Unrestricted transit through Bangladesh: For whose benefit?

Maswood Alam Khan
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!

The writer is based in Maryland, USA and can be reached at email: maswood@hotmail.com


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