February 16, 2022
DHAKA – When the Indian cargo vessel MV, named after former Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, set sail carrying 200 tonnes of food grain on a 2,350 km journey along the waterways from Ganga to Brahmaputra, the world’s two largest rivers, via Bangladesh on February 5, it became an important marker of physical connectivity more than just between the two countries. It also conjured up a vision of broader regional linkages. This is the first time that food grain movement is taking place in this waterway route.
More than bilateral connectivity, the vessel’s journey has implications not only for ending northeastern Indian states’ difficulties due to their landlocked status, but also for holding out the prospects of ending Bangladesh’s location as an outlier in efforts to build a bridge between South Asia and Southeast Asia.
The journey of the vessel may be a pilot project between India and Bangladesh, but it has far-reaching implications for the future in connecting mainland India with its northeastern states, Indian officials said. The waterways will not only remove geographical hindrance but also provide an economical and convenient transportation for the businesses and people of the region.
In line with India’s “Act East” policy, the Indian Ministry of Ports, Shipping and Waterways has taken up several infrastructure projects on National Waterway-1, Indo-Bangladesh Protocol route and NW2, through the Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI) to improve connectivity with the northeastern region through waterways via Bangladesh. Sonowal rightly termed the Patna-Pandu route via Bangladesh as the most seamless cargo transportation through Brahmaputra and an opportunity for the people of Assam and other northeastern states of India to connect with the wider world.
The Indian government has undertaken the ambitious Jal Marg Vikas Project (JMVP) with an investment of about Rs 4,600 crore for the capacity augmentation of NW-1 (Ganga) for safe and sustainable movement of vessels of up to 2000 tonnes.
After the MV Lal Bahadur Shastri’s journey, Inland Waterway Authority of India is looking to run regular scheduled services on these waterway routes. To improve navigability, two stretches of IBP routes—Sirajganj-Daikhowa and Ashuganj-Zakiganj—are being developed at a cost of Rs 305.84 crores on an 80:20 share basis (80 percent being borne by India and 20 percent by Bangladesh). The contracts for dredging on the two stretches for providing and maintaining requisite depth for seven years (from 2019 to 2026) are underway, said the officials, which is expected to provide seamless navigation to India’s northeastern states via the IBP route. In 2014-15 to 2016-17, the state-owned Food Corporation of India had moved tonnes of food grains to Agartala using the IBP waterway route when the rail link between West Bengal and the adjoining northeastern region was non-operational during gauge conversion in North Eastern Frontier Railway.
The Protocol on Inland Water Transit and Trade (PIWTT) between India and Bangladesh allows mutual arrangements for the use of their waterways for the movement of goods between the two countries by their vessels. India’s National Waterway-1 (Ganga) is connected with National Waterway-2 (Brahmaputra) and National Waterway-16 (River Barak) through India-Bangladesh Protocol routes.
It is not just India-Bangladesh connectivity or the link between mainland India and northeastern India which will get a boost because of the waterway routes, and one look at the route chart of MV Lal Bahadur Shastri from Patna to Pandu will give us an idea of why. It will sail through Bhagalpur, Manihari, Sahibganj (Bihar), Farakka, Tribeni, Kolkata, Haldia, Hemnagar (in West Bengal), Khulna, Narayanganj-Sirajganj, Chilmari (Bangladesh), Dhubri and Jogighopa (in Assam). If waterways involving India and Bangladesh can be made the preferred mode of transportation, it can open up opportunities for a port-and-jetty-led model along the rivers of the two countries. Another key ingredient of this model would be to develop rail and road transport connections to the port and jetties.
The movement of MV Lal Bahadur Shastri is expected to establish the technical and commercial viability of IWT mode using the multiple waterways, and offer an alternate route for transportation of goods, which will help decongest not just the good traffic by road between India and Bangladesh, but provide an option for transportation of cargo from Bihar to Nepal.
The fact that Bangladesh will be facilitating the goods traffic through waterway routes between mainland India and northeastern India underlines the importance of that country’s territory as a crucial bridge between South Asia and Southeast Asia through Chattogram and Mongla ports. The potential of a regional network of waterway routes can be multiplied further if Bangladesh can be integrated with the Kaladan multimodal transport hub India has built in Myanmar in close proximity to the northeastern Indian state of Mizoram.
Pallab Bhattacharya is a special correspondent for The Daily Star. He writes from New Delhi, India