India and Bangladesh share 4096 km-long international border, of which almost 1880 km is with the North-eastern Region (NER) of India with 1434 km land border and 446 km river-based tract. NER of India is strategically located and can act as India's gateway to South East Asia. Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram share borders with Bangladesh. These states, with the exception of Meghalaya, share both land and river-based borders with Bangladesh. Tripura and Mizoram have the longest land and river-based borders with Bangladesh. A closer economic integration and connectivity with Bangladesh would not only reduce economic isolation of these states but also make their ties stronger with the mainland of India.
The existing pattern of the trade between NER and Bangladesh is determined by the resource-industry linkage between Bangladesh and NER. There are some critical minerals available in NER which have huge demand in Bangladesh. So, exports from NER are totally different from the trade that Bangladesh has with mainland India. The major NER exports to Bangladesh include raw materials like coal, limestone, stone chips, bamboo, while its major imports include finished products like cement, plastic, goods, readymade garments, processed food and soft beverages. This provides a strong case for expansion of trade between the two regions.
The distance from Agartala to Kolkata is 1650 km and 2,637 km to New Delhi via Shilong and Guwahati. However, the distance between Agartala and Kolkata via Bangladesh is just around 550 km. Moreover, the average distance between important cities of Bangladesh and northeast India ranges from 20 km to 300 km. Therefore, Bangladesh is always considered a strategic location for NER's connectivity through rail, road and riverine routes with mainland India. Considering these aspects, Bangladesh can act as an important source of connectivity led by rail, road and river between NER and mainland India.
In view of strategic location, there exists a lot of possibilities between the NER and Bangladesh in the areas of trade, transport, commerce and connectivity. Therefore, it is imperative to map-out some of the key sectoral opportunities.
POTENTIAL AVENUES OF COOPERATION
- Energy security: The Northeast Region has hydropower energy of more than 63,000MW. The excess or unutilised power generated in NER can help Bangladesh to strengthen its power supply. So, cooperation in this sector can bring benefits for both regions.
- Regional connectivity: Connectivity with North eastern India namely the Seven Sisters could be greatly mutually beneficial. Therefore, business clusters representing both India and Bangladesh within the close proximity of those areas should be established. Establishing G2G Economic Zones in Assam and Sylhet areas could cater to this plan.
- Land port warehousing: Interventions relating to proper warehousing of imported and exported goods, particularly perishable goods, on both sides of the border in NER and Bangladesh is of critical importance. Business people from the both sides have been raising the issue for long.
- Manufacturing: Indian companies based in NER have a lot of opportunities to invest in adjoining Bangladesh territories by setting up manufacturing units where they can capitalise on low cost industrial labour and sourcing of raw materials from NER. Besides sale in Bangladesh, the manufactured products can be re-exported to NER and the rest of the world.
- Railway connectivity: To facilitate trade transit and connectivity between Bangladesh and NER, cross-border railway can be reestablished as a revival of the famous Assam-Bengal railway in undivided India.
- Tourism: The first step towards expansion of tourism between Bangladesh and the Seven Sisters will be to open up all the closed border check posts for tourists. Currently, there exist only three border check-posts covering only Tripura and Meghalaya states. We have to explore opportunities for creation of more border check posts and develop the infrastructural facilities including communication routes. In addition, our international airport in Sylhet can serve as the passageway for the isolated northeastern people to the rest of the world. Bangladesh can also attract a lot of NER population for medical tourism and education tourism, given the large number of state-of-the-art hospitals and educational institutions on this side of the border.
- Inland waterways development: It is evident that both governments have shown renewed focus on reviving inland navigation between Bangladesh and NER. However, there are challenges to effectively utilise the waterways. These include heavy siltation, shifting channels, lack of required depth of water during the lean season, constraints in night navigation and absence of necessary navigation aids in many riverine routes. These problems need to be addressed for mutual benefit of both Bangladesh and the NER of India.
Cushioning the opportunities for cooperation would also greatly complement Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal Motor Vehicle Agreement (BBIN MVA) to provide access to sub-regional major cities and ports. Bangladesh government is working to advance cross-border trade with NER under BBIN MVA. Additionally, issues like expediting inter-regional routes (i.e. roads, ports, rail and inland water ways) with NER are already tabled for further discussion and necessary actions.
Sabbir Rahman Khan is Research Associate at Bangladesh Foreign Trade Institute (BFTI).
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any particular party.