from rice, cement and industrial equipment from the Kolkata port to Agartala, helping Tripura and other NE states in a major way using the Bangladeshi rivers. A bilateral agreement finalising mutual transit facilities between India and Bangladesh had been finalised back in 2015.

Further, the NE states again, can use the Chittagong and Mongla ports in Bangladesh to boost their exports, avoiding the long journey to other Indian ports.

This means regardless of the eventual outcome of the present strife in Myanmar, India and the NE can still reduce their dependence on the Siliguri corridor and achieve major savings in terms of time and cost. Domestic trade should get a major boost. Bangladesh too, can look forward to earning increasing transit fees from India for using its territory, not to mention secure more business for its so far underutilized ports.

In short, Indo-Bangla transport/transit connectivity projects have emerged as the only way forward to ensure smoother, high volume trade and business. (IPA)