Thanks to its manufacturing prowess, Bangladesh has long been renowned as a sourcing hub for global brands and retailers when it comes to readymade garments. However, with time, the importance of Bangladesh is not just restricted to being the second biggest apparel exporter globally, the country is gaining ever more prominence with respect to playing a very important role in terms of becoming the centre of regional connectivity while also facilitating trade and business in South Asia as a transit hub.
Due to its geographical location, Bangladesh has what it takes to become a strong regional communication hub.
So, even as the country marked the 50th anniversary of its independence while it launched a 10-day ‘golden jubilee’ on 17th March with parades, fireworks and tributes to independence hero Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the occasion has brought the world, especially most of the South Asian countries, closer even as leaders of the leading nations the world over had words of appreciation for Bangladesh with the leaders from the more immediate neighbours making it a point to visit Bangladesh to personally express their solidarity and readiness to be its close allies.
At this noble juncture (50th anniversary of independence), they have reiterated their commitment to advancing the regional socio-economic interests more so at a time when the world is grappling with once-in-a-century crisis due to COVID-19 even as the realisation has dawned on all that they must explore every avenue in order to collectively enhance mutual benefits through greater cooperation and as is the case, greater trade and economic cooperation is the key to making this happen, for which there’s no alternative to further augmenting connectivity amongst the countries but the region as a whole.
And going by what experts assert, Bangladesh has the potential to become a transport hub for India, Bhutan, Nepal, Maldives, Sri Lanka and Myanmar thereby turning the country into a regional and transhipments hub, which in turn would result in collective economic growth for the countries concerned and the region as a whole even as improving multi-modal connectivity would lead to enhanced economic cooperation between countries in the region.
It may be mentioned here that for over a decade, various initiatives have been taken to enhance regional connectivity between Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Bhutan, in addition to increasing people to people communication besides opening of new routes have been introduced through river, road, railway and airways for easy freight transport.
According to some experts, despite the potential, the region has failed towards forging a bloc like the European Union (EU) and they blame politics for the same. There’s no denying how the ease of travel, business and exchange of knowledge relating to industries and technology have given the EU its strength and sustainability, which however, has not happened in this region, they feel.
However, Bangladesh’s keenness to get connected with the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway Project, which is expected to open a window to the country’s east and connect it with the South-east Asian region even as it proposes to be a multimodal connectivity well beyond the sub-regional confine with the potential to be connected with the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a reminiscent of the Silk Road of the past, which envisions land communication stretching from East Asia up to Europe, is all set to change things.
For enhancing connectivity between South and South East Asia, Bangladesh is keen on joining the ongoing India Myanmar Thailand trilateral highway project even as this highway is expected to help greatly in the transport connectivity – 13,660 km long cross border highway network and is currently under construction, expected to be completed by 2021, linking Moreh (India)-Bagan(Myanmar)-Mae Sot(Thailand) and India has agreed to help build two vital road sections — Kalewa-Yagyi of 120 km and 69 bridges on the Tamu-Kyigone-Kalewa (TKK). From Indian side the work is going on since 2017 and according to sources by 2021, it is expected to be completed.
It may be mentioned here that Bangladesh has already provided transit and transhipments facilities though river routes and roads to the north-eastern states of India even as the Chittagong Port has also been opened to India for transportation of its goods even as discussions with India have been on in terms of increasing trade and commerce since the present Government came into power in the first term.
India has been interested in the transit route through Ashuganj port regularly since 2011 after importing heavy equipment from Tripura’s Palatana power plant with special facilities even as this route was officially launched in 2016 with duty charges while later, new trade routes were introduced between the two countries by river, road and sea.
Besides, an agreement has been signed between Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal (BBIN) for free movement of vehicles while several routes have been introduced between India and Bangladesh for direct passenger transport such as Khulna-Kolkata railway, Dhaka-Agartala by bus, Dhaka-Guwahati flight, to increase people-to-people communication.
Meanwhile, speaking to the media, the distinguished fellow of non-government research organisation Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD), Mustafizur Rahman, maintained that some agreements and infrastructure-related to the connectivity with India and other neighbouring countries have been developed while adding that these initiatives are positive and should be implemented immediately.
According to the CPD distinguished fellow, investments should be increased in parallel to transport and business should be facilitated by removing tariff and non-tariff barriers and, only after this, the complete success of regional connectivity including transit and transhipments will be achieved, who further went on to add that trade and commerce would expand further, if the freight trucks could cross the borders of India, Nepal and Bhutan easily and move freely.
It may be mentioned here that in order to increase people-to-people communications as well as to facilitate the transportation of products, BBIN was undertaken around seven years ago to simultaneously increase regional connectivity between Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Bhutan. In June 2015, under the auspices of the BBIN, an agreement was signed between the four countries in Bhutan’s capital Thimphu for the free movement of motorised vehicles. But the upper house of Bhutan’s parliament has not yet reportedly approved the agreement in fear of environmental damage even as for the time being, initiatives have been taken to implement the free movement agreement excluding Bhutan even as Nepal and Bhutan have been granted to use their lands to reach Bangladesh while the two countries have been seeking permission to use the Mongla port even as Bangladesh has reportedly already permitted Bhutan to use the Syedpur port.
Regarding this issue, Commerce Secretary Md Jafar Uddin, while interacting with the media said, “Our business will expand if our inter-connectivity with the neighbouring countries increases. For this, investments should be increased along with infrastructural development,” while adding, “Apart from solving the navigability crisis, facilities at the ports are also being increased; the opportunities for trade assistance are increasing gradually.”
Now, according to experts, with the inauguration of the Maitri Setu on 8 March, a new chapter is not only being written in terms of long-standing Indo-Bangladesh relationship but a milestone has been achieved towards achieving the goals of regional connectivity.
“We expect that the framework we are inaugurating today will also help Bangladesh trade more easily not only with India, but with Nepal and Bhutan as well,” said Hasina at the virtual inauguration of the bridge while underlining it will also play a significant role in business, trade and economic development, and went on to add, “We are creating a new era in South Asia through providing connectivity to India. We are in a region which has remained conservative in opening up and where inter-regional trade is far below its potential.”
It may be mentioned here that the Maitri bridge is rightly being called the ‘gateway of Northeast’ as it will connect the landlocked north-eastern region of India with Chittagong port in Bangladesh, thereby unlocking the untapped markets of other east and south east economies.
Further, it may be mentioned here that Dhaka also intends to transport goods to Bhutan using India’s territory even as in terms of connecting Nepal and Bhutan by road and rail, Dhaka has reportedly earlier requested Delhi to operate freights on five routes – the routes are Nepal’s Mechinagar, Biratnagar, Birgunj by road, Rohanpur-Singhabad by rail and Chilahati-Haldibari rail route to get connected with Bhutan.
Since both Nepal and Bhutan are landlocked countries, connectivity with them without India is difficult, reportedly stated Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen speaking to the media while adding that the two countries on the edge of the Himalayas also want Bangladesh to play a leading role in liaising with India.
Going by the developments that are taking place lately and at quite a hectic pace one must admit, it is just a matter of time before Bangladesh becomes the epicentre of regional connectivity and transit hub in South Asia, it its real sense.
Let’s keep our fingers crossed till then!