The vibrant connectivity network that once formed the lifeline linking East Bengal with the West Bengal during the British period was snapped by Pakistan in 1965 in its attempt to halt the close people to people ties which were bound by linguistic and cultural affinities. An agreement was reached between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to increase rail connectivity. The two countries expressed their keenness to restore the connectivity that existed prior to 1965 and take it further. Bangladesh’s aspiration to emerge as a hub of connectivity and India’s priority to link its North Eastern region to the nearest ports and inject vitality to the economic activities in this region played a catalyst in pushing the connectivity projects forward.
Prior to 1965, there were 13 passenger trains that operated between India and former East Pakistan. In 2008, the two countries had restored the operation of Maitree Express connecting Kolkata with Dhaka and in 2017 another passenger train service, Bandhon Express, between Kolkata and Khulna was inaugurated. In 2016-17, India also had exported 120 passenger coaches.
India is financing a total of 17 railway projects in Bangladesh as part of Line of credit (LoC. It has extended with a total commitment of US$ 2.44 billion, which includes converting meter gauge to broad gauge, improving signals and construction of new and restoration of old railway bridges. Nine of these projects have already been successfully completed. While the Karimganj/ Mahisasan railway line in India which connected Shahbazpur in Bangladesh and Haldibari railway line in India which connected Chilhati in Bangladesh have been restored. The countries have agreed to a new line connecting Agartala to Akhaura.
As a part of cooperation and taking into consideration the shortage of wagons that the Bangladesh Railways is facing, Indian railways is using its wagons to carry freight. According to India, about 2 million metric ton of cargo is moved by rail per annum. Out of which 99% of the cargo moved by rail is Bangladeshi imports from India. In June, more than 100 freight trains to Bangladesh were operated carrying essential goods. Two significant developments in furthering the transport connectivity between the two countries needs to be noted. Firstly, special parcel train carrying 384 tonnes of chillies from Andhra Pradesh arrived in Bangladesh in July 13 and the first ever container train reached Benapole from Majerhat in India on 26th July carrying 50 containers signalling a new beginning. According to reports, this is going to be a permanent service and would connect nominated terminals of CONCOR (Container Corporation of India) to Benapole, Jessore, Singia, Noapara and Bangabandhu Setu West railway stations in Bangladesh. Because of Covid-19, railways has emerged as an important medium to send essential supplies to Bangladesh.
In this context, the gift of 10 Broad Gauge diesel locomotives to Bangladesh costing Rs. 60 crores would boost Bangladesh Railways’ strength. 10 broad gauge and 10 meter gauge locomotives were commissioned by the Bangladesh Railways between September 2012 and December 2015 to overcome the shortage of locomotives the country was facing. The Bangladesh Railways has 178 metre-gauge (MG) locomotives, of which 139 have crossed their 20-year economic life highlighting, why the gift from India is significant. Of the 90 BG locomotives, 55 have completed their economic life.
Rail connectivity continues to remain the cheapest and fastest mass transit system that was part of the vibrant socio-economic structure that historically existed. The Railways will not only reduce the time and cost of transportation compared to the freight transported through the road network but it will address the congestion at Benapole land ports as Bangladesh is the largest trading partner of India in South Asia. The restoration of old connectivity structure that existed during the British period would boost the economy of this region to a great extent. It can give further fillip to the centuries old historical and cultural ties that bind the people of the region.
Script: Dr. Smruti S Pattanaik, Strategic Analyst On South Asia