Suppose, Mr. Chakrabarti is living in Assam (India) and he wants to visit his relatives in Sirajganj (Bangladesh). He set on a vessel that reached Chilmari via Dhubri. Enjoying the beauty of the Brahmaputra River, eventually he reached Sirajganj within two days. Staying few days at the relative's house he travelled to Dhaka by a vessel again to set up some business dealings. Returning to Assam, Mr. Chakrabarti sent business products to Dhaka using the same route at a lower transaction cost. Albeit this is hypothetical, however, it was the reality in late 1960s. Vessels travelled regularly to the Chilmari river port from Dhubri and other parts of India carrying both freights and passengers.
Now a days, people are travelling in this region using road transport. Businessmen are also using roads to transport their export-import products via the Sonahat land port, Bhurungamari land port, etc., in the northern part of Bangladesh. Businessmen complained that they had to face various obstacles to conduct business with India via road transport. Yet, they do not have other feasible ways. This is not fortuitous as we are unable to use the potential river port at Chilmari. Unfortunately, miscellaneous factors precluded the use of this waterway. Recently Unnayan Shamannay conducted a survey to identify the problems and potential of the Chilmari river port in Kurigram. The survey interviewed local people, local representatives, potential exporters and importers to know various aspects of the waterway.
The main problem of this river route is navigability. Due to lack of depth of the Brahmaputra, very often vessels get stuck in the middle of the river. It requires extra manpower to restart the voyage which is unexpected. Sometimes, the vessels and boats stay stuck for days that requires extra costs. Therefore, businessmen are not willing to transport their products using this waterway. Currently, there is no port facility available at the Chilmari river port. However, there is a customs office to monitor the vessels of the waterway and this office charges the germane tariff according to rules on the exported and imported products. To restart the route, the authority should proliferate port facilities, roads, jetties, etc. to remove the apathy of the businessmen to use the road.
Erosion is another detrimental factor in this regard. Due to massive erosion, the size and depth of the river vary at different places making it unpredictable to identify whether there is a lack of depth or not in a particular region. Once, there was only one channel of the river Brahmaputra, which came from Asam-Dhubri to Chilmari. However, now there are too many branches and therefore the main river has lost its navigability. People have opined that the authority should take necessary steps to dredge the river so that only one Brahmaputra River persists. This will enhance the navigability and stop erosion of the Brahmaputra. Besides, the authority should plan to keep the sand from dredging at the bank of the river. This will not only create an opportunity of using it for housing but also will reduce the severity of sudden flood. Besides, 'Tista Barage' is another factor of concern for Chilmari River Port to ensure proper navigability of the waterway and to keep the waterway usable throughout the year.
At present very few boats use the Chilmari River Port to transport freight and most of them transfer products from one part of India to another. Neither businessmen are using the route for export-import between Bangladesh and India nor are the people using the waterway for transportation. Local people say they observed around 18-30 vessels using the route every year. It indicates that still the waterway exists and we can use it for freight and passenger transportation on a large scale. Local people are hoping that, if the port restarts, increasing economic activities will generate employment. They prescience that the port will create a varied opportunity for labourers, small businesses, restaurants, exporters and importers and industry people. In addition, it will improve the standard of living of the stakeholders. There is a good potentiality to export cown, nuts, corn, china, wheat, til, tishi, jute, fennel flower, plastic, dry areca nuts, booter dal, panchforon, spices, etc. and most importantly it will draw the attention of tourists. The increase in the economic activities will make people demure to migrate from the locality. Local representatives say the soil of char or reclaimed land is very fertile to cultivate different crops. If the Chilmari River Port restarts, people will cultivate crops in char areas and supply them throughout the country. It will be a catalyst to ensure food security and poverty reduction. Besides, the cost of transportation to distribute the products will decrease and that will create a convenient environment for business. The people around the Chilmari River Port believe that restarting the port will significantly help develop the area and hopefully this is not dogmatic.
Businessmen also foresee that the Chilmari River Port has a lot of potential for export-import activities. Unambiguously, they can sell products at lower costs without harming potential profit as the waterway will reduce the time and cost of transportation in both India and Bangladesh. Specially, those who are related to export and import of light products, have highly spoken in favour of the restarting the port. Exporters and importers of heavy products like coal and stone have argued that this waterway will be beneficial to them only if the navigability is ensured throughout the year. They emphasised the need for dredging the river, improving port facilities and building infrastructures to make the port more feasible to use. If the port starts its auspicious operation, it will be a good source of revenue for the government of Bangladesh.
However, businessmen have stated that although Bangladesh government permitted the exporters to export ten types of products via Chilmari the Indian government allowed their importers to import only two types of products. It is important for Bangladesh government to get this problem resolved so that the exporters of Bangladesh can export products via this channel on a large scale.
At present, transportation is possible of export and import products by mechanised boats of 25-30 -tonne capacity each.
It is now up to the authorities of both countries to take necessary steps to facilitate the smooth use of the waterway. In a nutshell, it is superfluous to mention that the Chilmari River Port will contribute to development of the northern part of Bangladesh and the whole country will get the benefit. Simultaneously, businessmen of India will also get the benefit of lower transportation costs and their government will earn revenue.
Ashir-In-Tishar is a Research Officer at the Unnayan Shamannay. [email protected]