Bangladesh is likely to sign a transit protocol with India during Manmohan Singh's visit. Transit will allow movement of Indian freight between mainland and its North-Eastern states through Bangladesh territory. This NE area is linked with mainland India through a 200 km sliver of land known as Siliguri Corridor. This vast resource-rich land remains in a state of perpetual economic stagnation mostly due to its remoteness.
All Indian governments since 1947 repeatedly tried for political and economic integration of the seven sister states with the mainstream. That, however, still remains as elusive as it was six decades ago. The main stumbling block is the lack of an overland transit route through Bangladesh. But that may change soon. India is likely to get that transit from Bangladesh.
Transit will give India a viable opportunity for political and economic integration of NE-states with its mainstream and will bring economic benefits for the people in this region. Consequently, insurgency in these restive states may subside. Transit would cut transport cost and travel time significantly. Currently, a truck from Agartola has to make a week-long journey through a convoluted route of 1,750 km via Guwahati to its nearest port in Kolkata, and cost about Rs.50,000. But when transit routes open, this distance would come down to about 450 km. If exporters from Tripura use Chittagong port, they would have to pay a mere fraction of current cost. The distance from Tripura border to Chittagong port is just 70 km.
From military point of view, transit through Bangladesh is a strategic necessity for India's territorial security in north-east. India is quite vulnerable against China's claim of 90,000 sq km of Arunachal Pradesh. Transit through Bangladesh would finally allow them to build a strong defense line along the north-eastern border.
Full-fledged transit infrastructure would cost about $7 billion and Bangladesh alone may have to spend this whopping amount. Initially, annual earnings from transit fee are estimated to be $50 million. Compared to our earnings from garments sector or remittances from Bangladeshi expatriates, this is a pittance. With the opening of transit routes, formal and informal trade between Bangladesh and seven sisters will shrink to insignificance.
The transit route plan is being stretched to include Nepal and Bhutan. It is claimed that transit fees from Nepal and Bhutan would bring good revenue for Bangladesh. But consider the facts: Bhutan's GDP is less than $2 billion. Nepal's economy is not big either. Besides, their economies are inextricably integrated with Indian economy. It is unlikely that a significant volume of cargo from Nepal or Bhutan would go through Bangladesh simply because they don't manufacture that much exportable goods. In the proposed transit plan, Indian trucks would be allowed to crisscross across the sovereign territory of Bangladesh; while Bangladeshi trucks would have to stop at Indian border. This is actually an asymmetric connectivity scheme primarily for the benefit of India. China, one of our most important trading partners, has been kept out of this regional connectivity scheme altogether.
There are a number of bilateral disputes between these two neighbours; like maritime delimitation, water sharing of common rivers, drug trafficking, border killing, Teen Bigha Corridor, trade gap, etc.
Currently, Bangladesh is in a hot dispute with India over maritime delimitation of Bay of Bengal. In 2009, India and Myanmar laid claims on roughly two-thirds (37,000 sq km) of Bay of Bengal. Until the dispute is resolved, which may take several years, Bangladesh would not be able to conduct any gas exploration in 28 blocks of Bay of Bengal. We are still far from reaching a fair and equitable agreement with India regarding sharing of water of common rivers. Every year, Indian BSF kills, maims or abducts hundreds of Bangalees in our border area. Teen Bigha Corridor, water sharing of common rivers and other issues still remain unsolved because of India's delaying tactics. It would be unrealistic to expect that most of these bilateral disputes will be solved during Manmohan Singh's visit.
Transit through Bangladesh, that India wants so desperately, is our most powerful and, perhaps, the last bargaining chip. Bangladesh should actually launch a major diplomatic drive for a comprehensive "package deal" with India. And in this hardball diplomatic bargaining game, transit may be used as the ace card.
One of the main objectives of the "package deal" should be to convince India to withdraw claim over Bay of Bengal and accept the "principle of equity." Water sharing of common rivers is essentially an ecological and environmental issue while transit is mostly an economic and strategic matter. Outright direct linking of these two issues may not be feasible; but complete de-linking is not an option either. Before we grant transit, a framework agreement about common rivers -- safeguarding our environmental and ecological requirements -- should be concluded with India. We should also insist on more river transit routes for India. This will encourage India to keep these rivers navigable year-round. India should be encouraged to accept the inclusion of China in the regional connectivity scheme. In return for transit, we may demand that Bangladeshi trucks and trains be allowed to travel to major Indian cities and ports.
We must now launch a bold diplomatic drive to use transit as the bargaining chip to solve the unsettled issues with India. We will, perhaps, never get such a unique opportunity again to establish our relationship with India based on fairness, equality and justice.
But, sadly, it looks like that a transit protocol is going to be signed anyway during Manmohan Singh's visit. A handful of our policy makers are furiously pushing forward the transit juggernaut so that a protocol could be signed in time. With the signing of the transit protocol, Manmohan Singh will certainly go down in history as the statesman who finally integrated NE-India with the rest of his country. The handful of our policymakers who are so thoughtlessly giving away the transit will also go down in history -- but on a par with Sikkim's Lhendup Dorjee.
The writer is an entomologist and occasional column writer.