Transit via one-way humanitarian corridor

Faruque Ahmed
Marking India-Bangladesh relations one step further Dhaka has given permission to India to carry PLG, petrol, diesel, kerosene to be supplied by Indian Oil Corporation Ltd (IOCL) from Meghalaya to Tripura state using Bangladesh road system.
As per arrangements made, the transit is scheduled to start from Wednesday September 7 when Indian oil tankers will enter Bangladesh through Dauki-Tamabil border to travel around 140 km inside Bangladesh to enter Tripura again using Chatlapur-Kailashahar route on Habigonj border. Preliminary reports said over 50 oil tankers of 7 tones capacity will move every day as per the permission given.
Temporary may turn permanent
Dhaka agreed to Delhi’s request on humanitarian grounds, said officials of the state government of Tripura while the issue remained largely sidetracked from public discussion and wide media coverage in Bangladesh. There is also not been enough information whether Delhi will pay for the road use except the fact that the gesture has been made on humanitarian ground.
IOCL and the roads and highways department of Bangladesh signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) in Dhaka on July 18.  Last week, the union ministry of petroleum and natural gas of India approved a plan to carry fuel and cooking gas to Tripura via Bangladesh, reported the Times of India.
“IOCL is ready with all the papers, including Bangladesh visa for drivers and helpers of oil tankers. We have inspected the entire stretch of the road between India and Bangladesh,” said a senior official of Tripura government. Last month, the Indian High Commission in Dhaka said heavy monsoons and the resultant extremely bad road condition caused disruption in the supply of petroleum goods from Assam to Tripura in India.
Based on the request by the Indian government, the Bangladesh government granted permission to the movement of petroleum goods till the end of September 2016. But the facility may be resumed as and when such services may be required. As per media report road connectivity for India through Bangladesh territory requires new agreement because the existing agreement covers only river routes through Ashugonj river port. It appears that the two governments are preparing for the new agreement while Bangladesh has opened the transport facility under temporary arrangement.
But many anticipate that once the road connectivity will start functioning, it will in fact create the precedence to continue as the MOU suggests.
Easy transportation: Tripura minister
It appears that India is using its leverage on Bangladesh government to allow it to use of Bangladesh connectivity on humanitarian ground sidetracking the issue of payment of standard connectivity fees. How commercial activities can evade payment of reasonable fees under humanitarian ground is not understandable and questions being asked as to why our government is conceding so much under “friendly pressure”.  Some officials say Bangladesh will also benefit from such road transport facility to carry cargo to Bhutan and Nepal. But there has not been any substantial development in this front despite prolonged discussions on land connectivity with the two small Himalaya nations.  The state-owned Food Corporation of India (FCI) had earlier ferried 35,000 tones of rice from Andhra Pradesh and Kolkata to Tripura via Bangladesh also claiming such benefit. Several ships carried rice to Ashuganj river port in Bangladesh. From Ashuganj port, Bangladeshi trucks ferried the rice to FCI warehouses in Nandannagar in Agartala.
Earlier in 2012, Bangladesh had also allowed state-owned Oil and Natural Gas Corporation to ferry heavy machinery, turbines and over-dimensional cargoes through Ashuganj port on humanitarian ground.  Indian government built the 726-MW Palatana mega power project in southern Tripur using our road system without making any payment though it had devastated the country’s roads and highway system.  Tripura Food and Civil Supplies Minister Bhanulal Saha told newsmen on September 5 that “For easier transportation of LPG bulk tankers from outside the state for the proposed LPG bottling plant, the IOC would ferry bulk tankers using Bangladeshi ports and roads”.  He justified the move saying transportation via Bangladesh is much easier as road connectivity is a major issue for the mountainous northeastern states which share boundaries with Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nepal, Bhutan and China.
There is only a narrow land corridor (Shiliguri Corridor or chicken neck) to the northeastern region through Assam and West Bengal but this route passes through hilly terrain with steep gradients and multiple hairpin bends, making plying of vehicles, especially loaded trucks, very difficult.
It suits India too well
Agartala via Guwahati is 1,650 km from Kolkata by road and 2,637 km from New Delhi, while the distance between Agartala and Kolkata via Bangladesh is just about 620 km.
The minister said: the IOC would set up a LPG bottling plants in Bodhjungnagar industrial estate (25 km from Agartala) in western Tripura to meet the growing crisis of cooking gas in Tripura. It appears quite clear that India may continue to use Bangladesh roads to supply petroleum products from Assam and also West Bengal.  The minister has also proposed bringing LPG and other petroleum products from Kolkata using river routes to Tripura to run the bottling plant at its full capacity.
Observers in Bangladesh sounded sceptical on Indian claim that heavy rains have seriously damaged their highway to Tripura and it required time to repair. They have said that India has alternative railway link to carry their products without putting pressures on Bangladesh. They were also afraid that Bangladesh  road system becomes so fragile during the rainy season and by carrying so much additional heavy load on daily basis, the roads are likely to collapse.  Interestingly, there has been no discussion on the issue in parliament. The matter is being handled quietly outside media and public attention though it concerns vital national interest.
Passenger service connectivity
In yet another direction, India and Bangladesh are planning at the moment to increase intercity passenger services and improve their quality and visa facilities. The Shillong Time recently reported that Meghalaya has purchased two AC buses to start Shillong-Dhaka bus service at the earliest in addition to the existing bus service from Dhaka to Guwahati via Shillong route.
Earlier on May 4, officials from the Transport, Home and Foreign Affairs Ministries from both sides met in Shillong to review the progress of the passenger bus services between the two countries.  Senior officials from concerned ministries of both the countries were present. The objective of the meeting was to take stock of the bus services plying on four routes between the two countries and bring in possible improvement to facilitate smooth and comfortable movement of passengers. Bus operators were also present.  The operation of the passenger buses between the two countries is part of the ongoing efforts to enhance regional connectivity.  India and Bangladesh have also signed the Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal Motor Vehicle Agreement, along with Bhutan and Nepal to regulate passenger and cargo vehicular traffic between the four countries and provide seamless movement of people and goods across their borders. Bangladesh is looking for greater opening up for all four countries.