Connectivity has emerged as a major component of India’s growing ties with neighbouring Bangladesh. New Delhi and Dhaka have been closely cooperating with each other for implementing numerous bilateral and sub-regional rail, road and waterway initiatives. In recent years, the two countries have launched several bus, train and air services, opened immigration check posts, up graded border infrastructure boosting bilateral ties and enhancing trade and connectivity.
In a significant development on November 1, 2023, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bangladeshi counterpart Sheikh Hasina inaugurated three New Delhi-assisted infrastructure development projects including Agartala-Akhaura cross-border rail link and Khulna-Mongla rail line through video conferencing.
While addressing the inaugural ceremony, Prime Minister Modi expressed happiness over the success of India-Bangladesh infrastructure development cooperation and strengthening of bilateral relations. Earlier on August 7, External Affairs Minister Dr Subramanyam Jaishankar noted that five operational bus services and three cross-border passenger train services and two inland waterway routes are facilitating greater trade and people-to-people contacts, which are integral parts of India’s broader engagement with South Asian neighbours.
Under India’s “Neighbourhood First” and “Act East” policies, expansion of connectivity with eastern neighbour Bangladesh has been accorded priority by the union government taking into consideration the land-locked North Eastern states.
The four North Eastern states, namely, Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram share 1,879 km-long border with Bangladesh and India has sought transit facilities through the neighbouring country for transportation of goods to and from these states.
The connectivity projects have gained momentum after Bangladesh allowing use of its Chittagong and Mongla ports and transit facilities to India’s North Eastern states.
On August 8, 2022, Union Minister of Development of North Eastern Region (DoNER) G Kishan Reddy told the Lok Sabha that enhancing comprehensive connectivity between India and Bangladesh through the North East is an important aspect of the growing bilateral ties and significant progress has been made in recent years.
During the talks between Prime Minister Hasina and DoNER Minister Reddy on September 7, 2022, in New Delhi, the Bangladesh government proposed that the chief ministers of the seven North Eastern states could visit Dhaka for talks for enhancing cooperation in connectivity, trade and security.
Reports say the union government accepted the proposal in principle and, work is underway to decide on a suitable time for the visit which will involve coordinating the schedules of seven chief ministers.
The Awami League (AL) government of Sheikh Hasina is keen on engaging North Eastern states for expanding trade, connectivity and people-to-people ties with Bangladesh.
Bangladesh’s State Minister for Foreign Affairs M Shariyar Alam said India’s DoNER minister accepted Dhaka’s request for augmenting North East-Bangladesh cooperation and expressed special interest for this land-locked region. Minister Alam, who accompanied Prime Minister Hasina in the September 2022 New Delhi tour, clearly said Indian political leaders appeared more engaged, forward looking and innovative in their approach towards the Indo-Bangladesh ties. He added that the India government extended full support towards Bangladesh’s development endeavours especially on the connectivity front.
The AL leaders have pointed out that Prime Minister Hasina decided on principle to grant transit facilities to India’s land-locked North Eastern states in 2015 when her government was facing severe political instability in the country and this demonstrated her firm conviction on forging friendly ties with India.
The AL leaders maintain that Prime Minister Hasina had taken a big political risk and steadily cemented Bangladesh’s cordial ties with India.
Bangladesh is a major pillar of both “Act East” and “Neighbourhood First” policies and many infrastructure development projects undertaken with New Delhi’s financial assistance are directed towards expanding connectivity, transit and trade between the former and India’s strategically important North East.
India has extended three Lines of Credit (LoCs) amounting to $7.35 billion over the last 12 years for the development of infrastructure in various sectors. In addition to LoCs, India has been providing grant assistance for a number of transport infrastructure development projects including the recently-opened Agartala-Akhaura cross-border rail link and dredging of inland waterways in Bangladesh.
According to reports, the Bangladesh government has initiated 42 infrastructure development projects under Indian LoCs, of which 14 have been completed, and the remaining 28 projects are at various stages of implementation till February 2023.
India is focusing on the development of Bangladesh’s transport networks.
The construction and timely maintenance of high quality roads capable of taking ever increasing loads of passenger and goods, building of modern, user friendly river ports for ensuring safe and easy navigation and development of multimodal logistics hub are key components of India’s overall framework of cooperation with Bangladesh on the connectivity front.
India has also announced that it would supply road construction equipments and machinery in 25 packages to the road and highways department of Bangladesh government.
In order to facilitate transshipment of goods to and from North Eastern states using Bangladesh’s two seaports and inland waterways, India has agreed to fund some connectivity projects in the neighbouring country.
The Tk 7,188 crore project to build a four-lane highway from Comilla to Brahmanbaria is one such transport infrastructure development project that will vastly improve road connectivity between the port city Chittagong and Sylhet and ease transshipment arrangements with India.
The Bangladesh government has taken up the road project, which lies in the eastern part of the country adjacent to North Eastern state Tripura, for early implementation.
The ongoing four-lane project, which is expected to be operational by June 2026, will connect the Sylhet-Chittagong National Highway as well as Ashuganj river port and Akhaura land port.
This transit facility through Bangladesh will enable Indian goods to reach North Eastern states faster.
However, reports suggest that the Comilla-Brahmanbaria road project is progressing slowly due to delay in loan disbursement.
Similarly, the Benapole-Jessore-Narail-Bhatipara-Bhanga road project is facing funding issues.
The Ashuganj-Sarail-Dharkar-Akhaura road project is also moving slowly due to a cash flow problem of the Indian contractor.
Both the Benapole-Bhanga and Ashuganj-Akhaura road projects have been taken up to improve cross-border connectivity between India and Bangladesh and need to be fast tracked.
Of the 28 ongoing infrastructure development projects, eight are reportedly at physical execution stage, and 11 are at tendering stage. Some projects have been excluded from the LoC list due to implementation complications.
The delay in execution of various projects has led to cost escalation. For example, the cost of the Ashuganj inland container river port project will increase by 10 to 15 percent.
The Bangladesh government’s Economic Relations Division has noted that some slow-moving projects including Bay Container Terminal Project at Chittagong Port (with a $400 million loan) and Saidpur Airport Project have to be reviewed.
Meanwhile, while addressing a cultural festival in Sylhet on October 8, 2023, Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister Dr A K Abdul Momen announced that a new road bridge would be constructed over the Kushiyara river connecting Karimganj in southern Assam with Zakiganj in northeastern Sylhet district.
The two countries will soon start the process of preliminary survey for the bridge project. It will be similar to the Friendship Bridge built over the Feni river connecting southern Tripura’s border town Sabroom with Bangladesh’s Ramgarh. Bangladesh’s foreign minister also added that the Silchar-Sylhet bus service would be opened soon after addressing some issue on the route.
In another development on June 10, 2022, four passenger bus services between India and Bangladesh except for the Dhaka-Sylhet-Shillong-Guwahati route, resumed two years after their suspension due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The four bus routes include Dhaka-Kolkata-Dhaka, Dhaka-Agartala-Dhaka, Agartala-Dhaka-Kolkata-Agartala and Dhaka-Khulna-Kolkata-Dhaka.
(Dr Rupak Bhattacharjee is an independent public and foreign policy analyst. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)