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Wednesday, February 06, 2013

On a slow boat through Bangladesh

Umgrot River at Indo-Bangladesh border — Ritu Raj Konwar

The potential of routing trade from Kolkata to the North-East through Bangladesh can be exploited.

In a bid to cash in on the shortage of coal faced by industrial consumers for quite some time, a Kolkata-based trader sometime ago wondered about transporting coal from Meghalaya by the river route (a large part of which is through Bangladesh) to Kolkata to meet the requirements of brick kilns in the State.

He did try, but the experience left him thoroughly disappointed. It took three months to transport 5,000 tonnes of coal from Meghalaya to Kolkata — first by truck from the mines to Karimganj river port in Assam and then by barge from Karimganj to Kolkata via Ashuganj (Bangladesh) where transhipment from small river craft into large barges had to take place. The transhipment too took an unusually long time. And the cost? The less said the better. It was prohibitive, to say the least.

Interestingly, a study funded by the Switzerland-based International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) advocates use of the Karimganj-Ashuganj stretch of the Kushiara river to promote both bilateral and transit trade by the river route between India and Bangladesh. Quoting an estimate by India’s Inland Waterways Authority of India, the study says about 1.5 million tonnes of cargo can be moved along the stretch.

One reason for this advocacy may be the various problems facing both the countries on promotion of bilateral trade by river route. The Bangladeshi barge operators active in the trade are particularly keen that the Karimganj-Ashuganj section develops because the bilateral trade traffic throughput by river route is showing a declining trend. In 2011-12, the throughput was 1.48 million tonnes and in the first seven months of the current fiscal, only 3,39,000 tonnes.

At this rate, even the one million tonne-level will not be achieved this fiscal, it is feared. An estimated 300 vessels carrying the Bangladeshi flag participate in the bilateral trade and a large number of them now are idle for want of traffic. The owners of the vessels, therefore, would like to participate in transit trade.

The trade by river route between India and Bangladesh is governed by the India-Bangladesh Protocol on Trade and Transit first signed in 1972, almost immediately after the emergence of Bangladesh as a separate nation, and was renewed thereafter from time to time. It will be wrong to presume that the renewal has always been a smooth and easy process. Between 2003 and 2006, for example, the renewal took place virtually on a month-to-month basis.

The Protocol has two components — one for bilateral trade and the other for the transit trade, i.e. for transportation of goods between Kolkata and Assam and other parts of the North-East through Bangladesh river system. For various reasons, the transit trade has not picked up.

The bilateral trade traffic by river route has some interesting features. First, it is one-way traffic, i.e., from India to Bangladesh; second, it is virtually a one-commodity trade, namely, fly ash, and finally, the trade is handled almost exclusively by Bangladeshi barge operators. There is virtually no presence of Indian barge operators, for whatever reasons.

The Bangladeshi barge operators now realise the pitfalls of depending on only one commodity. They, therefore, would like to diversify their portfolio by handling other types of cargo, preferably through participation also in transit trade. The importance of transporting cargo along the Karimganj-Ashuganj stretch becomes critical in this context.

At a workshop at Guwahati organised by the IUCN recently, traders from both sides expressed the view that while fly ash may continue to be an important bilateral trade item for the stretch, other items such as coal, iron ore, iron ore pellets, foodgrains and raw materials for and finished products of the paper units of Assam-based Hindustan Paper Corporation held out promise for the Karimganj-Ashuganj sector for the promotion of both bilateral and transit trade, more so because the sector was also part of the Protocol route.

There are several reasons why the Karimganj-Ashuganj sector may not be the preferred option to boost either bilateral or transit trade. First, the poor navigability of the Kushiara river.

There are nearly 20 shoals in the river totalling 25 km in length which must be dredged first to make the river navigable for movement of large-capacity barges. Right now, only country boats with capacity to load 50 to 100 tonnes can ply, and that too for three months in a year.

Interestingly, there is no proper study on the extent of dredging needed for the stretch, nor on how much money is needed to make the stretch navigable.

Some experts also feel that dredging can improve the river draft between 1.5 and 1.8 metres. For more improvement, so critical for movement of large-capacity vessels, dredging alone will not be enough; higher headwater discharge will be needed.

Next, the IUCN study suggests extension of the present Protocol route from Karimganj to Silchar in the Barak valley in Assam. However, the experts are not sure if such an extension will yield the desired result.

There is a proposal to develop Ashuganj as a major transhipment port to facilitate cargo movement to Tripura and the Indian Government is supposed to create the facility (though not much progress has been made in this direction). Which means, Kolkata-Ashuganj-Agartala river-cum-road route, when it materialises, will pose a threat to the proposed river route.

Inquiries reveal that other initiatives are under way to boot connectivity between India and the North-East through Bangladesh. For example, there are talks of recommissioning the Kulaura-Mahisasan-Karimganj rail link (39 km), construction of a 10-km long new rail link between Akhaura (Bangladesh) and Agartala (Tripura) and reconstruction of the old Silchar (Assam)-Sylhet (Bangladesh) road link (170 km).

The IUCN study draws attention to several other issues, such as the absence of night navigation, simplification of Customs rules, renewal of the Protocol every five years, introduction of multimodal operation and encouraging private sector participation. For obvious reasons, the study could not touch upon the biggest stumbling block, which is political.

India’s bid to promote trade by river route through Ashuganj, particularly to send cargo to Tripura on a regular basis, has not been a success. Bangladesh insists on the signing of the Teesta river treaty first. There is a stalemate now over the signing of the treaty, thanks to West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.

First published in The Hindu, January 25, 2013

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