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Cross-border railway connectivity drawing India and Bangladesh closer-Part-II

03:35 PM Apr 05, 2024 IST | Dr Rupak Bhattacharjee
UpdateAt: 03:36 PM Apr 05, 2024 IST
cross border railway connectivity drawing india and bangladesh closer part ii
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The Changrabandha-Burimari railway link had also been used for transportation of goods during the British period. But it was closed in 1971. As a result, goods are now being transported between India and Bangladesh through the Changrabandha Land Custom Station (LCS) in Cooch Behar district of West Bengal and Burimari land port in Lalmonirhat district of Bangladesh.

The restoration of the 650 metre cross-border link, which connects Changrabandha with the Burimari-Makhliganj railway line in Bangladesh, has the potential to expand sub-regional trade and commerce among Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal (BBIN). The land port traders are of the opinion that the resumption of the cross-border rail link will also significantly increase trade and commerce between India and Bangladesh as well as the revenue of the government.

India and Bangladesh have agreed to restore this rail link. The importance of re-establishing the Changrabandha-Burimari rail route has been recognised by both the sides in the Joint Statement issued during the visit of Prime Minister Hasina to India in September 2022. Reports say the IR considers that the rail link can be connected in both directions. They include the conversion of metre-gauge to dual-gauge from Parvatipur to Burimari via Kaunia and Lalmonirhat in northern Bangladesh or the conversion of metre-gauge from Santahar in Bogra to Lalmonirhat to Burimari to dual-gauge.

 The IR has accepted the proposal of construction of new broad-gauge railway line from Changrabandha to Burimari to facilitate the transportation of goods between India, Bangladesh and Bhutan boosting sub-regional connectivity.  As per reports, the Bangladesh government’s Ministry of Railways has sent a proposal to extend the 45 km dual-gauge railway line from Changrabandha to Hatibandha in Lalmonirhat district. Bangladesh’s Ministry of Railways has planned to expand this railway line in phases to reduce the transportation cost of goods benefiting the people and traders while increasing its revenue.

With an upcoming ICP at Chngrabandha accompanied by two functional railway stations on both sides of the international border, the restoration of this rail route will considerably increase the India-Bangladesh trade. It can also be used as transit point for Bhutan’s trade with Bangladesh. A December 2022 CUTS International report titled “Restoring the Changrabandha-Burimari railway link can boost cross-border trade” has noted that from the connectivity standpoint, Changrabandha lying along the India-Bangladesh border is strategically important.

It is around 60 km from Siliguri, the commercial hub in North Bengal, and about 100 km from Kakarvitta-Panitanki cross-border point between India and Nepal and Phuentsholing-Jaygaon at the India-Bhutan border. Therefore, Changrabandha could emerge as a key junction for trade and transit for the BBIN nations.

The 12 km Gitaldah-Mogalhat rail route was used for transportation of goods between the then East Bengal and West Bengal and Assam during the British rule. Reports say in 1884, the Cooch Behar State Railway, ran by the Cooch Behar Royals, established a narrow-gauge railway line from capital Cooch Behar to Gitaldah.

Subsequently, in 1910, the railway track from Gitaldah to Mogalhat was up graded to metre-gauge and people could travel till Parvatipur in Bangladesh and further to Sealdah in Kolkata through this route. The cross-border rail link remained operational even after the independence of Bangladesh in1971. Freight trains occasionally ran through the Mogalhat-Gitaldah route, crossing the bridge over the Mansai river till 1982.

According to reports, immigration check posts were functional both at Gitaldah in India and Mogalhat in Lalmonirhat district of Bangladesh and passengers from the two neighbouring countries used to travel through this cross-border rail route. However, the Mansai bridge was completely damaged in the devastating floods of 1998 leading to the closure of this rail link. The Lalmonirhat-Mogalhat railway line in Bangladesh was also closed due to increased by-road communication facilities.

Since then, this rail link has been abandoned. The people on both sides of the international border have long been demanding the reopening of this railway line and land port. Recently, a delegation from Nepal visited the site to check the potential of the land port, including the railway. The officials of both IR and BR have also visited the spot several times to explore the possibilities of reviving this rail route.

The restoration of the Gitaldah-Mogalhat rail link will facilitate transportation of goods from large parts of Bhutan and Assam and North Bengal. The IR said the passenger service will also be possible later. The governments of India and Bangladesh have agreed to develop this cross-border rail route to expand trade, tourism and people-to-people ties between the two countries.

Former External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj told the Lok Sabha that the bridge on the Mansai river needs to be constructed on the Indian side. In Bangladesh, the metre-gauge on the Mogalhat-Lalmomnirhat-Kaunia section has to be up graded to dual-gauge track. India and Bangladesh have also initiated the process of establishing a rail route between Hilli and Birampur and reviving the Belonia-Feni link.

A major part of the India-Bangladesh trade is carried out through the cross-border railway links. At the September 2023 Inter-Governmental Railway Meeting, the two sides agreed to extend the time of operating cross-border freight trains. Instead of dawn to dusk, cargo trains between the two neighbouring countries would be operated 24 hours a day. India requested Bangladesh to provide transit to the IR trains using the BR’s network. The IR intends to use two cross-border links of Darshana-Gede and Chilahati-Halsdibari as transit routes. India has also requested to start a trial run on these routes.

The improvement of railway connectivity has played a pivotal role in enhancing bilateral trade as transportation of goods through railway is cheaper and faster. The two cross-border rail links, namely, Rohanpur-Singhabad and Birol-Radhikapur are being used exclusively for transportation of goods between India and Bangladesh. Both the rail routes have also been contributing a lot in expanding sub-regional trade with India through the IR network under a transit facility arrangement.

 As per reports, the number of loaded freight trains interchanged between India and Bangladesh increased from 811 in  the 2018-19 fiscal year (FY) to 1, 631 in the 2020-21 FY with a total volume of carried goods going up to 36.94 lakh tons from 19.85 lakh tons. According to the data of the Indian High Commission in Dhaka, with greater freight movement, the BR earned nearly Tk 1.77 billion in the 2021 FY, which was Tk 960 million in the 2018-19 FY and Tk 769 million in the 2019-20 FY. A World Bank report has noted that seamless transport connectivity between India and Bangladesh has the potential to raise national income by 8% in India and 17% in Bangladesh.

Dr Rupak Bhattacharjee is an Assam-based independent public and foreign policy analyst. He can be reached at bhattacharjeerupak2016@gmail.com

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