Last month on 25th June, Bangladesh opened its long cherished and most anticipated infrastructure, the Padma Bridge. The completion of the construction of the Padma Bridge is a dream comes true for the 170 million people of Bangladesh. It has connected 21 districts of Bangladesh’s Southwest region with Dhaka and the rest of the country. The bridge will help Bangladesh to improve the living standard of its people, increase trade and commerce, and fulfill its vision 2041 of transforming into a developed nation through increased connectivity.
However the bride will also have significance in bilateral and regional connectivity among the South Asia. To understand better, let’s dive deeper into the Padma Bridge’s contribution and potentials in bilateral and regional connectivity.
The Padma Bridge and Connectivity: Bilateral and Regional Contexts
South Asia comprises eight countries with poor connectivity among themselves. South Asia is often described as one of the least integrated and interconnected regions in the world. Despite sharing the common borders and often the common history and socio-cultural values, the South Asian countries are not well connected to each other. There are several factors behind that and the main one is the political differences and antagonism among the countries. Besides that, poor economic conditions and lack of financial capacity also hamper the process. Regional trade and development suffer most as a result. However, in recent times, nations have started to step up their efforts to establish good regional connectivity through bilateral and multilateral initiatives.
Bangladesh-India connectivity is a prime example of bilateral engagement in this regard. Both the countries have taken several joint initiatives to improve their connectivity which have contributed to overall regional connectivity development. Countries are also trying to strengthen regional connectivity through regional and sub-regional cooperation. South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is the main regional organization in South Asia, but it has not lived up to its expectations. Although it has various regional connectivity initiatives, those never came into reality because of its inactive position. As a result, countries are going for sub-regional groupings like Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal (BBIN) and many others. Also, the growing geostrategic significance of South Asia has attracted major powers like the United States and China to invest in connectivity to maintain good relations with South Asian countries. There is no doubt that the construction of the Padma bridge in Bangladesh will rejuvenate and complement the existing regional connectivity projects and encourage countries to take more connectivity initiatives in the days ahead.
The construction of the Padma bridge has opened a whole new opportunity for regional connectivity in South Asia. As indicated previously, Bangladesh-India bilateral connection has increased over the last decade owing to good mutual understanding, and the Padma bridge would further boost communication between the two countries. The Padma bridge will facilitate India’s access to its landlocked northeastern region as it bridges Bangladesh’s southwest and northeast parts which will connect India’s West Bengal directly to the Northeastern part of India. It will significantly reduce the travel distance and time for India which is normally taken through the Siliguri corridor known as ‘chicken neck’.
The Bangladesh Railway (BR) has suggested a “Trans-Padma Corridor” in light of this. A conceptual strategy of both the short-term and long-term duration has been designed by the BR. The Dhaka-Darsana international route, which would link the Northeastern region of India with Dhaka, will serve as the origin and destination sites in the short term. In the long run, Dhaka and Jessore will serve as the starting and ending points for Padma Bridge traffic. The Northeastern region of India, Dhaka, Padma bridge, Jessore, Benapole, and Kolkata would all be connected by this international route.
In addition, the bridge would boost rail and highway connectivity between Bangladesh and India. There are already three ongoing rail services from Dhaka to Kolkata, Khulna to Kolkata, and Dhaka to New Jalpaiguri. The Padma bridge rail project would expand rail connections by integrating new areas, particularly from West Bengal to the rest of Bangladesh. Both countries can also take rail connectivity projects to connect directly India’s Northeast to West Bengal through Bangladesh.
It will benefit both countries in terms of trade and people-to-people connections. At the same time, Padma bridge will facilitate passenger bus services between India’s West Bengal and the rest of Bangladesh by including new pickup and destination points in addition to existing routes. Similarly, bilateral connectivity with landlocked Nepal and Bhutan will also increase. As connectivity with India improved, it is expected that India will facilitate Bangladesh’s connectivity with Bhutan and Nepal. There have been a lot of talks at the track I and track II levels in regards to establishing trilateral cooperation in transit and trade among Bangladesh, India, and Nepal. Due to the Padma bridge, both landlocked countries can also access Mongla seaports for their maritime trade more easily.
In terms of trade, the Padma bridge will connect the Benapole land port, Mongla, and Payra seaports to Dhaka and the rest of the country. This will reduce the transportation time and cost for Bangladesh in trading with India and other countries which will bring more revenue to Bangladesh. The Padma bridge has reduced the distance between Dhaka and Mongla (170 kilometers) which is now shorter than the distance between Dhaka to Chattogram port (264 kilometers). This will lessen the congestion at the Chattogram port which will increase the efficiency of Bangladesh to handle regional and international trade.
South Asian countries have also tried to improve regional connectivity through regional arrangements. Although SAARC has been inactive for a good period, it took several initiatives to improve regional connectivity. “SAARC Regional Railways Agreement” is one of them. Under the agreement, several railway corridors would pass through Bangladesh territory connecting Bangladesh with other South Asian countries. The corridors are Pakistan-India-Bangladesh-India (corridor-2), India-Bangladesh (corridor-3), Nepal-India-Bangladesh (corridor-5), and Bangladesh Bhutan (corridor-7). Interestingly, corridors number 2 and 5 would go through the southwestern part of Bangladesh. The construction of the Padma bridge will definitely help to realize the railway agreement in the future if possible.
With the primary goal of improving multimodal transport connectivity among SAARC member states, South Asian nations launched the “SAARC Regional Multimodal Transport Study” (SRMTS) in 2004. It suggested ten highway corridors, known as “SAARC Highway Corridors” (SHC), six of which, SHC-1, SHC-4, SHC-5, SHC-6, SHC-8, and SHC-9 pass through Bangladesh. Benapole, Jessore, Daulatdia, Paturia, Dhaka, Katchpur, Narshigdi, Bhairab, Ashuganj, Brahmanbaria, Darkhar, and Akhaura make up the Bangladesh sector of SHC-1.
Now, with the Padma bridge ready to open for traffic, it will boost not only the SHC-1 but also other subsequent corridors as it connects the southwest part of Bangladesh to the rest of the country. Both of the initiatives from the SAARC that would have connected South Asian countries together have been undermined as a result of the impasse inside SAARC.
In 2001, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, and Sri Lanka formed the South Asia Subregional Economic Cooperation (SASEC) to improve cross-border trade and connectivity. Under the SASEC transport network, there are two rail corridors. One of them is the “India-Bangladesh Rail Corridor” which goes from Bangladesh’s southwest to all the way northeast India.
On the other hand, “SASEC Road Corridors” connect all the member states in the region. Among them, three corridors go through Bangladesh that are SAS-4, SAS-5, and SAS-9. The SASEC Corridor-5 involves the southwest part of Bangladesh. The construction of the Padma Bridge is a big leap forward for SASEC to implement its transport projects without any doubt.
In a nutshell, Padma Bridge is not only a domestic development for Bangladesh; instead it is also a leap stone for the connectivity of the region. The Bridge has the potential to contribute to the regional economy. Therefore, proper economic and diplomatic effort should be given to utilize the bridge and improve overall connectivity that would certainly benefit others too.