Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The debate and dilemma of transit

From the nineties India has been asking Bangladesh for transit and now, finally, they are on the verge of actually getting it. However, it hasn’t been smooth sailing and controversy prevails. Innumerable questions hover around the issue and until and unless these questions are resolved, it will not be easy to grant transit to India. Unless all the irritants are settled, it will neither be possible to run the process properly nor will it be possible for Bangladesh to gain optimum benefits for transit. With this in mind, the Transit Study Group (TCG) analysed the various controversies and debate which surround the transit issue.

1. What does India want?

There are three forms of geographic cooperation in the movement of goods -- transit, transshipment and corridor. Each form has a different significance. Which form is India and Bangladesh taking up in this regard? Transit means the interstate transportation of goods and passengers over a particular land or water route in accordance to specific agreement and regulations. While the term ‘transit’ is being used in the agreement between India and Bangladesh, its nature is more on the lines of corridor facilities. If Bangladeshi vehicular movement is held up during the movement of the transit vehicles, then this is certainly corridor-type facilities. Bangladesh is to grant India this facility, but it is not a landlocked country. Normally by corridor it is meant giving a certain country control over a certain part of the territory. While Bangladesh at the moment isn’t granting this control to India, India is being given unilateral use of the route. Again, as India is transporting the goods at its initiative, it cannot be called transshipment either.

2. How prepared is Bangladesh for transit, transshipment or corridor?

Whether it is transit, transshipment or corridor, whatever facilities are to be granted, the question is whether Bangladesh’s road and rail infrastructure is prepared for this. Everyday experience tells us about the present state of Bangladesh’s road infrastructure and how fit is it is to accommodate the country’s own transportation of goods and passengers. Under these circumstances, just what will the state of affairs be if hundreds of Indian vehicles start plying the existing roads?
According to various media reports, if transit is granted, about 1500 trucks of 15 tons each will ply the transit route. Added to that is the 750  Bangladeshi trucks presently using the possible transit routes. That means a total of 2,250 trucks will use the route every day, triple the present load. 
About eight routes are being considered for transit. Other than the Banglabandha-Tamabil and Banglabandha-Akhaura routes, Dhaka is included in all the six remaining routes. How far are our roads in general, and Dhaka roads in particular, ready to take on this extra load of trucks? And when India uses the transit route, it will be plying extremely heavy container-carrying trucks, much heavier the average truck. These trucks will be unable to change lanes and when these massive vehicles will go down the road, all other vehicular traffic will have to be halted.

3. How will the cost of transit infrastructure be met?

Given the various meetings at a top policy-making level between Bangladesh and India, implementing the transit deal is now apparently only a matter of time.
Where the present road system is hardly adequate enough to bear the local vehicles and passengers, how can it take on the extra load of Indian goods at the same time?  There can be any alternative arrangement of time coordination, that is their vehicles can ply when our vehicular movement is down to a minimum. Then there will have to be large parking lots along the route for the Indian trucks. The construction of such parking facilities, the maintenance of these, plus ensuring security at these sites, all will entail huge costs. Who will bear the costs? Also, how practical will it be to use such huge plots of land for parking in such a densely populated country as Bangladesh?
There are certain Bangladesh officials who are so enthusiastic about granting India transit, that they contend that Bangladesh will bear all the transit infrastructure expenses. For instance, merely at the possibility of giving transit to India, recently the Chittagong Port Authority has implemented 18 projects at the cost of 2,100 crore taka (The Daily Star, December 29, 2010). An interview with Musharraf Hossain, Member (Finance), Chittagong Port Authority, reveals that simply to facilitate the possible parking of Indian vehicles, a 150 crore taka transit yard is being constructed. Residents of the adjacent densely populated area are being evicted for the purpose.
Then there are instances of the opposite too. When Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina visited India and held talks with her Indian counterpart Dr. Manmoham Singh concerning transit on January 12 last year, plans were laid to declare Ashuganj as a Port of Call and to set up an Inland Container River Port there at a cost of 36.23 million dollars, construct second Bhairab Bridge and Second Teesta Bridge at a cost of 120 million dollars and develop the road infrastructure at Ashuganj for another 34 million dollars. India would basically use this route to transport heavy machinery to Agartala where they would be setting up a large power plant. However, an on-the-spot survey of the area in November 2010, shows there are no signs of any development there and the local residents do not have an inkling of anything in this regard. (Read PROBE Issue 20, Vol 9) In fact, one rainfall leaves the roads there unfit for even local vehicle movement, let alone the proposed 28 and 32-wheeler container trucks bearing heavy machinery weighing 60 to 80 tons. Bangladesh’s Inland Water Transport Authority hasn’t even set up any proper office there. Does that mean India will be running the entire show?
While Bangladesh is spending its own resources to facilitate transit for India (Chittagong Port, for example) and handing over transit facilities even without any infrastructure development (Ashuganj Port, for example), in Myanmar India is pouring in its investment to develop the road infrastructure in the hope of winning transit facilities there.
Once ‘transit’ begins in our country, immediately there will be the need for regular rail and road renovation which will call for manpower and investment. Over the past decade, India has kept up the pressure for transit but has made no move whatsoever to help in infrastructure development. China, on the other hand, has made significant investment in this sector. Despite having no direct communication interests here, China has constructed about seven or eight large bridges in Bangladesh. India has set no such example. On the contrary, it has submerged Bangladesh into a large debt by mans of a loan in August 2010 purportedly for investment in transit preparations. Bangladesh got this loan from the Indian Exim Bank. Bangladesh will use this 100 crore dollar loan to construct infrastructure for the movement of Indian goods, and yet it will have to repay each and every penny of the loan, along with interest. Not only that, another  condition of the loan is that all the equipment used for the infrastructure development will have to be procured from India. And while Bangladesh is being forced to swallow this loan, the press reports that the World Bank has cancelled a loan agreement of 175 crore dollars with Bangladesh as the funds were lying unutilized (‘Rajkut’, Kaler Kantha, December 1, 2010). For long it had been said that India was giving the 100 crore dollars as ‘assistance’,  but now it has been revealed that this is a loan.

4. Who will be responsible for the security setup of the transit process?

Security is vitally interlinked with transit, transshipment or corridor, whichever Bangladesh is granting to its neighbour. The nature of the goods being transported must be scrutinized and monitored on a regular basis and security must also be provided for the safe transportation of the goods. Bangladesh lacks facilities for both types of these security measures in its existing road infrastructure. So the question naturally arises, when will this security setup be put in place and who will operate it? It is a vital question as to who will be in control of security and who will bear the costs involved.

5. Which route will be used for transit?

Even thought eight different routes are under consideration for Indian transit, the people of this country have no idea whatsoever as to which points Indian vehicles are likely to enter Bangladesh, which routes will be used and from which points will they exit Bangladesh to re-enter India.

6. What will Bangladesh get in exchange of granting India transit facilities?

As it is still not clarified as to whether Bangladesh will be giving India, transit, transshipment or corridor facilities, it is still unclear what fee Bangladesh will be given in return for this facility. In fact, recently there were differences of opinion among the policy makers as to whether India will have to pay any fee at all. We know for certain that India is presently spending about one hundred billion  dollars transport goods through the places for which they want transit, such as the Shilliguri corridor. But there is no information on how much India will be saving in using Bangladesh territory to transport their goods and if any understanding has been reached in this regard.
Presently tea from Assam travels about 1400 km to Kolkatta to be exported around the world. It is about 1650 km to travel from that point to Tripura. Yet if transit is granted, the travel distance between Assam and Tripura will be only 400 km. This will be a huge boon for Indian economy. It is only natural for Bangladesh to expect to benefit from this, yet in June last year it was clear that the Bangladeshi policymakers are prevaricating over the issue. NBR had issued an SRO determining a fee for transit, but within just a few days it was withdrawn. The SRO has fixed a 10,000 taka fee per container and a 1000 taka fee per ton of open goods. Even though this is much, much less than what India is having to pay to transport goods over its own territory, it apparently seems that our policy makers are unwilling to impose this fee. In fact, any attempts to increase the existing fee for the river transit being presently used by India have been thwarted. In 2009-10 when large volumes of Indian goods were being transported by Bangladesh’s river-ways, Bangladesh received only a paltry 4.5 crore taka as fees (The Financial Express, November 13, 2010). Finance Minister Abul Mal Abdul Muhith, speaking in the secretariat on November 2, 2010, had said, “No fees will be imposed on transit.” This certainly was a surprising statement, considering certain quarters over the last decade or more have been spewing out rhetoric about how many billions of dollars Bangladesh will earn through transit.

7. Who will take responsibility for the environmental harm caused by transit?

Bangladesh is a densely populated country already suffering from a myriad of environmental problems. Till now there hasn’t been any study as to what environmental harm will be caused by the transit provision. In the present global scenario, in Bangladesh as well, when any large project is taken up, first a study is carried out on the impact the project is likely to have on the environment. It is a mystery as to why this issue has been totally sidestepped in the matter of granting transit to India.
Another question that looms large in this respect is whether India will play any role in the rehabilitation of persons displaced by the transit route or pay any compensation for possible environmental harm brought about by transit. For example, Indian company ABC Construction has been awarded the contract to construct the road from Ashuganj via Akhaura to Agartala in India. This is for the transport of heavy machinery and goods known as ODC or Over Dimensional Consignment. In ABC Construction’s hurried initiative to expand the 49 km road, a nearby canal will be permanently filled and the area will face serious water-logging. (For details see PROBE News Magazine November 5-11, 2010).
There is even a proposal to take the railroad through the world heritage site of the Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest, to facilitate transit and the use to Mongla Port to carry India goods.
In is also a matter of concern as to whether the list of goods for transit will be kept open or whether it will be specified. The area which India is wanting transit is a virtual war zone. India has to regularly send arms, ammunition and weaponry to those areas rife with independence struggles of various ethnic groups. It should be settled whether this transit route will be used to transport such equipment. After all, this is likely to lead Bangladesh to become the target of ire of these ethnic groups.

8. How will transit-related health risks be addressed?

From the European, Central Asian and particularly the African experiences, we note that transit bring along with it great health risks. If hundreds of vehicles travel from India through Bangladesh every day, certain health problems are bound to crop up. Top on the list is HIV/AIDS. India, according to official reports, had six million identified AIDS affected persons. This outnumbers AIDS patients anywhere else in the world. The main cause of concern is that the three regions of India with the highest prevalence of AIDS, Mizoram, Manipur and Nagaland, near the Bangladesh border. In fact, at one end of the transit route sought by India is these three states. To make matters worse, it is the truck drivers in India who are mostly the AIDS virus carriers and they are the ones who will be entering Bangladesh. The question is, are we at all aware of these serious risks? Has any precautionary action been taken whatsoever? Has Bangladesh any plan whatsoever of setting up the required facilities for the health check of the drivers using the transit route?

9. How prepared is Bangladesh to deal with the smuggling and drug trade, an inevitable fallout of transit?

Again from the experience of Europe, Central Asia and Africa, we see an inevitable fallout of transit to be smuggling and illegal drug trade. As it is, our trade ties with India is infested with smuggling. There have been no statements so far as to how transit will exacerbate this situation and what preventive measures can be taken in this regard. As things stand at present, Bangladesh is facing the menace of phensidyl being smuggled over the border into the country and it is a serious challenger for the authorities to tackle this. Phensidyl has become such a serious business for the Indians now that all along their side of the Bangladesh border so far 132 Phensidyl factories have been identified. Though the Border Guard of Bangladesh (BGB) has approached the Indian Border Security Force (BSF) with these facts and figures, no measures have been taken to resolve the matter. In West Bengal alone there are 52 Phensidul factories. According to a study of Family Health International, India earns 347 crore rupees through smuggling drugs to Bangladesh alone (News Today, December 29, 2010). At least 32 different kinds of unlawful drugs enter Bangladesh from at least 512 points from India.
The existing scanning mechanisms which Bangladesh has at the moment for its road and railways, is totally inadequate to deal with this problem. Will more scanning mechanisms be installed if transit begins? Who will control these scanning setups? Where will they be installed? None of these questions have been answered so far. In fact, no separate authority has even been formed to look after the entire matter of transit.

10. When there are so many unresolved bilateral issues, why is only transit being brought to the table?

Whether it is transit, transshipment or corridor, what the facilities may be, the basis of this must be a mindset of bilateral cooperation. It would only be expected that Bangladesh will receive equal trade benefits in exchange of granting India transit. This would include expanded entry of Bangladeshi goods in the Indian market as well as facilities to transport goods from Bangladesh over Indian territory to Nepal, Bhutan, Pakistan, etc.
There are several other unresolved issues Bangladesh has with India – determining the maritime boundary, demarcation of the land borders, killing of innocent Bangladeshis by BSF along the border, water sharing, Farakka Barrage and Tipaimukh Dam. All these are matters of grave concern for Bangladesh.
Then there is the trade imbalance between Bangladesh and India. According to Bangladesh’s Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and Industry (MCCI), the trade imbalance between the two countries in 2009-10 was about 3.6 billion dollars and this gap is rapidly and steadily growing.
India is singularly Bangladesh’s biggest trading partner. India’s business in Bangladesh is four billion dollars, while Bangladesh exports only 3.6 million dollars worth of commodities to India. According to the Export Promotion Bureau, India exports about 2,086 items to Bangladesh, while only 168 items can enter the Indian market from Bangladesh. (‘Rajkut’, Kaler Kantha, December 1, 2010). Basically Bangladeshi goods can’t enter the Indian market due to the non-tariff barriers. Negotiations have been on in this connection over the last eight years, but things haven’t moved an inch in Bangladesh’s favour. Any Bangladeshi commodity entering the Indian market has to undergo laboratory tests. India has made this mandatory. It takes anywhere between 40 to 50 days for the results of this to emerge. India does not recognize laboratory tests run in Bangladesh. When our policy makers sit for negotiations, they fail to voice these concerns of our business sector. The main agenda is transit, whether it will be given to India or not. But it is imperative that the public be informed of what Bangladesh will be given in exchange of extending transit facilities.
Many are of the opinion that transit is simply a matter of economics. They feel that political issues should not be dragged in. But from global experience it is learnt that without the real picture of friendship between two countries and with the give-and-take mentality, economic cooperate cannot go too far. How far are Bangladesh’s national interests actually being upheld with the old irritants being brushed aside and transit being brought to the forefront?
Towards the end of the nineties, in a similar hurried manner, and keeping the people in the dark, the Ganges water sharing treaty was signed. But a decade on, Bangladesh is yet to receive its fair share of water. All of the bilateral agreements signed between Bangladesh and India in the past have had the same fate. So even on a regional level the big question is, why is Bangladesh sitting with India alone to discuss the issue of transit instead of dealing with this issue multilaterally with interest South East Asian countries. There are many similar questions for which no answers are being given. Instead, certain quarters within the government are impatient to hand over transit facilities to India. Certain quarters in the private sector too are giving full support to the matter, particular our larger business associations. If transit is granted, India will take goods to its northeastern states, just when the market there has opened up to Bangladeshi commodities. So when our business bodies rally in support of transit, one wonder to which country do they belong and where their allegiance lies. Will not the trade imbalance between the two countries simply intensify?

11. Are the government committees for transit at all capable of formulating the required guidelines?

The Transit Study Group) feels that given the global realities of today, the exchange of trade facilities and the involvement in inter-state communication management is inevitable and unavoidable. In such cases, all countries carry out the necessary studies and evaluation, and weight the pros and cons. Transit trade facilities is a universal model, but no country enters such an agreement without bargaining, negotiating, studying and evaluating and without prior preparation. Bangladesh cannot be an exception in this regard. Only landlocked countries have the special right for transit and use of port of neighboring countries. As for other countries, transit is based on mutual understanding, cooperation and proven friendship.
It is a matter of concern as to whether Bangladesh has come to any understanding regarding transit, whether it has driven a good bargain, whether there has been cooperation and whether answers to the relevant questions have been resolved. It is important that the people ponder of these issues, ask questions and be given answers. This process of question and answer must be neutral and in keeping with present realities.
The government has created five sub-committees regarding transit. The heads of these committees had been lobbying in favour of the handing transit over to India, sans bargaining. There is S Rahmatullah, the head of the committee to determine the route and expense of transit. Then there is the head of the committee for the economic analysis of transit, Sadeq Ahmed. CPD’s Executive Director Mustafizur Rahman is head of the committee to determine the important issues pertaining to transit. As these persons had long been vocal in favour of giving India transit over the past decade or so, can these people actually produce any neutral and professional results? How can political leaders get neutral and professional research results and take responsible decisions? Therein lies our concern.

Transit Study Group

The Transit Study Group is basically a multidisciplinary group. It comprises journalists, doctors, lawyers, environmentalists, tax experts and other professionals. The objective of the group is not to oppose transit, but to conduct an in-depth study of the issue and to come up with recommendations in keeping with national interests. This can provide valuable input to the relevant policymakers in their decision-making regarding transit.