Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Transit Trouble

AFTER the huge hoopla surrounding ‘transit’ to India over the preceding months, and the subsequent debate surrounding its merits and demerits, the government last week opened up the door to transit rather quietly, albeit on a trial basis, under the revised Bangladesh-India Protocol on Inland Water Transit and Trade, without completing the formalities for India using Bangladesh as a ‘corridor’. What experts and people concerned had been saying all along about ‘transit’ have already started to come true. According to a report published in New Age on Monday, over the last few days, hundreds of Indian trucks have been availing the ‘transit and transhipment’ service and passing through quickly, while hundreds of trucks carrying Bangladeshi shipments for export to India have been waiting in long queues awaiting clearance from the Indian authorities. A large section of business community had for long clamoured over the adverse effect transit would have on Bangladeshi exports to India, especially the north-eastern Indian states.

The surge in traffic the last week have also left a toll on the small number of officials posted there, causing a huge backlog of trucks, exacerbated by the narrow and dilapidated roads leading to Akhaura port. While ‘transit’ may be on a trial run, it has certainly created serious doubts about the government’s intentions in realising financial benefits from providing transit facilities. All of this should indicate to the government, less than week into the trial run, what havoc ‘transit’ threatens to create, if implemented hastily. While there is not much resistance among the progressive sections of the country to providing India ‘transit’ in principle, concerns about technical details surrounding infrastructural capability, adverse economic effect and the finding the right mechanism to set transit fees, remain a serious concern. More importantly, ‘transit’, being possibly the most important thing India seeks from Bangladesh, is also a diplomatic issue. Most people feel that Bangladesh should only accord ‘transit’ after most bilateral issues have been settled on the part of India, or else we stand to lose our strongest bargaining chip.

Keeping aside large-scale formal ‘transit’ and ‘corridor’, the trial run through Ashuganj and Akhaura should provide the government enough things to ponder upon. The government needs to address the issue of bilateral trade with the Indian government and ensure Bangladeshi shipment going into India is accorded the same treatment as Indian shipment. Secondly, the government needs to seriously invest in the infrastructural and logistical capability on most land and river ports between India and Bangladesh. Thirdly, Bangladesh needs to set transit fees to a level that will offset the losses incurred through fall in export potential, pressure on the infrastructure, as well as possible future investments. Most importantly, however, keeping all bilateral issues in mind, alongside the technical drawbacks, the government needs to rethink whether ‘transit’, at this point, is a feasible and sound decision.