Chittagong has immense potential for becoming a regional economic hub, but delays in building a deep seaport may mar the chances of that happening with Myanmar fast coming up as a challenge in light of its opening up to the outside world.
Business and trade experts shared the concern at the economic conference, "Future Chittagong: Future Bangladesh", organised by The Daily Star and the Chittagong Chamber of Commerce and Industry (CCCI) at the Chamber House of the port city yesterday.
The conference was part of the Odommo Chattagram festival, an initiative of The Daily Star to project the history, culture and economic prospects of Chittagong.
Participants in the discussion said Chittagong, which lies between China, Myanmar and Northeast India, could become a regional economic zone and contribute to the overall development of Bangladesh.
So, a regional economic zone should be centred in the port city to take advantage of its geographical position in South and Southeast Asia, said Salahuddin Kasem Khan, trustee secretary of AK Khan Foundation.
Citing the example of China's success through establishing a Special Economic Zone (SEZ), he said India had followed the model and was now building an SEZ in Mumbai port with a view to making the zone a vehicle for the transformation of the regional economy.
"This could also be our model as the SEZ has been identified as an engine of growth," he said, adding that the Indian authorities were building the zone under public private partnership (PPP).
According to Khan, the SEZ could be built on the banks of the Karnaphuli River and extended to Cox's Bazar and thereon to the proposed deep seaport at Sonadia.
"It would be much beneficial for us," he said, suggesting that a tunnel be built under the Karnaphuli.
In 1995, Japan International Cooperation Agency (Jica) identified Chittagong as an area with great potential for an economic zone and its prospects of emerging as a major regional economic hub serving China, Myanmar and north-east India.
Citing Japanese investors' attempt to relocate factories from Thailand and China, he said a Japanese SEZ should be permitted to be set up in Chittagong.
"Japan can be a real development partner for Bangladesh in terms of factory relocation," he said, suggesting that measures be taken to develop the coastal belt.
Prof Muinul Islam of the economics department at Chittagong University said Chittagong and the coastal belt were a golden goose for Bangladesh.
Citing China's interest in helping Bangladesh build the deep seaport, he said India did not take this positively due to geo-political reasons. "We have to handle the two countries carefully," he added.
"Chittagong can serve the whole region -- South China, Myanmar, northeast India, Nepal and Bhutan. But an infrastructure and a deep seaport are needed to be built for this," said Prof MA Taslim, chairman of the Department of Economics at Dhaka University.
"There is no city in the region having the kind of potential Chittagong has. If we miss the chance Myanmar will snatch it," said Prof Taslim, noting that after the election in Myanmar, foreign investors were keen on investing in that country.
"If we can start building the deep seaport now, we can take the advantage," he said.
Prof Taslim said Bangladesh needed big markets for its growth and that is why trade was a priority. Establishment of connectivity was necessary so that goods and services could move and thus boost trade.
"Connectivity creates the opportunity for trade and free movement of goods and services," he said, adding that a lack of understanding on connectivity had created confusion over transit and connectivity.
As per international norms, Bangladesh was not required to give transit to India for carrying goods between its mainland and its northeastern states, Prof Taslim continued, but for a country such as Bhutan, it was obligatory to give the country access to the sea.
"If Bangladesh fails to build the deep seaport within five to 10 years, Myanmar is likely to take the geographical advantage," said M Shahidul Islam, visiting research fellow of the Institute of Governance Studies at Brac University.
Referring to a study, he said global growth would take place somewhere between India and China in the next 30 years and Chittagong also has the potential.
Syed Mahmudul Huq, chairman of Bangladesh-Myanmar Business Promotion Council, said the port city used to be known as the big port in 14th century China.
The deep seaport would not be viable only through facilitating overseas trade of the northeast India.
"We need China and Myanmar," he said, adding that the SEZ would have to be built centering on the deep seaport. Huq favoured improvement in bilateral ties with Myanmar.
Former commerce minister Amir Khasru Mahmud Chowdhury said before any plan was framed, priority should be given to land utilisation as land has become scarce in the country.
On the SEZ, he said studies should be conducted on whether the SEZ would be beneficial if it were set up under the PPP or solely by the government.
The BNP leader also criticised the Dhaka-centric development in industrialisation and economic growth. Prospects of each district should be considered in economic planning.
On Myanmar, he said a holistic approach was needed to build stronger ties with the neighbouring country.