While in most other regional groupings, whether European, Southern African or Southeast Asian models, motor vehicles of one member country can trundle across borders freely carrying goods, peoples and services, this was not so in the case of the SAARC countries. The first concrete and, for the region, revolutionary breakthrough occurred when the BBIN sub-regional grouping, in early 2015, decided to sign onto the BBIN-MVA.
This seminally important document symbolises the beginning of the revival of historic connectivity corridors that had existed prior to 1947, albeit only partially. The BBIN MVA has been ratified by Bangladesh, India and Nepal and is pending final ratification by the Upper House of Bhutan’s Parliament before it becomes fully operational.
In the meantime, container trucks have made the trial run from Chittagong to Delhi carrying consignment of goods for the Indian market. The existing relations of bonhomie between Bangladesh and India, if extended to embrace Myanmar in trilateral cooperation would induce the completion of much remaining work on Asian Highway-2 linking NE India with Myanmar, and the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project that would reconnect Mizoram (Mobu) with Moreh (Myanmar).
The four BBIN countries have also commenced discussions on similar BBIN Rail Connectivity Agreement based on SAARC Regional Rail Agreement template, with the aim of reviving and activating rail routes that had existed and connected Bangladesh and India, and to some extent Nepal, until severed following the 1965 India-Pakistan war. Of eight rail links that had existed between Bangladesh and India but had been severed, three are in operation once again, and work is in progress for upgradation, unification of gauges and restoration of services on others.
The best, most efficient and most optimum way forward in restoring connectivity is to adopt an organic approach. The BBIN sub-region (more or less corresponding to the pre-Partition Bengal Presidency of British India) should consider reviving the connectivity in this sub-region which conforms best to the geo-morphology of the terrain. Road, rail and riverine connectivity are best understood if analogously compared with the human body’s superbly efficient circulatory system. The arteries, veins and capillaries have their own respective clearly defined function. The British colonial rulers had fully understood this. In the larger alluvial plains and region that is dominated by the waters of its innumerable mighty eastern Himalayan rivers, and where even the hills are essentially soft alluvial foothills of the higher Himalayan range, trying to build highways conforming to international transportation standards and maintaining them round-the-year posed a gigantic challenge. The monsoonal climate and geomorphology of terrain militated against these roads. Understanding these challenges, the British put in place a superb organic system of communications, synergising the advantages offered by the rivers as primary arterial waterways, and connecting with the railways that formed a network analogous to the human body’s venous system, linking with junctions that became hubs at major river points; while the roads comprised the capillaries that transported goods, services and peoples to and from the farthest nooks and crannies of the land. The efficient use of such a synergized and organically meshed communication system is what made the Bengal Presidency perhaps the richest in British India. In terms of fuel economy and carbon emission, river transportation is most efficient, reducing fuel costs by close to 60% and carbon-emissions by around 65% (of critical importance in the context of the global warming and climate change narrative today).
Tragically, following the 1965 war between India and Pakistan, the extensive river connectivity that had inseparably linked the peoples and lands of the erstwhile Bengal Presidency/now BBIN sub-region were grievously disrupted. The abrupt severance of the water links that inextricably and symbiotically bound them together transformed them into becoming land-locked from each other. With shipping services being stopped, the regular annual dredging that used to be done every year to maintain and keep the navigable channels open and usable also ceased. These mighty rivers effectively had become nationally segmented by the politics of Partition, for which the peoples of the sub-region are having to pay a burdensome cost today. The flourishing river economy that had made this part of the subcontinent so famously prosperous wilted away, with upstream and downstream industries disappearing. The dumping of vast amounts of industrial and human generated pollution, due to lack of effective regulatory or governance mechanisms in place, in combination with steady piling-up of river beds with silt not only narrowed and made very shallow the channels of the rivers but forced the waters to wrest their own passage, from the mountains to the Bay, by literally devouring land and expanding their shallower breadth.
Reviving the rivers, for connectivity as well as for restoring the river economy, will admittedly be a huge challenge because of the cumulative damage done to these rivers by over six decades of criminal neglect. It must necessarily involve engaging proactively with the people who inhabit the countless villages, towns and cities that dot both banks of each of these rivers, and restore to them a sense of ownership and pride in their shared commons. If we wish to restore navigability of these rivers, we would need to undertake systematic dredging, perhaps initially on pilot basis along certain identified lengths of rivers, for enabling navigability, in the process also regaining land, lost over the years to erosion, for human habitation, agriculture and commerce. The dredging and reclamation process could well spawn a huge, river-wide cottage industry for peoples of the river who could use geo-bags to be filled by dredged-up silt and then use these bags to reclaim/buttress redefined embankments. For shoring up the embankments of these rivers, inhabitants of riverine villages would find employment and livelihood. In the process, they would become guardians of the river, monitoring the health of the river and the state its embankments, and acting as early-warning system for protecting these embankments from damage by sudden floods. Fishing and ancillary fisheries-related industry would also be revived massively.
Reclamation of the rivers would also revive the ship-building industry that had existed since, and flourished in, ancient times in Bengal. The great Moroccan scholar and traveller Ibn Batuta wrote about his visit to Bengal in the 14th century where he “saw numerous boats in the river carrying men and merchandise and testified to the existence of gigantic fleet of war-boats.” Chittagong was the centre of building ocean-going vessels. In the 17th century, the ship building institutions of Chittagong are reported to have built a complete fleet of war-boats for the Sultan of Turkey. During the Mughal period, Bengal is said to have taken the lead in building ships and boats. The Mughal naval force had many ships built at Chittagong. The British Navy also used warships built at Chittagong, at least one of which reportedly comprised Nelson’s victorious fleet in the famous Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. During the first half of the 19th century, the shipyards at Chittagong built ships up to 1000 DWT.
Reclaiming the rivers could also see well-planned expansion of existing irrigation channels (that could also serve as overflow drainage channels during high season floods) and offset the current high dependency on tube-wells extracting, and grievously depleting, precious underground aquifers. In a comprehensive approach to water management and fresh-water conservation, water conservation reservoirs / pondages could be created, where feasible, to augment fresh water access to people as well as for generation of run-of-the-river hydro-electricity projects. Last, but not least, eco-tourism and cultural tourism along the rivers would be revived, reconnecting peoples with each other to rediscover their rich common, but forgotten, heritage.
Given the growing consonance of political will now prevailing, these are goals now well within the realm of the imaginable and doable, provided leaders stay the course that their vision has charted and their mandarins do their bidding with alacrity. Regional connectivity now under process of resuscitation within the BBIN sub-region could well serve as the operationalising pathway to larger trans-regional connectivity, between South Asia and Southeast and East Asia. Even within the South Asian configuration, Sri Lanka and Maldives could join the current Coastal shipping template inaugurated bilaterally between Bangladesh and India. This could be expanded to include Myanmar and Thailand as well, giving heft to the now-somnolent BIMSTEC, invigorating a Bay of Bengal community linked together symbiotically by the Bay that laps their shores. Instead of relying solely on one mode of connectivity, all these countries could optimise limited resources, by coordinating collaborative actions and deriving synergy, from the various modes available currently to them: on land by road and rail and on waters via rivers and the Bay of Bengal. We could conceivably envision this sub-region, and beyond to the east, once more reclaiming its great reputation of prosperity that it had enjoyed as the Bengal Presidency, this time not for any foreign power coming from distant shores to colonize and extract for its own gain but for the shared and even greater prosperity of the peoples who are inhabitants of the region now. Without in any way surrendering their recently defined sovereign, independent national status, these entities do well to reintegrate ecologically and environmentally, for the greater and collective good of their respective peoples.
Ambassador Tariq Karim was Bangladesh’s immediate past High Commissioner to India from August 2009 until October 2014 (with the personal rank and status of a Minister of State). His earlier Ambassadorial assignments were in Washington, Pretoria and Tehran. He has served as Deputy Chief of Mission in Beijing and New Delhi, and in different diplomatic capacities earlier in Tehran, Bonn, Bangkok and London.