On 10 March, The honourable Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina virtually inaugurated ‘Maitri-Setu’ or India-Bangladesh Friendship Bridge over Feni river in Sabroom town of South Tripura. The 1.9 km bridge will connect the Sabroom district of Tripura to Ramgarh in Bangladesh. It is one of the fastest land routes to connect the landlocked northeast region to Chittagong port via Sabroom. The bridge, which is just 80 km away from the Chittagong port, makes Agartala one of the cities closest to the International seaport. The project is a part of the Indian government Act East policy, aimed at boosting trade with the East and Southeast Asian countries and in line with the ‘HIRA’ (highway, internet, railway, and airway) developmental model for the North East . Thus, the bridge is a part of a larger connectivity vision of connecting North-eastern states within and with the neighbouring countries through land, water, air, and the internet.
Connectivity a Passage to prosperity
Despite the enormous untapped natural resource and its critical geographical location, North-eastern states remain alienated from economic development at par with India’s other states. Apart from challenges like insurgency, political conflicts, and ethnic clashes, the region’s connectivity is still a considerable challenge. Connectivity is one of the main issues that is hampering Northeast India’s growth and development. Over time, poor connectivity in the region has adversely affected the region’s livelihood, trade, tourism, and commerce . The North-eastern states have a competitive advantage in the agriculture, tourism, and service sectors. The agriculture sector alone is employing 70% of the region’s population . However, the total production constitutes just 1.5% of the Country’s food grain production. The lack of connectivity has directly and indirectly affected agriculture and its allied sector in the Northeast. The tourism sector is one of the most underutilized sectors of the region, and poor connectivity is one of the main reasons.
The poor rail and road network makes it difficult for outsiders to reach the Northeast region’s interior. The Northeast states have a rich potential of the opportunity, which can be exploited only after proper connectivity via land, water, and air. The region’s geography allows it to have trade with Bangladesh, Myanmar, and further up to ASEAN nations. Therefore, it is one reason that put the Northeast region at the fulcrum of India’s ‘Act East Policy.’ Also, similar cultures, languages, traditions, and customs connect North-eastern India and neighbouring countries. Thus, policymakers shall aim to enhance the rail, road, air, and internet connectivity within the north-eastern region. The robust connectivity and infrastructural development projects will shed the cobwebs of economic backwardness, enhance employment opportunities for youth, reduce cultural & ethnic conflicts, and put forward the path of prosperity in the region.
Utilizing Tripura’s geographical location to Unlock landlock Northeast
Tripura, the third smallest state in the Country, borders Bangladesh to the north, south, and west, and Assam and Mizoram to the east. The state shares an 856 km long international border with Bangladesh. The importance of Tripura can be understood from the fact that the capital city Agartala lies within 200 km from the port city Chittagong of Bangladesh. The accessibility of Chittagong port for smooth transit of goods from north-eastern states via Tripura will be a game-changer for the overall development of north-eastern states . Tripura has a huge potential in organic spices, biofuel, eco-tourism, rubber, tea and is known for its food processing and sericulture industries. Tripura is blessed with the best climate for aquaculture and has immense fisheries’ potential, yet to be utilized . Surrounded from three sides by Bangladesh, it became crucial for Tripura to have world-class connectivity. The direct connectivity of Tripura to Bangladesh is vital for two reasons. First, it provides sea access to landlocked northeast states. Second, it will enhance north-eastern states’ economic cooperation with southeast nations and ASEAN. Currently, the goods from Agartala travel 1600 km through the Siliguri corridor to reach Kolkata instead of 450 km through Bangladesh.
Understanding the north-eastern state’s aspiration and keeping the pace of development in the region, the central government has advocated for a ‘HIRA’ development model. The ‘HIRA’ model is a series of projects related to connectivity in the north-eastern region. It will ensure that all the north-eastern states are connected to neighbouring countries like Bangladesh, Myanmar, Bhutan, and Nepal through good land, water, and air routes. The Maitri-Setu Bridge, Indo-Bangladesh Protocol on Inland Water Transit and Trade (PIWTT) and India-Bangladesh Shipping Agreement have put Tripura in the position to serve as a gateway to the north-eastern region of India . Recently, Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority (BIWTA) has permitted the ferrying of goods vessels by waterway between Sonamura in Tripura to Daudkand in Bangladesh . It will lead to the utilization of unutilized water resources. Besides providing accessible transit for goods in the region, it will help improve people-to-people connections. The development of integrated check posts (ICPs) at Agartala, Srimantapur, and Sabroom will further increase the scope for improving livelihood and create opportunities to promote multi-modal connectivity in the region. The Agartala (Tripura) – Akhaura (Bangladesh) rail link, which is on the verge of completion, will also boost the connectivity of Tripura to Bangladesh. The 10km railway link will be the first rail link between Bangladesh and northeast India .
Further, enhancing the mobile and internet connectivity in the north-eastern region, the Bangladesh government in 2016 had agreed to allow India to use unspent bandwidth in the neighbouring Country’s Cox Bazar. India’s only third international internet gateway (IIG) in Agartala has improved internet connectivity in all the north-eastern states, including Sikkim . It, in a way, had made Tripura an Internet gateway for north-eastern states. However, the scope of ‘HIRA’ developmental model shall not be limited to Tripura only and needs to extend throughout the north-eastern state.
Bangladesh an Alternate to Unlock Geographic Bottleneck of Northeast
According to a recent World Bank report , improved connectivity between India and Bangladesh can result in a 172 percent increase in India’s export to Bangladesh and a 297 percent increase in Bangladesh’s export to India. Bangladesh’s geographical location has made it a crucial state for India’s ‘Act East’ and ‘Neighbourhood First’ policies . A good and stable relationship with Bangladesh will be in favour of India’s interest due to the following reason:
Seamless movement of goods will drastically reduce the cost of logistics.
As mentioned earlier, the landlocked North Eastern state will gain easy access to ports in the Bay of Bengal.
It will enhance India’s capability to develop the manufacturing hub in the Northeast.
The smooth connectivity in the region will allow north-eastern states to export orchids, flowers, fruits, spices, herbs, and oil to countries like Bangladesh, Myanmar, and beyond. The north-eastern region, known for its natural herbs, organic spices, and tea, has a vast international market. A developmental model like ‘HIRA’ can transform the region in the following way:
The north-eastern region shall gain easy access to the international market beyond Bangladesh and Myanmar.
The increased economic activity shall reduce the trust deficit between the people of the north-eastern region.
The north-eastern region’s contribution to the national income will improve, which will increase its stake in national politics.
However, connecting the region is easier said than done, the reason being the complex diversity, social- culture, and rough climatic conditions of the region. The biggest problem the region is facing in developing infrastructure is the absence of proper land records. It makes land acquisition difficult for authority, thus creating unnecessary hurdles in developing infrastructure. The poor land records allow anyone to claim compensation, which creates unnecessary hurdles in developmental projects and becomes a source of corruption in the region . This causes delays in the infrastructure project, which increases the cost many folds. The best example is the Kaladan Multimodal project, a similarly ambitious project of connecting the northeast region to the Bay of Bengal through Myanmar. Started more than a decade ago in 2008, the project is still far away from completion. Apart from the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, other factors like hilly terrain, land acquisition, and militancy have contributed to the delay.
Further, the feasibility of projects involving another country relies heavily on the geopolitical interest of that country. For instance, the vision of transforming Tripura as a gateway to the northeast is flourishing because of Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. However, the situation may or may not be the same after the change in the government in the neighbouring country; in such a scenario, finding and creating multiple connectivity options is the key.
Connecting Tripura with Bangladesh via roadways, railway, waterway, and the airway is bound to increase India and Bangladesh’s economic cooperation and provide an opportunity to Northeast India. Tripura is becoming a connecting link between Bangladesh, northeast India, and Myanmar soon. The region, which the subsequent government has long neglected, needs utmost attention. Further, it becomes crucial for India to utilize the full potential of the Northeast, and in doing so, connectivity via Tripura through Bangladesh is the need of the hour. Further cooperation between India and Bangladesh will make Tripura an economic hub of the region and be a north-eastern bridge to the Bay of Bengal. The scope of the ‘HIRA’ model in the development of Northeast, with Tripura at its centre, is very high.
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