Sunday, January 1, 2012

Hasina’s unfulfilled dream

In her oft repeated claim Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina takes the pride of resolving the water and border problems with India. She had cheered the nation by announcing impending accord on 50-50 share of Teesta waters during Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh’s visit to Dhaka in September last. Probably Dr Singh had agreed on equal share of the Teesta waters with the hope of achieving his greater objective – India’s much needed corridor over Bangladesh for transportation of goods from the west to troubled-torn east. 
Questions were asked if the cargoes in covered vans or in containers would contain arms and soldiers in guise of civilians would be ferried from the west to suppress the secessionist movement now raging in the eastern states known as Seven Sisters. Allowing easy passage to arms supply and ferrying army personnel over the Bangladesh territory would, no doubt, cause ire of the secessionist groups of Assam, Nagaland, Manipur and Tripura who may turn their guns across the border as well.
But Mamata Banerjee, chief minister of West Bengal through which the Teesta, originating from a glacier in northern Sikkim, flows down to Bangladesh, has unwittingly torpedoed the proposed deal. In fact, West Bengal had already planned fuller use of Teesta waters during the winter for irrigation to 9.22 lakh hectares of land and storage of four dams raised for operating small hydro-electric projects to generate electricity. It is not amusing that Mamata has later offered as much Teesta waters as Bangladesh needs during the monsoon when the country is already deluged.

As for swapping of enclaves and resolving the age old un-demarcated border disputes, finally the accord seems unlikely. It is said swapping the enclaves would gain Bangladesh some 600 acres of land now in Indian possession. But Indian opposition party BJP is poised to foil the proposed accord. In parliament last week BJP has asked the government to bring amendment to the constitution. Without amendment, no land can be ceded to another country. 
It is worth recalling that the Noon-Nehru agreement of 1958 had provided for the exchange of Berubari union with Tin Bigha corridor. Soon, Berubari was handed over to India but India never gave us the Tin Bigha corridor. The then Indian President Rajendra Prashad had disagreed and referred the matter to the Supreme Court. A constitution bench comprising eight judges had given the verdict against handing over Tin Bigha corridor to Pakistan, saying no territory of India could be ceded to any country.
So, the move for swapping of enclaves will meet the same fate. Falling prey to the Indian design, Sheikh Hasina may give the transit corridor and hand over the Indian enclaves, but she will never get anything in exchange. The political leaders should be bold and honest in telling the truth so that the people do not suffer from illusion.
BSF killing
Killing by BSF along the border has not stopped despite repeated assurances by the Indian leaders. After meeting with her Indian counterpart, Sheikh Hasina had assured the nation that India agreed not to fire across the border killing innocent people. At other high level meetings, including that of BGB and BSF chiefs, India had repeatedly held out categorical assurance of no more killing by BSF. But they made promises only to break them. According to Adhikar, at least 20 Bangladesh nationals were killed and 58 wounded in BSF gunfire while 26 people were kidnapped during the eleven months to November this year. There were also unreported killings.
And smuggling of drug from across the border continued unabated. Old proverb goes that if you want to destroy a nation, push drug into that country. That will spoil the youths. Ironically, our friendly neighbour has been quietly promoting smuggling drugs into Bangladesh, which are not produced in this country. Phensidyl, for example, bottled in hundreds of small factories along the border and pushed through the border in large quantity. Phensidyl, intoxicated syrup not marketed in India, are produced targeting the youths of Bangladesh where alcohol is banned. The issue was repeatedly raised in high level meetings identifying location of phenlsidyl factories operating in along Indo-Bangladesh border, which are promoted by the administration. Indian side at high level meetings promised to close those factories, but it was never done. Reports from border districts pouring in to newspaper offices every day suggest that smuggling of phensidyl, hemp, heroin and alcohol from across the border continued unabated.
India is implementing the Tipaimukh Dam on Barak river across Sylhet ignoring the expert views and protest across Bangladesh. The construction of dam at the upstream is not only opposed by Bangladesh. Assam itself is raging with violent protests against the project. Krishak Mukti Sangram Samity (KMSS), an organisation spearheading protests against a proposed dam in eastern Assam, has called for an indefinite strike in parts of the state from Tuesday (December 27).  The strike has been called also to protest police-army atrocities on demonstrators (Army remained deployed in Assam to suppress secessionist movement by ULFA). Security forces claimed KMSS is linked with ULFA and Maoists, acting as their covert unit. After beating the demonstrators 400 of them were arrested early hours on Tuesday. KMSS, Takam Mising Porin Kebang and Jatiyatabadi Yuva-Chatra Parishad have been leading a mass protest against the proposed 2000 MW Lower Subansiri mega hydro-electric project being constructed at Gerukamukh in Dhemaji district along the Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border. Road blockade and anti-dam movement has received support from a number of groups, communities and political leaders of Arunachal Pradesh.
BY : Shamsuddin Ahmed.

Unrestricted transit through Bangladesh: For whose benefit?

A recent news report published in a Bangla newspaper was disquieting. According to the report, in pursuance of a ban on vehicles carrying heavy transports over four bridges and 15 culverts along the 47-kilometre road from Ashuganj to Akhaura, the police authority in Brahmanbaria filed cases against some Bangladeshi transport companies which violated the ban imposed by the Roads and Highways Department. But the same police authority dared not take any action against the Indian heavy vehicles like huge lorries and long trailers which were found regularly plying over those 50-60 year-old bridges and culverts, carrying extremely heavy goods and equipment for the 'Palatana Power Plant' in Tripura, the northeastern state of India.

The Indian vehicles are using Bangladesh's ports and land routes as a part of experimental transit through Bangladesh in accordance with the agreement signed between the two countries. While Indian trailers and trucks carrying heavy equipment passed from Ashuganj to Agartala breaking the serial, Bangladeshi trucks carrying exportable goods were required to wait. Indian heavy vehicles enjoyed preference and had total freedom of movement on the Bangladeshi roads. When asked why they did not take action, the Brahmanbaria police reportedly said: "They cannot take actions against the Indian vehicles without a green signal from the high-ups".

The report was more disquieting as it said some dams were erected by the side of the weak bridges and culverts to make diversion roads especially for the Indian heavy vehicles to pass through and as a consequence, many areas in the vicinity of those dams got inundated causing irreparable losses of crops and houses of the poor people. The inundation was due to thwarting of the normal flow of water by the dams as the river and canal waters were made to pass through narrow concrete pipes inserted beneath the diversion roads constructed on the dams. The affected villagers beseeched in vain whoever they came across to salvage them from the manmade curse by demolishing those dams that are triggering the floods.

Why is this favour being done to Indian transportation of goods through Bangladesh at the expense of our poor people? Who are the high-ups Brahmanbaria police needed green signal from to take actions against the violators of the law of our land? Did the Indian vehicles pay duties or fees to the Bangladesh Customs authority? Were the Indian vehicles granted waiver from paying any fee on the excuse that they were on experimental transit? If yes, will such waiver in the name of experimental transit continue on a perpetual basis?

The former Prime Minister of Bangladesh Khaleda Zia expressed her fear that by providing transit-corridor to India, the present government is attempting to turn Bangladesh into another "Sikkim". One should not buy her apprehension. Bangladeshi people will not suck their thumbs while watching their country becoming a 'Sikkim' at the behest of India. Such a statement from our former prime minister is quite obviously a political slogan, made in order to ultimately win votes for her political party in the next parliamentary election.

On the other hand, statements reportedly made by some important functionaries of the present government that charging fees at this moment from Indian vessels carrying goods while using Bangladeshi ports and roads is not worthwhile are preposterous, giving rise to a genuine concern in the minds of patriotic Bangladeshis about the very intention of our government. Some important functionaries even questioned: "Are we so uncivilised that we should charge fees on Indian vehicles using Bangladeshi land and port as transit for shipping their goods to their northeastern states?"

So, the question is: Should Bangladesh let its land and sea ports be used for unhindered transit by Indian transports? For what or whose benefits are these free rides?

The unrestricted shipment of Indian goods through rivers and roads using the Ashuganj inland port and the proposed use of the Chittagong port for the same purpose sounds like our stupid preparation to compromise on our commercial rights and also on our state sovereignty. Allowing Indian transportations toll-free passage through Bangladesh, in my opinion, is like allowing my neighbours to urinate and defecate in the front-yard of my house and then spending my time and money to clean those poops off my yard.

Whatever the reports we read in the newspapers or statements we hear from various quarters, it is nevertheless unbelievable that the Bangladesh government has signed such an agreement that should allow India to transport its goods for free through transit-corridors using airways, roadways, waterways or railways of Bangladesh. There must be some provisions in the agreement that should guarantee mutual financial interests of both India and Bangladesh. But, we are afraid, there may be some loopholes, deliberately or unwillingly made, in the agreements that are now being exploited to rob us of our dues.

Although the agreements were made available on the websites of the foreign offices of both the countries, the people at large, particularly in Bangladesh, are not in the full know of the details. Nor the details of the agreements have ever been debated in our parliament. The agreements were signed in haste. As a tragic corollary to this, rumours and gossips are rife that we are selling all our interests to India, paving the way to turn our country into a "Sikkim". It would be wise on the part of the present government to make a full disclosure of all the Bangladesh-India agreements to dissipate our apprehensions. The wisest decision would be to hold a referendum on the issue of transit-corridor.

Many of us fully agree with many of the present government functionaries and advisers that Bangladesh would earn huge amounts of hard currencies---billions of dollars perhaps---by granting transit facilities to India. It is also true that Bangladesh, as was stated by a number of ministers and advisers of the present government, would become a Singapore-thanks to transit facilities granted to India. But how that is going to happen, is the question we don't know how to answer? Is there a policeman in Singapore who would say he cannot take an action against a violator of law until he gets a green signal from his high-ups?

Bangladesh would have been a Singapore indeed if only Bangladesh properly pursued India to agree to pay to Bangladesh a portion of money it would save by using Bangladeshi land as a transit-corridor instead of using the Shiliguri corridor for transporting their goods and people. The Shiliguri corridor, the so-called Chicken's Neck separating Bangladesh and Nepal is the only narrow strip of land (24 km in width) that connects West Bengal and mainland India with its northeastern seven-sister states: Assam, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Tripura.

India by enjoying transit facilities through Bangladesh would save about two-third of its present transportation costs of US$ 100 billion per year, they have long been incurring since 1947 on account of transportation through the Chicken's Neck.

Before dreaming of becoming a Singapore, we should mind our own multifarious problems and their solutions, particularly relating to our country's poor infrastructures of roads, highways and railways. When we cannot manage our own transportation needs, managing and accommodating hundreds of heavy Indian lorries, trucks and trailers on a daily basis, using our dilapidated roads and railways, are like weaving cocoons of insane dreams. If the rumours now in circulation that the Indian vehicles would be allowed a free ride through Bangladesh are proven true, one can only dreadfully imagine how the Bangladeshi taxpayers would have to pay through their nose for the damages that will inevitably be done to our roads and environment due to the massive influx of Indian vehicles!

Trans-shipment or transit for India?

Bangladesh has a unique geographical location within the region and has every possibility to become an economic hub. So, we need to prepare ourselves for exploiting the opportunity through broader regional connectivity. To this end, our infrastructure and other related facilities need to be urgently developed. 

Bangladesh government is considering multi-modal transport connectivity not only with India, Nepal or Bhutan but also with China, Myanmar and beyond. We, the business community fully agree with this approach of the government.

Although South Asia has been one of the fastest growing and open economic regions in the world, intra-regional trade is still only 5 per cent of the total trade, as compared to 26 per cent in ASEAN, 52 per cent in NAFTA, and 58 per cent in EU.

Poor regional connectivity between Bangladesh and its immediate neighbours results in loss of developmental opportunity for all concerned.

Surface transport networks in South Asia continue to remain fragmented due to historical and political reasons. As a result, their potential as levers of economic growth at the regional level remains largely unrealised, whereas in today’s competitive world economy, transport costs are considered as an extremely significant determinant of competitiveness. Integrated and efficient surface transport networks are essential element for enabling economic integration at any level, including linkage to any regional or global supply chains. Due to lack of integration of the transport system in South Asia, the logistic costs are very high and range between 13-14 per cent of the value, compared to only about 8 per cent in the USA.

According to the joint communiqué signed by two Prime Ministers in January 2010 there has been understanding to introduce transit trade through Bangladesh, among others, to connect the rest of India with its north-eastern states. The issue, however, raises serious questions relating to economic, political and sub-regional development strategies that need to be holistically dealt with. There are a number of bilateral issues of national importance that has remained unresolved, including but not limited to water-sharing, marine boundary and border demarcation. So the transit issue has to take note of these outstanding problems with our neighbours.

Some experts observe postponement of the transit agreement had been a blessing in disguise. It has given Bangladesh government time to re-visit the benefits to be derived from such a treaty. Now the government can undertake a needling cost-benefit analysis. Apparently, the transit facilities will provide more benefits to India’s seven states in the north-east as the distance and time for transportation of goods will be reduced to almost one-third and thus bring down costs significantly.  Indian producers will thus be able to sell their products in the region at a lesser price and consequently, Bangladeshi businesses will lose opportunity for expansion of trade to these states.

It has been mentioned on various occasions that providing the transit facilities to India, Bangladesh will earn hundreds of million dollars a year as transit fees and related activities. But a research finding by the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) recently stated that Bangladesh could expect no more than US$ 2.8 billion net present worth or value (NPV) over 30 years by providing transit facilities to India. This is really a pittance compared to the investment required for infrastructure development in Bangladesh.

In order to develop infrastructure for transit traffic, it is estimated that Bangladesh would need to spend approx US $ 7.00 billion to bring about improvements of existing facilities and creation of new one in order to be able to cater to the additional traffic. These will include developing the road and rail sectors as well as Chittagong and Mongla Ports. In addition, the country would need to spend hundreds of million dollars towards operation and maintenance of infrastructure over a 30 year period.

Against such investment requirement, Bangladesh would earn only about US$ 50 million annually during first five years when facilities are being created along the routes identified. Once the capital works are completed, the country would earn more and at certain stage the earnings may reach to a billion US Dollar; according to ADB.

The actual capital investment as well as maintenance costs will definitely be much higher than the estimate when the physical work will be undertaken. This is evident from our present experience with Padma Bridge.

The estimated cost of Tk.101.62 billion (US$1.5 billion approx.) of the Padma Bridge approved by ECNEC in 2007 has already increased to Tk.205.07 billion (US$ 2.93  billion) meaning double in four years, even before the start of construction.

Development of road infrastructure would not only require expansion of existing highways or development of new ones, but also resettlement of people who will be affected as a result, besides loss of already scanty agricultural land; which became smaller due to construction of new mills and factories as well as new housing for ever-increasing population. The government should, therefore, appoint internationally reputed consultants to undertake detail studies including cost-benefit analysis and develop a concrete action plan before going for any further advancement.

From the business point of view, operationalisation of the trans-shipment concept could be the best option for both Bangladesh and India. The practice of trans-shipment has been in operation throughout the world ever since trade expanded beyond borders and as such, an agreement to this end will resolve the issue of long-awaited transit facilities being requested by India. Such a treaty compared to the proposed transit plan will generate enhanced economic activity of several dimensions including creation of employment and business opportunities as well as addressing security concerns of Bangladesh. In the event of transit, such a huge economic benefit of multi-dimensional nature will be denied.

In other words, ‘transit’ may be termed as someone making his livelihood from the ‘rental’ income of inherited property and ‘trans-shipment” can be compared with building mills and factories to create employment, economic activity, generate wealth for growth and prosperity.

India has sought transit facilities to its north-eastern states through road, railway and ports in Bangladesh. India has also promised to open rail and surface routes for transit to link Nepal and Bhutan with Bangladesh. It is claimed that transit to and from Nepal and Bhutan would bring good revenue for Bangladesh. But consider the facts: Bhutan’s GDP is less than US $2 billion and Nepal’s economy is not big either. Besides, their economies are inextricably integrated with the Indian economy. It is unlikely that a significant volume of cargo from Nepal and Bhutan (to & fro) would go through Bangladesh simply because they don’t manufacture much exportable goods.

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the development partners see Bangladeshi gains too, from better roads, ports, railways and much-needed trade. In that event, movement of Indian goods from one part to another, by the Bangladeshi transport system could accrue huge economic benefit to Bangladesh and at the same time resolve long-awaited Indian request for transporting goods through Bangladesh to save time and money.

Some quarters think that trans-shipment procedure would be cumbersome and time consuming.  So long as the goods are in containerized form, and that is how they would travel in any case, there should not be any problem. Methods could be developed for seamless movement from one truck to another directly, at the borders.  If needed, Bangladeshi trucks could go into the warehouses in India, and then deliver goods to another Indian point after traversing the territory of Bangladesh.  The same procedure could be adopted for the railway as well.   

The direct benefit for Bangladesh from extending transit facilities to India is limited, according to a study by Dr KS Murshid, Senior Research Fellow of Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS). It can be meaningful to a limited scale through rail connectivity which would be mainly trans-shipment, the study suggested. The core committee on transit has also recommended trans-shipment initially for three years.  

It may be mentioned here that, when  I was the president of The Federation of Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce & Industry (FBCCI) during 1992-94, we had a business meeting at FBCCI with the then Indian Commerce Minister Pranab Mukherjee.  In reply to the Indian proposal for transit facility, I strongly recommended for trans-shipment agreement with India; for which I was heavily criticised by a vernacular daily, on the following day. I am happy to note that recently CPD Chairman Prof Rehman Sobhan in one of his reviews also favoured the trans-shipment concept.

It is, therefore, strongly recommended that the concept of transit should be re-visited and Bangladesh should go for a trans-shipment agreement to help Indians gain easy and cost-effective access to their seven north-eastern states.

We came to know from newspaper reports that transit facilities for transport of Indian goods have already started through Ashuganj River Port. We also note that consignment coming from India is being given preference in crossing to Agartala over exportable commercial goods from Bangladesh, which is rather worrying for us.

Trans-shipment or transit for India through Bangladesh is not a simple issue. Thus, before providing such facility, a detailed serious study must be undertaken by internationally reputed professionals/consultants, appointed through international tenders, to determine the benefit accruing to Bangladesh. Lessons should also be drawn about legal, administrative and logistical aspects of transit/ trans-shipment from international experience.

BY : Mahbubur Rahman.