Improving relations and connectivity with Bangladesh is a key part of Indian P.M. Narendra Modi’s “Act East” policy. On Tuesday, Indian Minister of State for Railways Manoj Sinha said that the P.M.’s office is directly supervising a project connecting the rail networks of the two neighboring countries. “Once completed, the Agartala-Akhaura railway project would provide a major boost to development and economy of the northeastern region of India and eastern Bangladesh,” he stated.
The rail project would be a huge improvement from the status quo. Currently, the trip from Agartala (in India’s far-flung northeast) to Kolkata through Indian territory arcing around Bangladesh spans 1,025 miles. But by connecting through Bangladesh via this project, the total distance would be reduced to just 342 miles. (Railways would then be on a level playing field with vehicles, which Bangladesh already allows to transit through its territories under the Bhutan-Bangladesh-India-Nepal motor vehicles agreement.)
And the actual construction wouldn’t be any heroic feat of engineering – it would take a mere 9.3 miles to connect Agartala to the railway hub of Akhaura in Bangladesh. Work on the $86.1 million project — which India is paying for entirely — is expected to start in April, to be operational by December 2017. The biggest obstacles so far have been political and bureaucratic. The agreement for the railway was finalized in January 2010 by the leaders of both countries, but it has taken ages to acquire the necessary land along the route and to put all the pieces in place. (Securing the funding was particularly slow.)
Separately, last week the two governments agreed on a cross-border electricity tariff. The northeastern Indian state of Tripura will supply Bangladesh with 100MW of natural gas-generated electricity daily at Bangladesh’s standard price. (India currently supplies 500MW daily to the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka from the other side, via the West Bengal border.) Although Tripura has long supported the cross-border sale, “the decision was hanging fire till December 2014 when Modi assured meeting [the] electricity demands of Bangladesh,” wrote the Hindu Business Line.
In return, Dhaka has initiated the process of allowing India’s landlocked northeast access to Bangladesh’s Chittagong deep-sea port, located some 60 miles away from the Tripura border. With Bangladesh’s permission, the Tripura government can build a bridge over the Feni river (which is the international boundary), and the tendering process for the $150 million project has commenced. If brought to fruition, reliable access to the sea could turn natural gas-rich Tripura into a major investment destination in India.
In a further sign of goodwill, on Tuesday Bangladesh released 178 Indian fishermen jailed for about two months for trespassing in Bangladeshi territorial waters. Still, there are some remaining issues that the two countries don’t yet see eye-to-eye on, and water is a big one.
Bangladesh’s plan to dam the Ganges river, which it desperately desires to ease water scarcity and water salinity in its southwestern region, is stuck in limbo as Delhi has yet to approve it. India is concerned that the resulting dam would cause unwanted flooding on its territory. News organization Live Mint noted:
It will be a hard task for Bangladesh to implement the large dam alone, which is why it has sought cooperation from India, experts say. The two countries are currently locked in a range of political squabbles over water, including over how to share the waters of the Teesta, another cross-boundary river.
That said, overall the countries’ future is shaping up to be more connected and friendly than ever before.