It’s like watching a movie already seen twice. Or, it could be the recurrence of a hellish nightmare? The reasons that had compelled the last BNP-led Government not to approve the proposed Asian Highway in December 2005 remain alive, but the AL-led regime has agreed in principle to approve the three different routes, only to turn the entire country into a virtual corridor of India.
The Communication Ministry on May 21 made the decision following a meeting in which roads and railway secretary ASM Ali Kabir and senior officials from the foreign, defence, home and finance ministries, ERD, roads and highways and railway departments were present. Following the meeting, Communication Minister Abul Hossain, as well as a spokesperson of the ministry, confirmed that the Government had approved the scheme in principle. It’s a deadly game with nation’s fate.
Whither Asian Highway from Japan to Turkey?
The decision is dangerous both on counts of its historicity and the cost and benefit calculations. Since the proposal for the Asian Highway was mooted first in 1959, some 15 countries, including Pakistan, became founding members by signing the agreement. Bangladesh too is considered a founding member by virtue of its integration with Pakistan until 1971. Then, following decades of vacillation and bargaining, the United Nations Economic and Social Council for Asia Pacific (UNESCAP) managed to draft an Intergovernmental Agreement for the 1,41,000 kilometers-long roadways that would crisscross many Asian countries from Japan to Turkey, to reach the shores of the Atlantic Ocean and the continent of Europe.
Connectivity with India
As the move intensified with the tempest of globalization whipping the world in the last decade, a total of 27 nations ratified their participation (32 had signed so far) by 2004 while the deadline for Bangladesh expired in December 2005 following the BNP-led alliance Government’s negation to accept the proposed route on ground that it would compromise country’s national security by turning Bangladesh a virtual transit and corridor of India.
The economic and infrastructural viabilities too did not favour a positive decision from Dhaka. For, of the three routes proposed by the UNSECAP for Bangladesh - AH1, AH2 and AH 41 – two of them serve solely Indian interests at the cost of harming economic and geopolitical interests of Bangladesh.
Being surrounded by India from all sides excepting the Sea to the south and the limited outlet with the Myanmar, the BNP-led alliance regime decided instead to pursue aggressively to linking Bangladesh with Myanmar in order to reach the Far Eastern countries as part of a comprehensive Look East policy.
Sources say that decision was based on three major factors: First, various bilateral deals have already made connectivity with India easier over the preceding decades, without yielding better economic opportunities for Bangladesh. Secondly: Dhaka’s main concern was how to connect landlocked Nepal, Bhutan and the Indian North East with Chittagong and Mongla ports to integrate those economies with the regional mainstream. Third: Bangladesh could reach the Asian mainland only via Myanmar, not via India.
Economics and geopolitics
Added to those concerns were the perspectives of sovereignty, economics and geopolitics. As the three proposed routes are slated only to facilitate transportations of Indian goods from the Indian mainland to the Indian North East via Bangladesh - and impose unbearable pressure on the two ports of the country —- Chittagong and Mongla —- which can barely cope with our own needs at the present - the BNP-led regime insisted on choosing the third route (AH-41). The other two routes (AH-1 and AH-2) being both economically and geopolitically non-viable, and, having serious implications for the nation’s sovereignty, the deadline in December 2005 was quietly allowed to pass by.
How can such a decision be faulted —- and reversed without considering its implications—- when the 495 kilometers long AH -1 will connect Tamabil, Sylhet, Kachpur, Dhaka, Jessore with Benapole; only to render Bangladesh into an Indian corridor by facilitating connectivity between the Indian states of Tripura and Manipur on one side, with Assam and the West Bengal on the other, by using the territory of another sovereign nation? The same is true of the 805 kilometers long AH- 2 which will connect Banglabandha of Panchagarh, Hati-Kamrul of Sirajganj, Dhaka, Kachpur and reach Tamabil again, only to re-enter India across the Sylhet frontier.
Although the third route, 752-kilometer AH- 41, too will serve to carry goods for India from the Mongla port by connecting Bagerhat via Jessore (and thence to Benapole), it seemed comparatively harmless as it will traverse past Dhaka before proceeding toward Teknaf and Cox’s Bazar to eventually connect Myanmar.
An Indian Highway
That is how the connectivity scheme the Government decided to approve will allow construction of an Indian Highway, not an Asian one, given that none of those routes will connect Bangladesh with other Asian nations who are part of the scheme. Barring Myanmar, with which Bangladesh has already arranged bilateral land connectivity, the two other points of connectivity with India neither allow Bangladesh to reach the Tokyo to Ankara Highway (as the Asian Highway is meant to be) nor the other nations who are part of it (Japan, South Korea, (India excepted), Indonesia, Pakistan, Nepal, the Philippines, China, Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Bhutan, Georgia, Iran, Kazakhstan, Laos and Malaysia).
Besides, there are allegations of Indian influence- peddling in choosing and doggedly pursuing the implementation of the proposed routes. Sources say the AH-1 route will enter Bangladesh from India via the western Benapole frontier and will exit again to India through northeastern Tamabil of Sylhet. That seems to be an Indian Highway stretching from West Bengal to Tripura and Assam.
Likewise, the AH-2 will enter Bangladesh from northwestern Banglabandha frontier and will reach again Tamabil. The two routes entering from and exiting to India are meant to facilitate the huge volume of traffic to and from Indian North Eastern states. Only the third route being an internal (or sub-regional) link to connect southeastern Mongla port with Teknaf near the Myanmar frontier, the previous government wanted the third one to be the main route to bolster our ‘Look East Policy’ that aimed at fostering economic cooperation with Myanmar, China, Cambodia and Vietnam.
Nepal, Bhutan left adrift
Who’s behind this highway game and why did it resurrect once again? Sources say India having enormous influence over the UN and its affiliated bodies, Delhi choose to intensify the ‘politics of highway’ since 2004 after Bangladesh commissioned a land port at Banglabandha ( in Panchagargh district) to facilitate exports to Nepal, Bhutan and the Indian North East. The port was expected to increase trading with these nations via the 61 km corridor (between Bangladesh and Nepal) and the 68 km corridor (between Bangladesh and Bhutan).
Following this move from Dhaka, India choose to impose upon Bangladesh, via the UNESCAP, the proposed routes for Asian Highway; two of which (AH-1 and AH-2) were designed to enter Bangladesh only to re-enter India. Only the third route (then known as AH-3) was left to connect Myanmar to allow Bangladesh’s exit to the Far East.
Analysts say it was an Indian ploy to obtain corridor through other means. And, coming as it did following Dhaka’s negation to export gas to India, Delhi’s stance could be summarized as very stubborn: ‘my way or highway.’
However, the lack of Delhi’s empathy was too visible to ignore. After all, Dhaka’s decision to commission the Banglabandha port came amidst repeated Nepalese insistence to open the land port due to a Nepal-India bilateral agreement preventing Nepalese trucks from directly entering Bangladesh and vice a versa. Those inconveniences were compounded further by the necessity to off load everything from trucks inside India for custom and security inspections.
Not only that. Despite repeated requests to facilitate Nepal-Bangladesh, Bangladesh-Bhutan and Bangladesh — Indian North East connectivity via those corridors, India persistently pursued the UNESCAP to impose on Bangladesh the two routes to serve its own geopolitical and economic interests at the cost of disadvantaging Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan.
Reliable sources claim that the previous BNP-led regime’s negation to comply with the Indian demand for gas, transit, corridor, and, finally, the Asian Highway have had much to do with what followed in Bangladesh since October 2007.
Policy of subservience
That being the backdrop and the reality, the AL-led Government’s decision to approve the routes is tantamount to ‘selling out’ our vital national interests, as it testifies to the Government’s lack of independence and the magnitude of helplessness borne out of being beholden by something unknown to the public. Fact is:
India wants to use Bangladesh territory to connect its mainland with its North East, and, to use Bangladesh’s ports for the economic wellbeing of the landlocked North Eastern states. Above everything, India wants to overcome its military handicap in the insurgency-infested North East by using this connectivity.
Hence, for Bangladesh, the decision making mechanism in allowing such a scheme shall be the one used in recent past by both nations. For example, after the devastation of hurricane Sidr, Indian High Commissioner said in response to Bangladesh’s demand for rice: “We can not sell rice to Bangladesh keeping our people starved. “Well said. Likewise, amidst unprecedented pressure - even by using senior US diplomats - to obtain gas from Bangladesh in 2003, Dhaka made a realistic assessment of its gas reserve and spare-able capacity and said no to India. That decision too was wise. Six years on, Bangladesh doesn’t have enough gas to keep its own industries and electricity generation facilities functional.
Being aware that India’s main intent is to serve the entire land-locked North Eastern region comprising seven large states (known as seven sisters) by using the proposed Highway, Bangladesh must calculate the premium involved with respect to traffic-related-logistics and infrastructural repairs, which, cumulatively, will outweigh any expected material gain it may hope for from the venture. Added to the danger to be posed by inadequate capacity of our ports, the future of this project could be suicidal.
Country’s main port in Chittagong is overburdened and ageing. It also handles almost eighty-five percent of the country’s sea-borne trade. Established in the 15th century, this moth-eaten establishment gained its full potential only after the creation of Bangladesh in 1971. Of its 15 operational jetties, only 13 are equipped with shore cranes, each having a lifting capacity of only about 1.5 tons. Since 1991, its only floating crane (used for lifting heavier cargos) remained out of order, until recently.
Besides, the river-moorings have no shore cranes and ships berthed at the moorings still use their own derricks or cranes for unloading or loading cargoes. Despite the construction of - or conversion into - few container berths in recent years, the capacity of the port is as yet not sufficient enough to meet our national needs, let alone serve foreign nations. The sinking of a small ship on the entry to the jetty had left the port crippled for weeks over a month ago, further testifying its limitations.
Mongla is incapable
On the other hand, Mongla is not a full-fledged sea port as yet. Even last week the main dock of the port got submerged by the tidal waves caused by the latest hurricane in the Bay. The port is virtually an anchorage to allow ships load and unload their cargoes into barges and coastal ships moored in the middle of the Pussur River. And, the draft of the river being shallow, navigation of large ship remains unsafe as yet, although few new berths built over the years allow light draft vessels to berth at the jetties.
Coupled with the chronic instability caused by an unruly bunch of highly politicized labour force, Mongla port can hardly be trusted to serve foreign interests involving international commitments of a powerful, bellicose neighbour and the consequences of potentially reneging on any binding commitment could prove unmanageable. Besides, the limitations for further modification of the port are compounded by surrounding private properties and stationing of naval ships and naval activities all around.
Based on such realities, any decision by the Government to allow the proposed highways to enter from and exit to India via Bangladesh can lead to devastating consequences, involving serious national security implications. Such a decision may also impact adversely the existing relationships between the two close neighbours to the extent of provoking hostile moves by either side. Whether the Government agrees or not, this is certainly not the highway to heaven. Rather the very opposite of it.