By Ashis Biswas
Improved railway connectivity between India and Bangladesh should raise levels of bilateral passenger and cargo traffic significantly, and catalyse major economic growth in the years ahead. While both countries have revived operations on some of the old BG/MG (Broad gauge and Metre gauge) lines that were functional in undivided Bengal before 1947, economists feel that much more needs to be done to strengthen/upgrade the existing network in Bangladesh.
What has hampered the growth of rail connectivity between the two countries I, according to some experts, is a crippling lack of locomotives and some essential rolling stock equipment, in Bangladesh. Partly, some of the present shortages in critical operating areas is a legacy of the old colonial policies pursued by successive West Pakistan governments. Erstwhile Pakistani rulers effectively killed any possibility of economic development through bilateral rail linkages in their Eastern province by stopping movement totally to West Bengal.
It was not until the mid 1980s that economically struggling Bangladesh could think of reviving a near moribund railway system, in a desperate bid to improve the then levels/modes of domestic mass transit movements. Pressure on the road transport system was enormous, the number of public vehicles being always too low for a large growing population.
While rail services by and large have recovered partially in recent years in Bangladesh, by Indian standards they still have a long way to go. According to latest information, currently around 400 trains run daily in Bangladesh, where MG tracks still serve many areas to its East. Millions of people use them, although the level of overcrowding remains incredibly high during the festive seasons. However, there is an ongoing project to convert such tracks into the BG mode as early as possible.
A few days ago, India supplied 20 engines to Bangladesh rail authorities as a grant, to help the country meet its critical shortage of locomotives. Fewer functioning locos has contributed to operational problems, a reduction in efficiency and delays. Incidentally, India had also supplied 10 locomotives a couple of years ago.
Unfortunately, the gesture was not particularly appreciated by the recipient country. There were complaints that the engines were well past their prime and did not run very well.
The issue was reported in some detail by the section of Bangladeshi media not known for any sympathy towards India, not to mention the hostile reactions of opposition BNP leaders.
To avoid the recurrence of any such embarrassment this time, a Bangladeshi team visited India to see for itself the various types of locomotives currently being used locally. After checking some 34 locos on show, it picked 20. These were duly sent to Bangladesh and handed over at a special ceremony at Darshana, as agreed, according to a recent report.
Currently, three services run regularly linking both countries—the Maîtree express linking Kolkata and Dhaka, the Bandhan express connecting Kolkata with Khulna and the new Mitali Express that runs from Dhaka to New Jalpaiguri, a distance of 513 kilometres, in 9 hours. The Mitali Express would enable Bangladeshis to access North Bengal, the Northeastern states as well as helping them on their way to Nepal, Bhutan or Sikkim.
According to Bangladesh railway authorities, most trains running to and from Kolkata are usually 90% full. In comparison, there has been slower growth in the bulk movement of goods. From India, consignments of grains, stone chips and ballast are being sent to Bangladesh. One company has started dispatching FMCG items from India by containers and traffic seems to be picking up, according to local Eastern Railway sources. On the other hand, Bangladesh has sent loads of de-oiled soya cakes to India by rail.
While comprehensive statistics are not available, one report quoted authorities as reporting that in October last year, around 1.2 million tonnes of cargo were transported between Bangladesh and India by rail. With increased movements expected in the future, this is an indication that despatchers have begun to prefer using the railways, reducing their normal dependence on the services of the Nava Sheva port or the facilities of the Petrapole-Benapole land customs station (LCS)
Following prolonged negotiations and preparations by GOI and GOB authorities, five major border trade areas have also been served with connecting railway links to nearest functional lines/tracks. These are, the Petrapole-Benapole LCS, the Gede-Darshana Integrated Check Post (ICP), the Singhabad-Rohanpur ICP, the Radhikapur-Birol ICP and the Haldibari-Chilahati ICP.
The distance between Sealdah station and Siliguri town by rail is around 575 kilometres. It has been proposed that the journey, which takes several hours at present, be completed by trains moving through Bangladesh territory using the Haldibari-Chilahati linkage, which would reduce the distance by around 200 Kilometres and should speed up movement both ways.
Analysts have also referred to the kind of economic development that was bound to follow in the wake of improved bilateral railway connectivity. There would be major development/expansion of certain stations, resulting in the construction of warehouses, depots, shops and malls, restaurants, pharmacies, banks, hotels, banks and transport hubs, among other things. Both countries would experience not only a steady economic growth, but people on both sides of the border could look forward to better job opportunities and prospects. (IPA Service)