Located at the foothills of the eastern Himalayas and lying on the banks of Mahananda River, Siliguri is an important city in India’s West Bengal which forms ‘Twin Cities’ with the neighbouring district capital of Jalpaiguri and spans Darjeeling and Jalpaiguri, spread over 260 square kilometres within the Siliguri Corridor, also known as the Chicken’s neck even if the Siliguri subdivision is surrounded by Himalayan ranges towards north and towards south by the Bangladesh, Uttar Dinajpur district of West Bengal and the Indian state of Bihar while on the east lies Jalpaiguri district and Kalimpong district and it is bounded on the west by Nepal.
Also known as the ‘Gateway of Northeast India’, Siliguri has a lot of strategic significance as it is located conveniently and connects four international borders, namely China, Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan and has long been considered the most important trading hub of North East India. However, since 2015, when the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal (BBIN) Motor Vehicles Agreement was signed on 15 June in Bhutan’s Thimpu, Siliguri started to gain significance as a potent international trade hub. Subsequently, with funding from the US, Consumer Utility and Trust Society, a non-profit organisation, studied Creating an Enabling and Inclusive policy and Political Economy Discourse for trade, transport and transit facilitation in and among the four nations under which it identified eight corridors, which are not only for export or import facilities but also for allowing passenger vehicles even as India had previously reportedly approved US $ 1.08 billion for construction and upgradation of 558-km long roads joining Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal, which received around 50 per cent funding from the Asian Development Bank or ADB.
It may be mentioned here that the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal (BBIN) Initiative is a sub-regional architecture of countries in Eastern South Asia while the BBIN Motor Vehicles Agreement (MVA) signed on 15 June 2015 at the BBIN Transport Ministers meeting in Thimpu, Bhutan, reportedly permits the member states to ply their vehicles in each other’s territory for transportation of cargo and passengers, including third-country transport and personal vehicles. According to the agreement, each vehicle would require an electronic permit to enter another country’s territory, and border security arrangements between nations’ borders will also remain while cargo vehicles will be able to enter any of the four nations without the need for trans-shipment of goods from one country’s truck to that of another at the border even as under the system, cargo vehicles are tracked electronically, permits are issued online and sent electronically to all land ports while vehicles are fitted with an electronic seal that alerts regulators every time the container door is opened.
Further, under the BBIN-MVA, Siliguri will be a key point of the South Asian Road network as it is also part of the Asian Highway Network, which is supposed to connect the BBIN countries with Thailand and Myanmar through Bangladesh.
It was thus just a matter of time before the once sleepy town of Siliguri started attracting increased attention even as India reportedly plans to transform it, into an international trade hub, especially for South Asia as it is connected by India’s national highways to four border points of Fulbari and Changrabandha (Bangladesh), Nepal’s Panitanki, Bhutan’s Jaigaon even as according to an ADB report, the location was identified as a key aggregation point by the Indian Government.
The report also states that a multimodal (road- and rail-based) inland customs and clearance depot (ICD) has been developed in Siliguri, which caters to Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal even if the terminal is located next to the New Jalpaiguri railway station near India’s National Highway No 31D while the Asian Highway 2, which connects Bangladesh, India and Nepal, is adjacent to the site and the Asian Highway 48 connecting Bhutan, India and Bangladesh is also around 45 kilometres from the site.
Further, according to the ADB report, the Siliguri ICD has a rail-handling area of 35,000 square metres, with two handling railway lines.
However, even if Siliguri is getting developed to turn into a strategic and important trade hub that would benefit all countries like Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh, there are some apprehensions in Bangladesh though which could prove counterproductive for it…But why?
“The original plan was that Myanmar and Thailand would be connected to India, Nepal and Bhutan through Bangladesh under the Asian Highway Network, which may be hampered as India has drawn up an alternative road network. This network will connect Myanmar and Thailand to Northeast India (Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram) through Siliguri, circumventing Bangladesh,” reportedly underlined the Research Director at the Centre for Policy Dialogue Dr Khondaker Golam Moazzem, who is also a regional connectivity expert, speaking to the media, even as he went on to maintain that such a measure would harm the prospects of Chittagong and Mongla ports as well.
Kolkata port will be more vibrant once the Siliguri ICD is fully operational due to the direct connectivity between Siliguri and the road and rail network, explained the CPD Research Director while adding the ICD can prove to be a boon to Pakistani and Afghan traders through the use of Kolkata port.
On the other hand, a member of the Thematic Group on Regional Connectivity of the Road Transport and Bridges Ministry reportedly underlined that work on the Asian Highway was underway as per the original plan while also adding that any alternative routes that went through Indian states to connect Myanmar would be costlier for international traders.
“Traders must opt for a comparatively time- and cost-effective road network,” said the person concerned even as on 1st August, the Haldibari (West Bengal)-Chilahati (Bangladesh) railway corridor was revived after 56 years to bolster trade among the South-Asian countries through the use of the Siliguri ICD.
According to media reports, Bangladesh and India began regular operation of freight trains through the Haldibari-Chilahati rail route after 56 years — the distance between Haldibari Railway Station and the international border is 4.5km, while that of Chilahati and the zero point is around 7.5km — when Indian Railways dispatched the first freight train loaded with stones from Damdim Station of Northeast Frontier Railway to Bangladesh even as after the partition in 1947, seven rail links were operational between India and the then East Pakistan till 1965 and the Haldibari-Chilahati rail link is one of those routes.
Apart from the Haldibari-Chilahati rail link, currently, there are four operational rail links between India and Bangladesh – Petrapole (India)-Benapole (Bangladesh), Gede (India)-Darshana (Bangladesh), Singhabad (India)-Rohanpur (Bangladesh) and Radhikapur (India)- Birol (Bangladesh).
The leaderships of both India and Bangladesh are committed to revive all the pre-1965 railway links between the two countries, said the Indian mission in Bangladesh and as per the commitment, the restoration work was undertaken by the railways of both the countries to revive this rail link. After the restoration, this railway link between Haldibari (India) and Chilahati (Bangladesh) was jointly inaugurated by the Prime Ministers of India and Bangladesh during the PM level virtual bilateral summit held in December last year.
The Indian High Commission in Bangladesh said the restored rail link, coming into operation, will strengthen India-Bangladesh Rail Connectivity and bilateral trade even as it will also enhance rail network accessibility to the main ports and dry ports to support the growth in regional trade and to encourage economic and social development of the region, it added.
According to reports the commodities that can be exported from India to Bangladesh through this rail route include stones and boulders, food grain, fresh fruits, chemical fertilizer, onion, chilies, garlic, ginger, fly ash, clay, lime stone, wood and timber while from Bangladesh to India, all exportable commodities are permitted, said the Indian mission.
Further, at the opening ceremony of the restored rail link, Northeast Frontier Railway Chief Public Relations Officer Subhanan Chanda reportedly stated that the route would ensure less time for transit of goods to Bangladesh from Assam, West Bengal, Nepal and Bhutan as part of the Kolkata-Siliguri main line even as apart from this, India and Bangladesh had also announced a train service, covering a distance of 513 km between India’s New Jalpaiguri and Dhaka even as the service was scheduled to start from 26 March, 2021, the day Bangladesh launched the Golden Jubilee celebrations of its independence, but was halted due to the Coronavirus pandemic.
Going by the facts as well as the views as shared by experts and people in know of things from both the sides (India and Bangladesh), it would be perhaps bit too early to reach any conclusion as to how would Siliguri impact Bangladesh and, if at all, what would be the magnitude of it.