By Ashis Biswas
By end 2023, rail journey time for passengers between Kolkata and the three Barak valley districts of Assam via Dhaka, Bangladesh may be reduced to 15/16 hours only, if things run according to plan. A Kolkata-Agartala journey would take only around 10 hours, according to Railway authorities.
People in Assam, Meghalaya and Bangladesh naturally see the proposed rescheduling of mass traffic movements as a big leap forward in improving connectivity and catalysing potential regional economic development. Officials, opinion-makers and the Barak valley mainstream media have welcomed recent game-changing improvements in overall regional Railway connectivity. Railway authorities say that following prolonged bilateral discussions, old rail linkages which initially dwindled and finally dried up between east Pakistan and India after 1965, were revived wherever possible.
But preliminary preparatory work, the bulk of which was conducted by Indian railway authorities, also called for making certain local changes. Much time was taken to work out new alignments, linkages and charting/strengthening old/new routes. The construction/completion of new lines, facilities, depots and taking care of other operational details involved non-stop work carried out during the last five years.
For more than seven decades since 1947, people living in NE states have been resigned to travelling over 1500 kilometres in 36 hours, via the narrow Siliguri connector while accessing the Indian mainland through Bihar and West Bengal. More often than not, their journey took much longer depending on the seasons and the unpredictably volatile political situation in some of the states/areas lying along the long route. Major service disruptions through frequent floods or bandhs called by extremist organisations occurred with annual regularity.
Even more than the harassment for passengers, the loss in terms of time and money for traders and businessmen in the NE states because of such disruptions has also contributed to the relative economic backwardness of the region. Outstation investors were generally disinclined to move to the NE states. Most of NE-based businessmen on the other hand depended on the much larger mainland Indian market to sell their goods and products, but they too were hit hard because of such poor communication. Organisations connected closely with local economic projects and the overall economic development of the NE region such as DONER, have also welcomed the steady upgradation in rail/road connectivity between India and Bangladesh.
Despite some marginal/unregulated informal border trade, their nearest neighbouring hinterland/markets in Bangladesh were hardly accessible because of political reasons.
However, thanks to the implementation of various road/rail connectivity projects and the opening up of regional trade among South Asian countries in recent years, aided and encouraged by international organisations like the International Monetary Fund, the Asian development Bank and the World Bank, matters have changed of late.
For understandable reasons of cultural/linguistic similarities, the majority of people in Tripura and the three Bengali-speaking Barak valley districts in Assam have been keener to establish closer contact with West Bengal and Bangladesh. Many of them came over to NE states, West Bengal and other states of India as refugees escaping from East Pakistan. However, some have left relatives behind in Bangladesh. The present population of Tripura is around 4.1 million people and of the Barak Valley, around 4.3 million.
For such people the halt in Dhaka would be welcome in renewing old ties and on a commercial level to establish new economic contacts. India and Bangladesh authorities have agreed to set up one immigration checkpost at Nischintpur to ensure hassle-free movement.
The construction of a major new bridge on the river Feni, a project bilaterally expedited thanks to a special interest taken by Bangladesh Prime Minister Mrs H. Wazed, would also help in improving present linkages between Bangladesh and Tripura. Over time, a new industrial-economic corridor between Tripura and Comilla/other nearby districts in Bangladesh has been proposed by local chambers of commerce and commercial lobbies on both sides of the border.
Now that the massive new Padma rail-cum-road bridge has been completed in Bangladesh, there is a proposal in Bangladesh to (a) increase rail movement between Dhaka and Kolkata by reducing present travel time of around 8 hours to 4 hours only, using new linkages. The idea has been enthusiastically received in West Bengal, too. The two countries have also agreed in principle to increase the frequency of trains running between Kolkata and Khulna stations. (IPA Service)