Monday, May 16, 2011

Indian Over Dimensional Cargo Through Bangladesh's Free Corridor

Failure of the government to announce guidelines regulating movement of Indian over dimensional cargo (ODC) through the Ashuganj-Akhaura transport corridor speaks in volumes the helplessness of the ruling elites in protecting life and property of its own citizens. Amidst secrecy and haste the free transport corridor along Ashuganj-Akhaura route became operational on March 29 last. Even after a month of its execution the government is shying away from making any official announcement to that effect. Nothing is also known about the guidelines under which the movement of ODC is being regulated. Officials of Bangladesh Road Transport Authority (BRTA) at different levels starting from Assistant director to upwards complained that the government had totally sidetracked the only regulatory body in the road transport sector in connection with Indian ODC movement through Bangladesh corridor. The BRTA played a very crucial role when the direct bus service between Dhaka- Kolkata began in 1999 , officials noted. The roads and highways department that does not have jurisdiction or expertise on enforcement of traffic discipline, registration of vehicle, issuance of fitness certificate, driving license, route permit, or sanctioning capacity of load on road, however, is now representing the government on the issue. The government had earlier bypassed the ministry of foreign affairs when the MOU on multimodal transport deal with India was signed by the ministry of shipping on November 30 last year. Ministry of foreign affairs' vetting is mandatory in all deals signed with foreign countries. National dailies published reports saying the ministry of foreign affairs was neither consulted nor allowed participation when the first ever multimodal transport deal was signed. With a very high density of population and highest rate of road accidents in the region, situation of Bangladesh in case of a mishap during ODC movement in all likelihood will be more devastating. Absence of a guideline for ODC movement will make the people in the country more vulnerable in case of such eventualities. Mainstream media networks overwhelmingly run by private enterprises for reasons best known to them seem to be ignoring the issue. Transport experts, independent think tanks, members of civil society and even political leaders opposed to the transit or corridor arrangement so far failed to question whether the government of their own country instead of protecting life and property of its citizen has rather made them vulnerable allowing the Indian ODC movement without a guideline. The free transport corridor between Bangladesh and India supposedly for the only purpose of ODC movement became effective as four trailers of equipment crossed over the borders between the two countries and reached Agartala in the north eastern region of India on March 29 , traveling a distance of 49 km route from Ashuganj river port in Bangladesh. At a speed of five km per hour, each trailer carried a load of around 80 tons. The traveling time to cross the 49 km stretch of road in Bangladesh corridor will require about 10 hours. The inaugural consignment, took more time for its passage through the corridor due to a mechanical failure at a pontoon bridge soon after the first trailer embarked. As the trailers remained stuck on the pontoon bridge over Anderson Canal and along the diversion road near Brahmanbaria, the city witnessed traffic congestion while movement of vehicles along Sylhet-Comilla highway remained restricted for sometime during the period Guidelines followed in the developed countries provide for having escort vehicles in front and rear of ODC truck, which in case of Bangladesh seem to have been ignored. Had there been a provision of escort vehicles in front and rear of the ODC truck, the first day's mechanical failure of the pontoon bridge probably could have been averted. Considering emergency circumstances as well as the safety and security of the people in the locality and the load on the truck, the provision of having escort vehicles has been made mandatory for ODC trucks in the western countries including Australia and America. A guideline regulating the movements and schedules of ODC is also essential to allow smooth flow of regular traffic on the roads and highways that falls along the corridor passage. Absence of a guideline and lack of administrative measures to ensure uninterrupted flow of routine traffic were manifested on the inaugural journey of the ODC through the transport corridor in Bangladesh.  It must be remembered that the movement of ODC is a commercial venture and needs to be regulated under the law of the land taking into consideration the benefit of the people. In an unprecedented move Bangladesh has so far allowed its operation through the corridor without any charges, not to talk about the special charge and safety measure required for ODC movement. Disruption of the routine traffic movement allowing passage to ODC trucks will not only tarnish government's public image rather it will also expose weakness of the state in regulating even a private company.   Before getting into the detail of the guidelines specially meant for movement of ODC elsewhere around the world, let us first understand what an ODC is? ODC is cargo which is indivisible in configuration with respect to length, width, height or weight also necessarily to be transported from point A to point B in one piece generally within legally specified limits. The legally specified limits however, vary a little from country to country. Movement of ODC in heavy truck and by road though very new in our part of the world, however, began in the western countries much earlier. Before proceeding any further let us see what the Indians feel with regards to their capacity to handle the ODCs and fitness of their roads to allow their movements. 'ODC transportation in India is still not regulated in terms of vehicles configuration/aggregates, approval process and guidelines for road transportation', reports the India edition of monthly magazine Commercial Vehicle in its December 2009 issue. Dushyant Mehra, head of research and business development and Rajesh Khanna, head of marketing and international business prepared the report on behalf of Indian engineering, marketing and consulting firm RACE.    Whether Indian roads and railways through its own network and without support from Bangladesh's river route and transport corridor of Ashuganj carry the ODCs to Tripura can be understood from an official document of the Indian government published in 2009. 'In several cases our roads and roads bridges are not designed to cater to movement of such heavy load and dimensions', the document reveals. Pointing out the capacity of their railway system to carry the ODCs, the same document adds, 'Often it is difficult to move them through railways especially if the track passes through tunnel sections and old bridges. The importance of Ashuganj port of call and the transport corridor through Bangladesh can be well understood from the same document as it says, 'More often than not there is no option other than planning movement of heavy over dimensional cargo through inland water transport'. The position reflected in the government document regarding Indian road condition is further substantiated by the magazine Commercial Vehicle. Most of the ODC movements made on national/state highways, crossing bridges, culverts, junctions from major ports in India, the report points out, 'need to be checked for sustainability'. 'Transportation for ODC is not feasible with standard range of vehicles as the dimensions and weight of cargo are much higher than the normal load specifications', the report pointed out. Putting onus of route survey on the companies involved in ODC movement in India the report says, 'Apart from payload specification there is need for technical route survey as well, which is currently not carried out by most companies. Route and road survey need to be conducted more technically to assess probable barriers and difficulties and ways to resolve them before transportation'. Views reflected above clearly points out making the companies responsible with capital investment required for infrastructure development where the government takes the role of regulating authority. In case of Bangladesh why the shipping minister Shahjahan Khan wants to deprive the country of its legitimate fee from the Ashuganj- Akaura road corridor cannot be understood. 'Why should the Indians pay twice?', the minister had asked on record answering to a question regarding transit fee following the signing of MOU on November 30 last year. 'India would construct' Ashuganj-Akhaura road corridor, 'at their own coast' the minister said without clarifying whether the Indians were constructing the 49 km corridor passage in Bangladesh free of cost or the amount is linked with the tied loan of 1 billion dollar. Indian expertise and experience are also pointed out in RACE research report that depicts the current scenario saying, 'due to non availability of suitable technology to carry ODC we are forced to use existing flats and low loaders or custom built vehicles. This in turn will lead to accidents, bridges collapse, time delay and therefore, greater freight cost'. 'There are no specific regulations in place for handling ODC movement in India,' the report mentions adding, 'in developed nations like Europe, Australia, US the ODC movement is highly regulated and organised'. Indians have every right to carry out experiments in their own country. We are neither solicited nor desirous to suggest them anything except that the process of experimentation should not cross over boundaries. Before we conclude let us take a snapshot of guidelines followed in western developed countries. The Transit Study Group obtained guidelines for ODC movement followed in US, Canada and Australia. Certain provisions found in common in the guidelines of all these countries are mentioned below. State governments are responsible for issuance of special permit required for ODC movement on specific routes and during fixed hours. Permits are required to be obtained few days ahead of the scheduled ODC movement. Permits are generally issued for a single haul with a particular fee against the capacity load the vehicle carries. With the increase in load the amount of fee goes up and in special cases permits are issued for longer duration with a higher fee. The Mary Land transport department in USA issues a single haul permit for 30 USD for a load 45 tons but the amount for the same permit is 180 USD when the load is 75 tons. Provision of escort or pilot vehicles is mandatory on certain highway carrying a certain load and in a certain length of vehicle.  Separate amount is charged for that purpose. Provisions of financial penalty as well as that of cancellation of permits are authorized when operator abuse them. Another important aspect in handling the ODC and maintaining the safety of the people is the truck driver's qualification and his communication skills. The UK comptroller and auditor general in his recent report on enforcement of regulations on commercial vehicles attributed driver's 'experience, performance and behaviour' as the 'main risk factors contributing to commercial vehicle accidents'. 'The most severe accidents involving British registered vehicles were associated with driver performance, principally tiredness, and for foreign vehicles mechanical condition and some driver related factors', noted the report submitted in January 2010. In case of ODC movement through Ashuganj transport corridor BRTA has been denied of its legitimate function as the only regulating authority of the vehicles. The obvious question is if not BRTA than which authority is now regulating the ODC trucks. Questions will be also asked as to who has been made responsible for registration of the ODC trucks, issuance of their fitness certificate and route permits? Who determined the authorized load capacity on the road for the ODC? How the safety of the people and smooth running of the ODC are ensured? Under what criteria and which authorities selected drivers for the ODC trucks? Did they undergo any standard aptitude test relating to local sensitivities, customs and language?  Not only the skills of driving but knowledge about vehicle features, its mechanism are essential for ODC drivers, but at the same time his qualities of developed moral values, sensitivity to local society are some other important components for successful ODC movement. The biggest concern with regards to ODC movement probably is the content the vehicle is carrying. In the absence of a transparent mechanism to ensure that only specified goods are being carried in the ODC, there are chances that anybody, not necessarily political opponents, may exploit the situation only to take advantage out of it. The customs authorities in Bangladesh note down the number of cargoes at the entry and termination points of the water route.  When the cargo again originates from Ashuganj river port the number is noted down and tallied at the exit point on the borders. Since it is still not known whether special permits are issued for ODC movement how can it be guaranteed that unspecified substance or hardware injurious to human health or ecology is not being carried. This is especially relevant against the background of frequent Indian allegation of ' extremists' presence along its Bangladesh borders and decades long insurgencies in the north eastern regions. In the absence of a procedure how can the responsibility be fixed and aggrieved be compensated in case damage and destruction is caused to the ODC or is done by it. As long as public is denied of their legitimate right to information with regards to the new dynamics of the Bangladesh-India relationship, question over the transported hardware in ODC and legitimacy of corridor deal will continue to haunt the government. People of Bangladesh probably were forced into a situation where they were left with no choice but to watch a free transport corridor over their nose. Gaining the access, India will now offer some concession and the justify the ' deal', since it is aware of the fact that it is only Bangladesh that offer it most economic route for transportation of ODC to the north eastern region. Realizing legitimate corridor fee from the Indians including special charges pertaining to ODC movement probably will not be difficult for Bangladesh at this stage, not due to any smart position pursued by our ruling elites, but mainly because of the changing global scenario, where information technology seems to have emerged as a very big factor. What will be India's global image when another incident of depriving legitimate rights of the people in its next door gets into circulation? India had earlier tarnished its global image imposing trade embargo on its landlocked tiny neighbour Nepal, the only instance of the kind after WW II. It is time for the ruling elites in the country to realize and draw up an India policy on the basis of consensus reflecting aspirations of the people and allowing participation of all shades of opinion. An in camera session of the parliament may also be summoned for that purpose. Serious thoughts probably should be given before time runs out.