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Transit to Tripura great advantage
Subir Bhaumik
Transit to Tripura great advantage
PHOTO : Agartala to Kolkata Bus service inauguration by PM Modi and PM Hasina in Dhaka. TIWN

Sheikh Hasina's government has finally repaid in some sense the debt of 1971 to the tiny Tripura. It has finalyl allowed water transit (sea-river) and finalized a very moderate rate for it . The rates are Tripura specirfic which means Bangladesh is keen Indian goods meant for Northeast pass through Tripura. That in a way is a game changer . It can , if the opportunity is properly utilised by the state government , turn Tripura into the gateway into Northeast and take away from Assam the pivotal position it so far enjoyed in the region ever since Independence.

Add to that the direct Kolkata-Dhaka-Agartala direct service and the possibility of something similar on the railways front when the Akhaura-Agartala raised platform rail link is complete. Once that happens, Agartala will be linked sea-and-river, railways and bus-and-truck (what with the DHL trial trip successful) to Kolkata through Bangladesh. Needless to say, this is a dream come true after six decades of landlocked existence which stymied all possibilities of Tripura's growth and restricted its ability to use its own resources.

During a recent seminar on Bangladesh-northeast India relations in Dhaka , where I spoke , Bangladesh foreign minister, the suave and gentle A H Mahmud Ali provided a very interesting perspective on how the Hasina government saw its relations with Northeast India , specially Tripura, emerging in the days to come . Ali , who defected to the provisional government from Pakistan's foreign office in 1971, fondly recalled the role Tripura played in 1971 to boost the Bengali war effort . He reminded me of what his predecessor Dipu Moni has said in the foreword to my forthcoming book " Agartala Doctrine: A proactive Northeast In Indian foreign policy" (being published by Oxford University Press) -- "Agartala was the War Capital of the Bangalee Nation". So there is tremendous consistency in the position that the Hasina government has taken on Agartala. Add to this the submarine Internet cable agreement that makes Agartala India's third internet gateway -- and I dont think we are left with anything more that we can ask from the daughter of the great Bangabandhu for developing our state. 

Hasina is facing some flak for what many in Bangladesh to be poor deal for providing transit to India. When the Shipping secretaries of the two countries last week finalised a rate of 192 rupees per tonne for goods shipped to Tripura through the Chittagong port and Asuganj land port, many experts in Bangladesh immediately pointed out that this was far below the recommendations of a committee the Hasina government has set up in 2011.  That committee had recommended 580 Taka (just above 500 rupees on current exchange rate) per tonne for all goods  that would be moved from the Indian mainland to the northeastern states.  The current rate finalised also has an additional element -- a security surcharge of Rs 50 per tonne . This is to cover expenses for police escorts for the Indian goods in transit.

The most widely circulated Bengali daily " Prothom Alo" ran a front page analysis on the day after the agreement , saying the transit rate was 'appalling'. The analyst had three major issues with the rate . One, he found it much below the one recommended by the 2011 committee. Two, Bangladesh would not earn enough to cover the cost of upgrading infrastructure like dredging of the Meghna river or maintaining the roads which would now have to take much extra pressure of the Indian transit cargo traffic. Three, much of Bangladesh's earnings would be eaten away by 'administrative costs' like employing staff to seal the cargo in transit at the point of entry into Bangladesh so that the goods were not offloaded in the country .

Other experts I encountered at a seminar in Dhaka (13-14th November) organised by the Asiatic Society of Bangladesh were equally circumspect. They said Bangladesh has agreed to allow transit so that its earnings would help it considerably offload the adverse trade balance. If the earnings were not enough, the decision would not be worth taking, specially because the additional load of the Indian cargo traffic would lead to  wear and tear on Bangladesh's infrastructure. But all Bangladesh scholars at the seminar insisted Dhaka must further develop its relations with India's northeastern states.

Now India and Bangladesh has decided to seek assistance from multilateral agencies for river dredging and the transit rate fixed last week was said to be 'experimental' that would be reviewed after a while. So there is a chance that the rate may be revised after a while. But most Bangladesh economists and analysts do not believe that would be the case. They say Bangladesh does not have seasoned economic diplomats who can drive a hard bargain and the Hasina government is only too keen to keep Delhi in good humour for the strong political support it gets.  That is not a wild allegation -- there are those in the Hasina government who are happy at getting India to agree to a rate after the opposition BNP had alleged that India was getting transit for next to nothing after an Indian truck carrying goods from Calcutta to Agartala last week had paid a token one rupee as transit. Indian diplomats in Dhaka were quick to point out that this was because the truck was on a trial run and nobody in Delhi expected the transit for free.

Once the transit is regularised and most goods headed for the Northeast from the Indian mainland and vice versa start moving through Bangladesh, an early review of the rates and a reasonable hike may be in order. India will save between 30 to 35 percent of transport costs for goods send to Northeast if it goes through Bangladesh. Some analysts say the savings would be more . To institutionalise the process, India has to make sure Bangladesh gains enough so that Hasina can tell her voters she has opened a new source for the national economy that is as good as its garment exports or remittances by expatriate Bangladeshis. Only if that happens can Hasina put the Opposition on the defensive that their anti-Indian postures had so far deprived Bangladesh of a major source of revenue. With finance minister AMA Muhith desperate to meet revenue targets in his ambitious 2015-16 budget, the transit income should be substantial enough for Hasina and the Awami League to hold up to the nation as a boon .  

The transit means India can now use Chittagong or any other port of Bangladesh to access the Northeast. That is a huge game changer for the landlocked region. But Hasina is already facing criticism from a section of Bangladesh business who argue that by allowing transit for Indian goods, Dhaka has closed down the opportunity for its own products to access the markets of Northeast Indian states. It is too early to assess whether that is true or not. But for a trusted ally like Hasina who has delivered on all that India wanted  -- from handover of insurgents who then joined the peace process to allowing use of Chittagong port to transit -- it is important that she can show her electorate some gains from her efforts to improve relations with India. It is time for those who crib over small patches of territory like the swap of the enclaves to realise that the gains of having a regime like Hasina's is crucial for both India and its Northeast. The least Hasina can expect to get for all she has done for India is a favourable transit rate and a deal on the Teesta waters.  

the tragedy is that at this crucial juncture of India-Bangladesh relations, we dont have the CPI(M) in power in West Bengal. Tripura can do little to help push the Teesta waters agreement. If Jyoti Basu or Buddhadev Bhattacharyya had held the fort in Calcutta . and not Mamata Banerji (some of whose partymen are now found involved in an ISI spy ring) , we could have expected some forward movement on the issue . All those who covered the 1996 Ganges water sharing treaty ( I did it from rather close quarters as a BBC correspondent ) will recall the pivotal role Jyoti Basu played in pushing through the accord. Hasina had done the right thing by reposing her faith in Basu when she sent foreign minister Abdus Samad Azad to Calcutta before he went to Delhi. Basu did not let Hasina down. Mamata's role has been the opposite.  But because Bangladesh is an agricultural country, India must give her a favourable water sharing bonanza if we want her stock to go high with her voters. Because if Hasina and her party is not in power, all the gains of the past six years will be gone and Tripura will suffer the worst.

(Mr. Subir Bhaumik is a veteran journalist, former BBC correspondant and author of  two well acclaimed books ‘Insurgent Crossfire’ and ‘Troubled Periphery’ ) send your appreciation and comments pl. send email to or  or post online below.
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