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Bangladesh And Assam Can Benefit From Strengthening Connectivity And Trade Ties – OpEd

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It is Bangladesh that paved the way to build a peaceful North East India. As a regional state, Assam is benefitting from that. Bangladesh has played a vital role in curbing terrorism for the region. Bangladesh’s handing over ULFA militants to India has freed Assam from separatism and extremism. Bangladesh wants Peace and harmony with its neighbors. Bangladesh doesn’t believe in anarchy, chaos. So, North East India should always be grateful to Bangladesh for this. Bangladesh doesn’t like any internal or external conflicts across the world. For ensuring this, Bangladesh signed the ‘Chittagong Hill Tract Peace Accord’ with the insurgents in the CHT in 1997. It also repatriated a number of Chakma refugees in its own land earlier. 

Bangladesh has already responded to major security issues that have long been of concern to India. Bangladesh has handed over a large part of India’s northeastern rebels to India. These rebels were carrying out anti-India operations from the soil of Bangladesh. Major Anup Chetia, a member of the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) rebel group, was a major headache for the Indian security authorities. Bangladesh also handed him over to India. The activities of this foreign-backed terrorist and insurgent groups were banned strictly by Bangladesh. Bangladesh is a true well-wisher of North East India. All North-East Indian provinces especially Assam should realize this. 

However, Bangladesh and India are bordering countries. Bangladesh and India have a warm, deep and diverse relationship. Both countries are celebrating the 50th anniversary of bilateral relations. Assam is also a partner in this relationship. Bangladesh shares its borders with five Indian provinces including Assam. As the largest state in the Northeast Region (NER) of India, Assam shares nearly 263 kilometers of the border (land and riverine) with Bangladesh. Given the size, population, and location, Assam’s participation in trade and commerce with Bangladesh is important for the Indian government. Thus, Assam is an important factor for Bangladesh. 

Most of the Bangladesh-India border is with West Bengal. This Bengali-speaking region of India is also predominant in terms of commercial activities. Although the other three Indian states share borders with Meghalaya, Assam and Tripura, Bangladesh does not have good trade or economic relations with them. But North-Eastern states of India including Assam should focus the strength and potentials of bilateral trade ties between Bangladesh and North East India. Assam should realize this with special attention.  Bangladesh is going to a south Asian economic miracle. It is true. So, it would be beneficial for Assam to bolster the trade ties with Bangladesh. Assam should utilize the all potentials between Bangladesh and Assam. Bangladesh could benefit from growing trade and connectivity ties. Assam can be a partner with Bangladesh in this connection. Assam can benefit from Bangladesh’s economic rise. Connectivity between Assam and Bangladesh can provide benefits for Nepal, Bhutan to some extent Myanmar, Thailand, Laos. (Bangladesh-India-Myanmar-Thailand connectivity potential)

Transit through Bangladesh is very important as it is isolated from the northeastern part of India. That is why it has to build cooperation in the development of Bangladesh. The full use of Chittagong and Mongla ports will open the door to Southeast Asia. Connectivity through railway, riverway and air would boost up the region.

Both parties should set up ‘Border Huts’ on the Bangladesh border— where people on both sides of the border will be able to sell a variety of goods in their own currency. People from both parties would be beneficiaries ultimately. Both the governments think that this kind of border hut will be very popular among them. India and Bangladesh can set up a border hut in Dhubri Lowers Assam’s Dhubri district along the international border. Ultimately the people of Sylhet and Assam can benefit from using this. 

Bangladesh and Assam can set up more land tariff stations along the border. This will encourage international trade by land and increase trade volume. Sheola, Balla, Bholaganj land tariff stations could boost up and accelerate the transborder trade.

Tourist exchange between Bangladesh and Assam can be a potential sector. Bangladeshi tourists can visit Assam through their borders. Assam should strengthen the past ties between the people of Assam and the people of greater Sylhet on the border. Both parties should strengthen connectivity between the two countries by re-opening long-suspended rail, road and waterway connections. Famous for having an international trade center, Sutarkandi is the international border of India and Bangladesh. Through this space, the export of fruits, silicon and coal is done. The place is situated in the district of Karimganj, Assam. On the other hand, Malini Chara tea garden, Bichana Kandi, Ratargul Swamp Forest, Jaflong, Shaha Jalal Dargah, Sri Mangal, etc. can be tourist spots for Assamese. 

Inaugurating the Bangladesh-India ‘Friendship Bridge’ jointly with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on March 9, 2021, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina remarked that regional connectivity not only strengthens the friendship between Bangladesh and India but also builds strong trade ties. The Prime Minister of India expressed the view that such a link between Bangladesh and India would be very important for the trade of North East India including Assam and Bangladesh as well. For Bangladesh, the bridge will not only facilitate trade with India but also with Bhutan and Nepal through India’s Northeast region. Bangladesh’s increasing trade relations with Bhutan and Bangladesh through Maitree Setu is going to make ICP Sabroom as well as ICP Agartala commercial and logistic hubs of international trade in South and Southeast Asia. Meanwhile, a new cross-border rail link between Dhaka and Siliguri was opened by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her Indian counterpart Narendra Modi during the latter’s visit to Dhaka on March 26. Passengers from Dhaka can travel up to the northeastern states of India easily when the train service begins. Now, Bangladesh-Assam-Tripura can open such kinds of railway links to boost up the connectivity. 

Bangladesh and India have signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for the construction of a high-speed diesel pipeline from Numaligarh in Assam to Parbatipur in Bangladesh, a joint venture between Numaligarh Refinery Limited and Bangladesh Petroleum Corporation. As an indication of goodwill, an initial consignment of 2,200 tonnes of diesel has already been transported from Siliguri in West Bengal to Parbatipur in 50 wagons by the Indian Railways. The decision to build the pipeline was taken during Modi’s last visit.

There might have some problems (NRC) between Assam and Bangladesh. But these problems should be addressed and resolved diplomatically and politically. Bangladesh and Assam should reap the benefits from strengthening trade and connectivity ties. There are huge potentials an increase in exports of goods from Sylhet and Bangladesh in the northeastern Indian state of Assam and vice versa. Assam can put its contributions to Bangladesh. Assam can make the Indian central government understand and urge to stop border killings along the India-Bangladesh border, sign the Teesta water-sharing deal as soon as possible, support Bangladesh in case of Rohingya crisis solution. 

The ports in Bangladesh need to be linked with Assam through Brahmaputra-Barak-Padma-Meghna riverine waterways to facilitate the economic growth of the region and restore rail connectivity between North East and Bangladesh. 

Sylhet has a long relationship with Assam. Bangladesh’s bilateral relations with the seven sister states, including the northeastern Indian states of Assam and Meghalaya, need to be maintained as in the past. Only then will there be an expansion of trade and commerce of Bangladesh including Sylhet with the seven sister states including Assam. Assam and Bangladesh can work together in the garment, health tourism, IT and education sectors. Bangladesh and Assam can also work together in the sector of counter-terrorism approach, human tariffing, illegal narcotics business, etc.

According to influential Hindustan Times, In the future, with coordination between MEA and the Assam government, the state can push for greater connectivity with Bangladesh via rail, road and air along with a focus on organic food, silk, crude oil, fisheries, tourism and work-permits for skilled youth. Along with Bhutan and Myanmar, Bangladesh forms a key triangle around Assam. The Union government must encourage and help Assam take advantage of its geographical proximity with these three countries.

Basically, there are huge potentials in the sector of trade, connectivity, people-to-people contact, cultural diplomacy between Assam and Bangladesh. Bangladesh and Assam should reap the potentials. Now it’s time for Bangladesh and Assam to be beneficiaries. As Bangladesh paved the way peace process in North East India including Assam, now North East India should pave the way in serving the demand of Bangladesh.

Pathik Hasan

Pathik Hasan is a Dhaka-based NGO activist, researcher and freelance writer on contemporary international issues whose work has been published in many local and international publications. Academic background: BSS (Peace and Conflict Studies) and MSS (International Relations) under the University of Dhaka. He can be reached at [email protected]

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