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TAR brings benefits for Bangladesh

Dr Anand Kumar is Associate Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. Click here for detailed profile
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  • November 28, 2007

    After dilly-dallying for a long period Bangladesh finally signed the Trans-Asian Railway (TAR) network agreement on November 9, 2007 at the UN headquarters in New York. With this 20 of the 28 countries under the network have joined the agreement. India signed the agreement on June 29, 2007. The remaining eight countries have yet to sign citing "procedural" and "technical" reasons, rather than disagreement about the project. Bangladesh failed to sign the agreement earlier as the previous BNP-Jamaat alliance government was undecided on the issue. However, the country became part of TAR six month after the interim cabinet decided to join the cross border network.

    The TAR project, conceived by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP), would connect Bangladesh rail system to the proposed 81,000 km network stretching from Europe to East and South-East Asia including India. With Bangladesh eventually joining the network, attention has now focused on another project, the Asian Highway Network, which is of great significance to India. If Bangladesh signs the agreement it would go a long way in helping India to get transit rights. Dhaka’s reluctance to offer transit facility has been a sore point in Indo-Bangladesh bilateral relations.

    According to the UN, this is one of the three pillars of the Asian Land Transport Infrastructure Development (ALTID) project, endorsed by the UNESCAP Commission in 1992, along with the 141,000km Trans-Asian Highway and facilitation of regional land transport projects. TAR will immensely benefit Bangladesh. It will connect the country to its two leading trading partners – China and India. Its bilateral trade with India is about 2 billion USD. TAR will help in transportation of goods and people from Bangladesh and India. Bangladesh will also benefit as trans-shipment of goods at land border may not be required. It will save cost and make goods cheaper in Bangladesh. A large number of Bangladeshis travel from that country to India for various reasons. A suitable train communication will further increase people to people contact.

    TAR will also be useful in case some significant investment takes place from India in Bangladesh. Several proposals including that of Tatas are in the process of negotiations with the Bangladesh government. In case these proposals fructify, TAR will help in transportation of minerals and finished goods between the two countries. Transportation of goods through railway is safer, quicker and pollution free. This mode of transport is preferable given the inadequate port facilities in South Asia and unsafe sea-lanes. The region as a whole will also greatly benefit from the growing Asian trade. Countries like Bangladesh will further benefit as a transit point between China and India - two fastest growing economies of the world.

    TAR will help Indian industries by making Indian products more competitive. But India would have a small advantage in comparison to Bangladesh. Bangladesh has agreed to TAR because it does not give transit facility to India. The Rail network enters Bangladesh from three directions from the Indian state of West Bengal and exits through a single gateway in the east at Gundhum, Myanmar. The routes go through industrial centres in the north and south-west of the country, run through the capital's outskirts of Joydevpur and into Chittagong. It is obvious from the routes that despite having three entry points in West Bengal, the only available exit point is in Myanmar.

    Bangladesh has not approved a similar Asian Highway Network (AHN) Agreement out of long-held concerns that the super-highway would act as an Indian transit corridor since both entry and exit points fall in this country. Bangladesh is hoping for an alternative AHN route, which would follow similar India-Bangladesh-Myanmar entry and exit point plan. For this reason, the earlier BNP-led coalition government passed up the opportunity to join the AHN within the deadline of December 2005. But the expectation of Bangladesh to have an alternate route through Myanmar has little chance of fulfillment. Myanmar is reportedly wary of allowing AHN to pass through its Muslim-populated territory in Arakans region where its own administration is weak.

    Bangladesh’s apprehension over signing the AHN agreement, fearing it would be reduced to an Indian corridor, is misplaced. By merely signing the TAR or AHN agreement, Bangladesh will not be forced to grant its transit facility to other countries. All member countries in the network will have to first enter into bilateral agreements for using the network, both for passengers and goods.

    In any case the main purpose of these agreements is to boost regional cooperation and trade. Given the advantages, several Bangladeshi experts feel that Dhaka’s rigid position should not come in the way of this cooperation. Dr Rahmatullah, former director responsible for AHN at UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), feels that the Bangladeshi effort to avoid India is “illogical” as that country geographically surrounds Bangladesh. According to him the economic gains from the present AH route, even with both entry and exit points in India, are overwhelming. He strongly feels that the proposal of Bangladesh to go for the non-existent alternative Myanmar route is an "illogical proposition." Instead, he is of the view that Bangladesh should aggressively pursue the Kunming Initiative to connect Dhaka with the Chinese city of Kunming through Myanmar.

    It was hoped that the end of the Cold War will bring to completion projects like TAR and AHN. Unfortunately, this failed to materialise as Asian countries remained embroiled in their conflicts and tensions. Just to spite India, the BNP-led coalition government disregarded the opportunity to join AHN. The decision of the caretaker government led by Fakharuddin Ahmed to sign the TAR agreement may prove useful if it is supplemented by a similar approach towards the Asian Highway Network. The caretaker government of Bangladesh has been generally friendly towards India, while the earlier governments blamed India for its ‘big brotherly’ attitude. Most of the decisions of the caretaker government are those which are domestically free from controversy. Moreover, these decisions are likely to benefit Bangladesh more than India as is the case with TAR. India would be happy to facilitate TAR and make Bangladesh enjoy innumerable benefits. At the same time India would like its eastern neighbour to sign the Asian Highway agreement so that the maximum benefits of these networks can be utilized.