Friday, September 9, 2011

Transit Facilities And India-Bangladesh Relation

Transit facilities through Bangladesh must not be a political issue. It is a business opportunity, to say the least. But unfortunately for many in Bangladesh allowing transit facility, especially to India, seems to be almost a life-and-death question for the country and its people. The reason is not hard to find out.

Our politicians and bureaucrats do not know what transit facilities mean and most importantly, they have understood the whole concept wrongly. The scenario is almost the same from the Indian side, who knows well, sadly, hegemony and unnecessary effort to dominate others. Leadership of both the countries completely failed to see what economic benefit these transit facilities could offer for these two countries. It is foolish that both the countries look to the transit question from a political angle only.

Transit facility means allowing someone to get into your territory and then to drive away or fly out to another destination using one's own car or using public transport system such as rail, bus or an aeroplane. Similarly 'transit facility' for boat or ship means allowing the vessel to pass through your waterways. Transit facility involves a country's roads and highways, railways, airports and waterways. To make the point further clear and easily understandable to readers I would like to explain how it works in Western Europe.

a. Transit for cars

Free anywhere in most European countries. One must have an insurance to cover an accident or any such calamity. Public roads in most European countries allow you free drive. However, there are toll roads where one needs to pay fee for driving through in some of the European countries such as France, Italy, Czech Republic etc.

b. Transit for Bus

Rules are almost same for buses.

c. Transit for train

National trains in most of the countries allow transit and they move free beyond boarders. For example, you travel by a Swedish train from Stockholm to Prague in the same carriage of the Swedish State Train that ply between Stockholm and Prague or beyond. There are agreed-upon rules and regulations and partners comply with it.

d. Transit for cargo train

Free movement without any hindrance. Similarly, containers destined for Sweden or any other country from Bangladesh or India may be brought by ship in any port in Europe, unload it and then be brought to its destination by truck or by train. Agreed upon rules and regulations are followed by all partners and no Prime Minister needs to spend a minute for this simple negotiation.

e. Transit for waterways

Generally free but in some cases one needs to pay fees to anchorage and using harbour facilities.

Now the case of Bangladesh allowing transit facilities to India can be discussed. India needs transit facility to transport goods, most importantly, to its "seven sister states" (Arunachal, Assam, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland, Meghalaya and Tripura). The total area of these seven sister states is 250,000 sq. km. or about 7.0 per cent of total territory of the Republic of India. This huge area is fully landlocked and isolated from the rest of India except a slender and vulnerable corridor through Siliguri as the connecting point. Their international trade is possible only by air or through Kolkata port -- a very long and highly expensive and time -- consuming way by the Siliguri corridor.

Road and rail transit corridors through Bangladesh would be a blessing for these seven-sister states and ensure economy if they use Bangladesh ports for their international trade and also trade with the rest of India. In short, connection with the main land and the rest of the world for these seven-sister states of India is possible in they can get transit facilities through Bangladesh.

What could be Bangladesh's benefit by giving this transit facility to the Indian seven-sisters? Not very substantial as the seven sisters would get -- but certainly considerable -- if Bangladeshi government and business people could be prudent. The government of Bangladesh can build roads and highways and develop its ports up to international standard for its own goods and as per the Indian need. But nothing is free in life and India may pay as the cost is. Build, run, earn and hand-over after a certain period could be one of the methods. The Indian soft loan can be used to build the infrastructure for the transit facility that India desperately needs. In that case, the roads must be toll roads and a special fee for maintenance of these transit roads can be charged. Transit facility to India would create substantial job opportunities and generate extra incomes for the government.

Similarly offering port facilities would create job opportunities and substantial income for the government and the port authority in Bangladesh. Allowing waterways to India could be another job creating opportunity for Bangladesh if it is made compulsory to use Bangladeshi pilots and security personals for safe journey through Bangladesh by the Indian vessels. There are many other benefits if we consider allowing transit facility to India as a simple business opportunity and ignore politics completely in this context.

Recently, there was a news item saying that the officials of the ministry of commerce in Bangladesh oppose allowing India transit for trade with any Third country through Chittagong and Mongla sea-ports. The reason for such opposition was not explained by the officials. Prudent officials would have said that let India do business through our ports with rest of the world and let them pay the fees and follow our rules and regulations very carefully.

Let us give an example from the transit facilities that both former USSR and their communist East European 'satellite' states offered to their arch rival capitalist countries in the Western Europe, North America and to the rest of the world, before the fall of the Iron Curtain. They had transit routes for non-communist countries for cars, buses and trucks and one had to drive through them. There was a transit fee and that was all. They looked at it as a pure business and there was no fuss if one followed the transit route and did not break their laws.

This writer had personal experience driving through some erstwhile East European communist countries in the late seventies and until the 'fall' of communism. On the night of November 9, 1989, when the Berlin Wall, the most potent symbol of the Cold War division of Europe, came down, the writer was crossing the Hungary-Austria boarder. Transits on selected and well-guarded routes were never denied even during the communist era in the cold war days.

Transit is mostly for tourism and business and both bring economic gains for all involved in it. Most importantly, let us not forget that, both tourism and business, create wealth and prosperity and our bureaucrats and politicians should look at the transit issue, especially in the context the Indian requirement as nothing but a business opportunity. India, too, would do better in thinking so. If Indian leadership would have been wise and non-hegemonic, they would have allowed Nepal, Bhutan and even Pakistan to use their territory for tourism and business transit. By doing so she could win economic and political plus points. I would rather say that India should have invited even China and offered her Southern provinces transit facilities. How nice it could have been if there was NO visa between the countries in the sub-continent and every country allowed transit facilities with fees if not free.

By - Tayeb Husain.