The total length of the land border of Bangladesh is 4,366 km. Of the total, the length of the country's border area with India is 4096 km and the remaining 270 km with Myanmar. This long land border of Bangladesh has been playing an immense role in the economic development of the country, especially in external trade. The lion's share of Bangladesh's land trade is with India, as India-Bangladesh has the fifth longest border area in the world. Every year, about one million people from Bangladesh visit India for tourism, education and medical services. Bangladesh-India bilateral annual trade has reached US$10 billion.
Bhutan and Nepal have also started import and export activities through land ports with Bangladesh using Indian territory. All the participating countries benefit by taking advantage of the existing trade by land.
The government established the Bangladesh Land Port Authority in 2001 through the Bangladesh Land Ports Authority Act, 2001 to facilitate and further improve import and export activities with neighbouring countries through different land ports in border areas. The organogram of the Authority consists of a Chairman, three members and 490 officers and employees. It is a statutory body under the Ministry of Shipping. A board constituted by the government directs and monitors the overall activities of the authority. Moreover, there is another advisory committee chaired by the Minister/State Minister of Ministry of Shipping. The committee provides necessary direction for the dynamism and overall development of the land ports. The headquarters of Bangladesh Land Port Authority is located at the TCB building in Dhaka. However, the administrative building of the Land Port Authority will be shifted to its own building soon which is under construction at a cost of Taka 300 million in Agargaon Administrative Zone.
Some 181 customs stations are declared by the National Board of Revenue (NBR) for the use of land ports. Of these, the government has declared 24 land customs stations as land ports while 12 are now operational. Of the 12 existing ports, seven ports -- Benapole, Burimari, Akhaura, Bhomra, Nakugaon, Tamabil, and Sonahat -- are now under the direct supervision of the land port authority. The remaining five ports -- Sonamasjid, Hili, Banglabandha, Teknaf and Bibirbazar -- are being operated on BOT (build-operate-transfer) basis through private operators. There are 12 new land ports under construction, namely: Biral, Darshana, Bilonia, Gobrakura-Koraitali, Dhanua-Kamalpur, Ramgarh, Tegamukh, Chilahati, Daulatganj, Sheola, Balla, Bholaganj. Only one of the land ports of Bangladesh conducts trade with Myanmar and the rest with India.
Benapole is the most important land port in Bangladesh. About 90 per cent of the total international trade conducted by land in Bangladesh is done through this port. In order to reduce the pressure on the land port and to facilitate import and export of goods by land with India, Bhutan and Nepal, the government launched the Burimari land port in 1986.
Due to its geographical location, Bangladesh is an important transport and transshipment hub in South Asia. Bangladesh is bordered by India and Myanmar. In addition, there exist land-based import-export opportunities due to nearness with Kunming of China, Nepal and Bhutan. The father of nation newly independent nation understood this beforehand. The first inter-country shipping and trade protocol was signed between India and Bangladesh in 1972 during the regime of Bangabandhu to strengthen the shipping and trade system with neighbouring India, which opened new avenues for the trade for the independent country. Bangabandhu was the Minister of Commerce in 1956 along with various other portfolios of the then Coalition Government of Pakistan. It is pertinent to mention that he was the first Prime Minister of independent Bangladesh to visit Benapole Customs Check Post in 1972 after the country's independence.
In 2001, 13 customs stations were declared land ports in Bangladesh, but only two were operational. After coming to power in 2009, the present government declared 11 customs stations as land ports and directed to develop, expand and modernise the infrastructure of 24 land ports.
The SAARC Summit held in 2010 in Thimphu, Bhutan focused on improving regional communication and transit among SAARC countries. At the conference, an agreement was signed between Bangladesh and India to improve regional road connectivity with a view to expanding mutual trade.
The growing influence of globalisation has removed various tariff and non-tariff barriers in international trade. This indeed necessitates remedial steps to facilitate our trade and commerce with India and Myanmar and other neighbouring countries. The Land Ports Authority of Bangladesh has been working tirelessly for the last 20 years to create dynamism, service sharing and development of international trade.
Various stakeholders of the port such as Customs, Immigration, Quarantine, BGB, Banks, Importers-Exporters, C&F Agents Association are providing necessary assistance in the functioning process of the land port. The government has decided to conduct integrated services under one umbrella involving and coordinating all stakeholders in the land port in order to facilitate service, ensure transparency and accountability and establish good governance under Ease of Doing Business to provide services to port users and common passengers. Meanwhile, One Stop Service system is being provided at Benapole, Burimari, Banglabandha and Teknaf land ports. The One Stop Service will be introduced in all land ports gradually to expand business environment.
In addition to modernisation of goods transport, handling, storage at land ports, at present, passengers are able to come and go through 11 other ports, except Sonahat land port. A modern international standard passenger terminal has been constructed at Benapole land port. About 3.1 million passengers have so far travelled to India and arrived in Bangladesh from India using Benapole and other land ports. As a result, the revenue of Bangladesh Land Port Authority and other revenue collection agencies has increased many times over the previous years.
The aim of the present government is to build Bangladesh as a hunger-free, poverty-free, modern, self-respecting nation. That is why, it has adopted and set various development goals including the 8th Five Year Plan, Digital Bangladesh, Vision-2021, Sustainable Development Goals 2030, Vision-2041, Delta Plan-2100. In keeping with these initiatives, Bangladesh Land Port Authority has taken the following steps. The beneficiaries are as follows:
A. In Benapole, Sonamasjid, Bhomra, Hili Teknaf, Tamabil, Burimari and Sonahat land ports, about 10 (ten) thousand workers are engaged in handling goods through privately employed contractors. This has created employment opportunities for a large section of the poor and destitute in the area.
B. Benapole, Akhaura, Burimari, Bhomra, Tamabil and Sonahat land port activities have created job opportunities for many poor unemployed men and women in the area through private contractors.
C. With the establishment of land ports in remote areas of the country, many business activities such as shops, banks, C&F offices, hotels, motels, computer composing, photographic facilities etc have grown.
D. In addition, through loading and unloading of goods, storage, transhipment and other services, the country has earned more than Tk 12 billion in revenue in the past years and paid about Tk 2 billion in VAT.
Despite all this, there are still many challenges for the land port authority. Service infrastructure has not developed keeping pace with the increasing number of service seekers. The land port authority is constantly working to address the needs. It is expected that after the completion of all the on-going projects, the port users will be able to enjoy the benefits and all port-based services will be raised to the expected level. A total of Tk 12 billion infrastructure development work is currently going on with the help of World Bank and government funding. The development works include construction of physical infrastructure and expansion of service facilities.
If the e-port management programme, recently undertaken by the authority at Burimari Land Port, becomes successful, all the works of the land port will be digitised to be able to provide services in less time, effortlessly and efficiently. The land port authority will later introduce this programme in other land ports.
About 15 government and non-government organisations provide various services in the land port. The organisations operate according to their own rules and regulations and thus suffer from coordination gap. This undermines the purpose of providing one-stop service under one roof.
Land port authority has to work at the border. For this they have to acquire a lot of land and undertake infrastructure projects. There are many difficulties in land acquisition and the process is time-consuming too. Moreover, construction sites within 150 yards of the border are often interrupted by the Indian Border Force (BSF). Different ministries / agencies of both the countries are involved in resolving these issues. This requires an integrated, effective and a win-win situation for both parties.
In order to address infrastructure related problems on both sides of the border as well as harmonise working procedures, a sub-group on infrastructure of ICPs / LCSs has been formed under the chairmanship of land port ports of both countries to resolve exiting and emerging problems and also improve the infrastructure of respective land ports. The first meeting of the committee was held at Benapole Land Port and Bhomra Land Port in Bangladesh and the second meeting took place at Siliguri in India. Through these meetings, many unresolved issues have been resolved.
So far, only 12 land ports are functioning under the management of Bangladesh Land Port Authority. There are 12 more land ports waiting to be opened. 3 more are under consideration for future management.
If all the ports are opened, the activities of Bangladesh land port will be completed and it is hoped that import-export will increase manifold.
It is expected that land ports will become an important driving force of Bangladesh economy in the days to come. The Bangladesh Land Ports Authority will also play a unique role in promoting goodwill, cultural exchange and amity among the people by creating opportunities for trade and commerce and international passenger and freight transport.
Md Alamgir is Additional Secretary to the Government of Bangladesh and Chairman, Bangladesh Land Port Authority