Thursday, October 6, 2011

Ashugonj-Akhaura Corridor Provokes Many Questions

Confusion and contradiction continue to increasingly dominate the public mind over the transit/corridor issue. A new question that captured much of the public discourse in the capital last week was related to whether the government has already given permission to India to start using the overland road transit facility to its north-eastern region. How are things developing on this front? 
The Indo-Bangladesh summit held in Dhaka in early September ended without a transit protocol in the wake of India’s failure to ink the Teesta River water sharing agreement. This is what the government said at that time: No water, no transit. 
India using corridor
But news reports reaching the capital last week from Akhaura border area said, despite Dr Manmohan Singh’s failure to give the Teesta waters to Bangladesh, the Indian side has started using Bangladesh corridor facility to move their goods to Tripura state.
The issue came to public attention last week when two Indian cargo vessels anchored at the river bank terminal of the Ashugonj power plant and started unloading crates, reportedly stuck with iron bars and steel sheets.
The cargoes were stored at a safe storage of the huge power plant and later moved in four trucks to Akhaura land customs stations overnight. Moreover customs officials at Brahmanbaria and Akhaura said they are not charging any custom duty on the cargoes as they have not received any such instruction. 
Another customs official at Akhaura customs station said the Indian cargoes are on their parking lot at the moment and expected to leave for Agartola on Thursday. He said they are not charging duty on the consignment on instruction from the National Board of Revenue.
NBR had issued a circular last year fixing Taka 10,000 for a cargo container and Taka 1,000 for per ton loose cargo. But it had to rescind the circular later on as India refused to pay any duty while passing their cargo through Bangladeh territory.    
Shipping minister Shahjahan Khan confirmed the matter last week while speaking to reporters saying the Indian side is using the facility under the bilateral water protocol of 1974 and moreover, on the strength of their earlier permission to move the ODC cargoes to Tripura. It allows multimodal transportation including roads and waterways on which Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina agreed during her January 2010 visit to India on request from Dr Singh.  
It was however, a one-time permission to use of the facility to transport the heavy ODC containers. But it appears that they are now using it beyond the one-time initial permission in running more commercial consignments giving the impression that the land transit facility is already rolling in the ground. 
Shipping Minister Shahjahan Khan said it is only a trial run. But when a reporter asked him if it is an illegal exercise as the accord on transit fell apart during the recent summit, he said it is permissible under the multi-modal transport facilities. The two Prime Ministers have agreed on it in their joint communiqué. Protocol on waterways also allows it, he said. 
‘Cunningly bracketed’
But there is a cry of betrayal from all over. Major opposition BNP vice-chairman Shamsher Mobin Chowdhury said there is public betrayal at every point. He said the government in the first place have very cunningly bracketed transit with the Teesta water sharing. He said, “Water is the internationally recognised right of the people in a lower riparian nation, while allowing a corridor facility to a nation is a matter of privilege, there is no compulsion in it. The two issues are totally different.” 
He wondered how the Government could speak of bartering water for transit and now “there is no water but transit is there.” The former foreign secretary questioned the intention of the Government, adding, “There is reason to suspect when the government is too eager to do something without involving or informing the people.”
He also wondered how the government can allow the use of Chittagong Port when it is already running at around 90 percent capacity. “I also doubt whether the capacity of the port can be increased. We can’t think of it without marginalising local business. It can be done if only a new port or sea port can be built,” he said.
Obscure statements
Dr Asif Nazrul equally sounded critical to the government’s contradictory and often obscure statements on the transit issues. He found it difficult to compare the statement of foreign minister Dr Dipu Moni who said a deal on transit is yet to be signed. 
But contrary to it Prime Minister’s adviser Dr Gawhar Rizvi said there is no need for a new agreement as existing laws have the provision of transit of Indian goods through Bangladesh territory.  
News report said the use of land transit by India from Ashugonj to Akhaura and the damage done by their truckers, especially by heavy trailers to roads and local environment are already causing alarm to the local people.
They are afraid of losing their highway to heavy Indian traffic. “Awami League did not tell us before the election that they would do it and we see what they are doing now,” a national daily quoted a local vendor at Akhaura  as saying giving his reaction to the latest developments.
He said Akhaura customs station was an export outlet to India so far. 
Now they would bring their merchandise from the mainland in the west here and Bangladesh would lose market in the northeast, he said. However, a local Awami League leader said it would enhance the country’s image, besides boosting business. 
“We are not opposed to transit but not through highway. It will destroy our cohesiveness,” another person reportedly said in this connection.

BY :  Faruque Ahmed.