Connectivity and Bangladesh: Asserting a Holistic Approach
Shining Editorial || shiningbd
“Political boundaries shouldn’t become physical barriers to trade.”
– Sheikh Hasina, Prime Minister of Bangladesh
Geographically, Bangladesh’s location makes it a strategic gateway to India, Nepal, Bhutan, and other East and Southeast Asian countries. To specify, the geopolitical locations of Bangladesh can be a corridor of regional connectivity dotting both South and Southeast Asia in the time, especially when the economic boom in the region is skyscraping.
Bangladesh can also become an economic powerhouse by improving regional trade, transit and logistics networks. A recent study of the World Bank observes that seamless transport connectivity between India and Bangladesh and the evolving connectivity regimes can be a catalyst for enhanced regional cooperation. It also has revealed that it can increase national income by as much as 17% in Bangladesh and 8% in India.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, in recent years, has given special impetus to accelerating enhanced regional connectivity from a holistic approach. In her deliberations on the occasion of the celebration of the birth centenary of Father of the Nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the golden jubilee of our independence, she has specifically focused on the need for connectivity and urged the regional leaders to work on it and has also instructed expeditious measures to concerned authorities.
Thus, Bangladesh has become a major advocate of accelerating connectivity at all levels. Understanding of Sheikh Hasina’s thoughts and vision is critical in this regard.
Sheikh Hasina and the idea of connectivity
Sheikh Hasina is the pioneer of connectivity in South Asia both at bilateral and regional levels. Since her coming to power in December 2008, Sheikh Hasina has been emphasizing connectivity for mutual cooperation and development.
The idea of connectivity in the region has got momentum with the repeated emphasis at the highest policy level of Bangladesh – Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. This has expedited and geared in realizing land, water, air and digital connectivity in the region.
To her, enhanced trade and investment in this region driven by connectivity will facilitate income and employment generation. Seamless multi-modal connectivity is a precondition for trade and investment promotion and people to people contact. Moreover, Sheikh Hasina views that regional connectivity is one of the most important means of trade and for all countries in the SAARC, BIMSTEC and BCIM to be connected by road, air and waterways.
Her thoughts have essentially signified the ways of connecting Eastern and Western regions, in other words, have denoted the idea of ‘dual circulation’ connecting both South and Southeast Asia. The Bangladesh Prime Minister has stressed not only physical connectivity but also talked about ‘digital connectivity’ considering the very nature of growing cyber communication in the age of digitalization. The four broad routes of connectivity at bilateral and multilateral levels can be identified in a larger vision of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
Bangladesh and India: Bilateral process
Bangladesh and India are looking forward to stronger connectivity largely due to vision and courage of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Bangladesh Prime Minister implemented real initiatives 2 of connectivity in a hostile environment in the early 2010s when people were more sceptical and resistant to this idea.
Bangladesh has come forward to create a new avenue of cooperation with India through creating and reviving roads and railways networks. India has always been enthusiastic about bilateral connectivity due to geopolitical and geo-economy realities given the location of Northeast India.
Indian External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar states, “Connectivity is productivity. If we can get connectivity right between India and Bangladesh, I can tell you the entire geo-economy of the region will change. The Bay of Bengal will look very different”.
Welcoming the recent initiatives, including the signing of the second addendum to the Protocol on Inland Water Transit and Trade (PIWTT), trial run of trans-shipment of Indian goods from Kolkata to Agartala via Chattogram and operationalization of Sonamura-Daudkandi Protocol route under the PIWTT, Sheikh Hasina conveyed her interest in joining the under-construction IndiaMyanmar-Thailand highway.
Bangladesh Prime Minister also emphasizes trade connectivity as she underscores the need for removal of non-tariff barriers for economic cooperation and stressed the urgent need for upgradation of infrastructure and facilities of the Land Customs Stations (LCSs) / Land Ports to facilitate trade between the two countries and emphasized expeditious conclusion of the ongoing joint study on the prospects of entering into a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA).
Furthermore, Sheikh Hasina has supported initiatives to strengthen connectivity and economic integration in the region, particularly for the Northeast of India and offered the use of Chattogram and Sylhet International Airport, by the people of Northeast India, especially of Tripura. Bangladesh-India connectivity is also a stepping stone for sub-regional connectivity. Bangladesh also sought rail connectivity with Bhutan through the newly inaugurated ChilahatiHaldibari route between Bangladesh and India.
The BBIN connectivity
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina wants to transform Bangladesh into a gateway or multimodal connectivity hub for the whole of South and Southeast Asia. Therefore, various initiatives are underway to open and facilitate Bangladesh’s cross-border transport link with its close neighbours, where BBIN is central in this regard.
To facilitate better connectivity and simplify the movement of passengers and goods PM Sheikh Hasina has emphasized early operationalization of the Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal (BBIN) Motor Vehicles Agreement.
In response to Nepal’s interest in using Bangladesh’s three seaports as well as its waterways, rail network and airspace to facilitate foreign trade, a Letter of Exchange (LOE) has been signed between two countries to include the Rohanpur-Singhabad rail link point as an adjunct to the protocol of the NepalBangladesh transit agreement of 1997. Sheikh Hasina has also welcomed Nepalese interest in establishing a direct air link between Syedpur Airport and Biratgarh or Bhadrapur.
It is worth to mention here that the work on a preferential trade agreement (PTA) between Nepal and Bangladesh is currently in its final stage with the auspices of Hasina’s eagerness. Sheikh Hasina gladly mentioned that the process of including Rohanpur as a port of call for promoting bilateral trade through railway transit is moving ahead.
As Nepal and Bangladesh are rich countries in terms of natural and human resources, history, civilization, culture, proper utilization of these valuable resources and cooperation through connectivity would be catalytic in transforming the development landscape, creating prosperity.
Bangladesh and Bhutan have agreed to enhance connectivity. Bangladesh has proposed to explore a possible railway network between 3 the two countries through recently launched India’s Chilahati-Haldibari railway connection.
Both countries have also agreed to examine the possibility of establishing cargo flight communication connecting Bhutanese town Gelephu and Bangladesh’s Lalmonirhat and Saidpur and to cooperate in the area of hydroelectric power among Bangladesh Bhutan and India. It is worth mentioning that Bangladesh and Bhutan signed Preferential Trade Agreement (PTA). Sheikh Hasina has proposed to activate the river routes to expand business between the two countries, and Tshering also has agreed to it.
Proposed BIMT connectivity
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has stipulated the same idea of ‘dual circulation’ connectivity with both eastern regions of Southeast Asia. Considering its strategic interests, Bangladesh wants to join a road belt with India, Myanmar and Thailand to broaden the bilateral relations and explore regional connectivity in an effective way.
Sheikh Hasina has expressed keen interest in the ongoing India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway project and sought the support of India for Bangladesh to connect with this project to enhance connectivity between the regions of South and Southeast Asia in a joint statement issued after the Hasina-Modi virtual summit in December 2020.
Sheikh Hasina planned to materialize can be termed as BIMT (Bangladesh-India-Myanmar-Thailand) connectivity engaging India, Myanmar and Thailand. As the geopolitical and geo-economic prospects are shining in the region and Bangladesh and India are embarking on ‘Look East’ and ‘Act East’ policy respectively, the confluence of interests and possibility of enhanced connectivity can be a determining factor to reach the regional cooperation in the new height. Furthermore, the evolving geopolitical contention regarding Myanmar and the pressing Rohingya crisis can be addressed through increased communication and shared interests by connecting the region onto the economic perimeter.
Inclusive regional multimodal connectivity
Recognizing the significance of intensified regional connectivity for cooperation beginning from land to air and waterways to digital spaces, Sheikh Hasina is looking forward to multimodal connectivity going beyond the traditional state boundaries.
To materialize greater regional cooperation in South Asia, Bangladesh has sought greater access to Indian territory to be linked with the Maldives and Sri Lanka. Sheikh Hasina has underscored the need to have robust maritime and air connectivity between Bangladesh and Maldives.
The two countries have decided to establish a direct commercial shipping link between Malé and the three sea ports of Bangladesh and instructed their respective officials to work out a shipping agreement at the earliest. Hasina has also expressed Bangladesh’s interest to enter into a preferential trade agreement (PTA) with the Maldives within the purview of the WTO provisions. The Maldives side welcomed the proposal and agreed to give positive consideration to the text of the draft PTA shared by Bangladesh.
Sheikh Hasina has put emphasis on the need for exchanging experiences and assistances between the two friendly countries in collecting fisheries in the deep sea and expressed the prospect that sea cruise with the Maldives can be introduced in winter. Highlighting the importance of enhanced connectivity through air and waterways to promote people-to-people contact, tourism, trade, investments in power and energy sectors, PM Sheikh Hasina has called upon Sri Lanka to invest more special economic zones and industrial and hightech parks and in agricultural sectors.
Sri Lanka has agreed to sign the Coastal Shipping Agreement and Standard Operating Procedure on the feeder services between Chattogram and Colombo. Both 4 sides agreed to have Bangladeshi carriers launch flights to Colombo.
Hasina has also called for cooperation in maritime affairs and blue economy between the two countries to explore new areas and innovative means to tap opportunities in developing the Bay of Bengal into a region of peace, growth and prosperity.
Finally, insights and remarks of Sheikh Hasina clearly demonstrate a powerful vision of connectivity covering areas ranging from physical to digital and land to air. It can have a revolutionary impact on Bangladesh as well as South Asia and surrounding regions. It will not only facilitate the emergence of Bangladesh as a growth and investment hub with expedited productivity and regional supply chain but also enhance people to people contacts and virtual community.
More significantly, it will undoubtedly have a positive impact on geopolitical issues to transform the region from rivalry and hostility to cooperation and accommodation. It is extremely emphasized that connectivity must be a multipronged initiative – a combination of bilateral, sub-regional, regional, continental and global levels. It cannot be confined to bilateral mechanism.