Moitree-friendship on Wheels
Thirty five years back my first trip outside Bangladesh was just as exciting as the first passengers on the Moitree Express (Friendship Express) that left Dhaka for Kolkata on Pohela Boishak 1415. Following the liberation of the country on December 16, 1971 a section of Bangladeshis especially my father's generation took off for Ajmeer, mostly via Benapole. Travel to Benapole from other parts of the country was not very easy in those days, especially when most of the bridges and culverts were destroyed during the war. In the absence of any official passport, the Government of Bangladesh would issue special one page permit for a single journey to India. If you did not have a visa issued by the Indian High Commission in Dhaka (the lone High Commission Office) you could even have visa issued by the Indian immigration office across the Benapole border in Haridaspur. Bangladeshi returnees after performing the pilgrimage to Ajmeer would have nice experiences to share with their family and friends, especially about the warmth of the Indian immigration and customs official. In January 1972 my friend Shaym and I took our car across the Tamabil-Dawki border in Sylhet to Shillong without any official paper, except a letter typed on the official pad of the Bangladesh Parjatan Corporation that we were going to explore the possibilities of developing tourism in Shillong for Bangladeshis. A high ranking Parjatan officer accompanied us and without any hassle we just crossed over the border. This was the early days of independent Bangladesh, and still we could see refugees trekking back home from across the border. On the Bangladesh side there were no immigration or customs officials excepting a small police station and on the Indian side though they had these offices, the atmosphere was totally relaxed. The immigration people just glimpsed at the so-called official paper and let us go. A couple of miles down the road our car broke down near an Indian Army barrack. The army mechanics fixed our car and we were off to Shillong. As promised we returned by the evening, purchasing five hundred pieces of oranges from a roadside bepari at seventeen taka per hundred! People at Dawki Bazaar told us we paid three times the actual price. Maybe we had been taken for a ride.
In May 1973, I was travelling to Kolkata on my first international passport, endorsed valid for all countries except Israel and South Africa. I had fifty US dollars endorsed in my passport (US $ 1 =Taka 4.00), and carried Taka sixteen hundred cash with me. My flight aboard Chittagong-Jessore Biman flight lasted about fifty minutes. From Jessore I boarded a local bus to Benapole. At Benapole bus station took a rickshaw van ride for one taka. It was a warm summer afternoon. The border was bustling with activities. The customs and immigration were still in the formative stage, and everything was just done manually. Within half an hour I was in the Indian immigration office counter in Haridaspur and in fifteen minutes I was off to Bongaon railway station on a cycle rickshaw to catch the next train to Sealdha. Thirty-five years back life was much easy and it seems people were more helpful, warm and friendly.
In these 35 years I have travelled at least 35 times to India, and every time I decide, well this is my last trip to that country. My decision has nothing to do with the hospitality that I receive in India. In one word the hospitality I receive from my professional friends and others is just superb. My friends across the border are aware about the legendary 'Bangal Athithiota' (The East Bengalis are known as Bangal and West Bengalis as Ghoti in Kolkata), and they are all bent to prove they are not lagging behind when it comes to hospitality. Sometimes I am touched by their gestures. With every trip to India my enthusiasm dampens because, amongst other things, the hassle to get a visa to travel to India is nerve wrecking. In the last 35 years I have travelled across continents and not known any country where a person has to face so much of unnecessary hassle to get their visa or travel documents to travel to their neighbouring country. I am involved with a SAARC chartered, vibrant organisation called Association of Management Development Institutions in South Asia (AMDISA), headquartered in Hyderabad, India. Approximately one hundred and seventy universities and institutions of higher learning are members of AMDISA. As I sit in important committees of AMDISA I am regularly required to attend meetings in Hyderabad. Most often I do not attend these meetings because of the visa hassle. The last time I had to explain what AMIDSA was all about to the immigration official at Netaji Shubash Chandra Bose Airport in Kolkata as he could not have access to my data on his computer as the computer was not functioning. I gave him all the hard copies of my papers, he was not convinced. Seeing my US visa on the passport he even asked me what the hell I was doing in US!
With lots of fanfare and expectation Bangladesh's only international passenger train, between Dhaka and Kolkata, the Moitree Express commenced its historic journey on Pohela Boishak carrying a total passenger of 339 (some media reported 398 others 498 and one 418) passengers for its inaugural trip to Kolkata from Dhaka. The week preceding the journey there was quite a bit of excitement amongst the passengers from Bangladesh, who were understandably thrilled to be amongst the first batch of passengers on this train. Fifty-six journalists, partly sponsored by the Government also considered themselves lucky to be on the train. The event was given so much importance that no less than three advisors came to flag off the Moitree from the Cantonment Station, accompanied by a few dignitaries. British High Commissioner Anwar Choudhury and ADB Country Director, Hua Du found it amusing to play violin and ektara while the train guard waved his green flag from the guard cabin in the rear. Similar enthusiasm was also seen on the other side of the border in the Chitpur Station in Kolkata where important Central Ministers gathered to flag off their version of Moitree Express. The Kolkata-Dhaka train carried only 65 passengers out of whom 22 were journalists and media personalities. The newly inaugurated Indo-Bangladesh service is as a matter of fact, a resumption of the train service that snapped in 1965, following the six-day Indo-Pakistan war. Till 1965 there were three trains that ran between Sealdah and Bangladesh, viz., The East Bengal Express, The East Bengal Mail and the Khulna-Bagerhat Express.
Since our independence in 1971 travel between India and Bangladesh has increased manifold, though the number of Bangladeshis travelling to India greatly outnumbers Indians travelling to Bangladesh. People from this side of the border travel for diverse reasons. They travel for treatment, pilgrimage to Ajmeer, studies, attending seminars and conferences, on official business, visiting relatives or simply as tourists. People coming into Bangladesh from across the border would normally come for official visits, business trips, or visiting relatives. There number would be much less. Approximately three thousand visas are issued by the Indian High Commission in Bangladesh daily. During Eid, Puja and other holidays this number goes up by a few hundred and the hassle of getting a visa multiplies. Bangladeshi High Commission in India issues few hundred visas daily. Normally people travel by air or by bus. The bus service between Dhaka and Kolkata is quite comfortable. Immigration formalities at Benapole and Haridaspur are taken care of by the bus operators. The customs on both sides of the border is professional and efficient. On the contrary all the passengers that availed the Moitree express train in its first and subsequent journeys expressed their total dissatisfaction and frustration. Most of them said they will think twice before they take the next train to Kolkata. The travel time between Dhaka and Kolkata is eight hours and waiting time at the immigration and customs is five hours or more. Though these services were more competently done at Darshana station in Bangladesh the entire system is too slow at Gede station across the border. Unless one is out of his mind why should he undergo all this hassle to travel aboard Moitiree Express when better options are available?
In the recent past I had a number of occasions to travel across Europe aboard super fast Eurorail. Because Eurorail travels mostly across EU countries there are no customs and immigration formalities. These are things done in the port of entry, normally at airports. I was entering Switzerland from Germany. Switzerland is not a member of EU. The train stopped at a small station in the Swiss-German boarder. Three immigration police with a pair of sniffer dogs walked through the compartments greetings the passengers. The dogs were sniffing for drugs and arms. The trained immigration police were looking for illegal immigrants and randomly would check IDs. They stopped by me and asked for my ID. I handed over my passport with the Swiss visa. The officer smiled at me. No questions asked. 'Enjoy your stay in Switzerland' said the smiling officer and walked into the next compartment. The entire exercise took no less than half an hour and the train was much longer than the Moitree Express. It was summer of 1989 when I made my first journey to continental Europe from London. I took London-Paris National Bus. The customs and immigration formalities at Dover (UK) and Calais (France) were identical. You carry your luggage from the bus and put them on the customs carousel to be passed through a scanner. The inspection of travel documents takes no more than a minute per passenger and you could sip a hot cup of coffee in the immigration centre coffee shop while other passengers complete their immigration and customs formalities. The only noticeable difference was the presence of heavily armed French police in Calais holding sniffer dogs in one hand and the automatic sub machine gun on the other.
I was planning to take my family for vacation to India and travel aboard Moitree Express this summer. But whatever experiences the first few hundred passengers had to share has made me redo my plans. I do not want to go through all the hassles that the Moitree passengers have experienced. I have other options. I will wait. But I surely want Moitree Express to be a successful venture and not experience the fate of Dhaka-Agartala bus service. The policy planners just need to be more realistic and professional. Neighbourly friendship matters.
Professor Abdul Mannan is a former Vice Chancellor of Chittagong University. Currently he teaches at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(R) thedailystar.net 2007