Northeast growth hopes in Bangladesh poll outcome

The re-election of Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her ruling party, the Awami League, for the fourth consecutive term is good news for India, particularly for its landlocked northeast region.
Northeast growth hopes in Bangladesh poll outcome

The re-election of Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her ruling party, the Awami League, for the fourth consecutive term is good news for India, particularly for its landlocked northeast region. Bilateral relations deepened between India and Bangladesh over the past 15 years after Hasina came to power in 2009 and won successive polls since then. Her party won three-quarters of seats in this parliamentary poll amidst a boycott call by the opposition. For India, Sheikh Hasina retaining power means the continuation of strategic bilateral agreements and exploring new areas of cooperation. Bangladesh allowing its waterways for seamless movement of Indian vessels between National Waterway (NW)-2 of the Brahmaputra River and NW1 helped India initiate ambitious river cruise tourism projects along the Brahmaputra River. It also bolstered India’s efforts to unlock the cargo transport potential of NW 1 to cut down on the transportation costs of goods supplied to the northeast region from the rest of India. The Ministry of Ports, Shipping, and Waterways (MoPSW) has set ambitious targets of increasing the modal share of Inland Water Transport (IWT) from 2% to 5% by 2030 and increasing the existing IW cargo volume from 120 Million Tonnes Per Annum (MTPA) to 500 MTPA by 2047. For the Northeast region to derive optimal benefits from these strategic goals, continuous and smooth movement of cargo vessels between NW 1 and NW 2 via the Indo-Bangladesh Protocol (IBP) Route is of paramount importance. The first meeting of the Inland Waterways Development Council held in Kolkata on Monday committed an investment of Rs 45,000 crore for the development of river cruise tourism in the country. Of this amount, an estimated Rs 35,000 crore has been earmarked for cruise vessels and Rs 10,000 crore for the development of cruise terminal infrastructure by 2047. The successful operation of the world’s longest river cruise from Varanasi to Dibrugarh demonstrated the commercial potential of the Brahmputra waterways for river tourism. The IBP route in Bangladesh formed a crucial part of the 3,200-km-long route of MV Ganga Vilas, which set sail for the 51-day-long cruise last year across 27 river systems in the two neighbouring countries, providing its passengers with the unique experience of visiting 50 multinational tourist spots. Maritime cooperation between India and Bangladesh under Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bangladeshi counterpart Sheikh Hasina deepened further, which led to Bangladesh offering its seaports for transit and transhipment of Indian cargo for its northeast region through Chittagong and Mongla ports. The National Revenue Board of Bangladesh issuing the Permanent Transit Order in April last year paved the way for the operationalization of the sea ports for use by India as a strategic supply route for the northeast region. Use of Bangladesh inland waterways and sea ports opens up opportunities for India to reduce dependence on narrow land routes via the Chicken Neck corridor through Siliguri for supplies of essentials to the northeast region. The inauguration of the Agartala-Akhaura rail link between two neighbouring countries drastically reduced the distance between Agartala and Kolkata from 1600 km (via Siliguri) to 500 km, triggering new hopes for the landlocked region. Ruling Awami League retaining power will facilitate taking these transborder connectivity initiatives to the next level of fully unlocking domestic and export trade potential for products in the northeast region. It has ended worries about uncertainty in policy continuation due to any likely regime change. However, political stability in Bangladesh will be critical for the sustainability of the safe transit and transhipment of Indian cargo through its territory. Bangladesh’s main opposition party, the Bangladesh National Party, and its allies called for a poll boycott as they wanted the incumbent Hasina government to quit and pave the way for holding elections under a caretaker government, which the ruling party rejected. A widespread outbreak of violence during the run-up to the polls and low turnout due to the poll boycott signalled turbulent days ahead for the Hasina government. Pressure will be mounting on Dhaka to ensure heightened security for the safety of Indian goods and passengers from any act of sabotage by vested forces. Deepening interdependence among people in both countries for trade, commerce, and tourism will fuel the engines of economic growth, which will help isolate the disrupting elements. Sheikh Hasina hailed India as a “trusted friend” and expressed gratitude to India for supporting Bangladesh in critical moments of history, and Prime Minister Modi reiterated India’s commitment to “further strengthen our enduring and people-centric partnership with Bangladesh.” This signalled stronger bilateral ties and cooperation between the two neighbours in the coming years, which brings new hopes for the northeastern region. Much will depend on the ability of the state governments and people in the region to realise the importance of such a deepening bilateral relationship and leverage it to fully unlock the economic growth potential of the region. The Bangladesh poll outcome has bolstered the opportunities for India’s northeastern region to end its geographic isolation through transboundary cooperation between India and Bangladesh.

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