Bangladesh 'key' to India's Northeast
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Bangladesh 'key' to India's Northeast

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi waves to supporters in Agartala to announce about 'Act Fast for Northeast' policy on Dec 18 last year. AFP
India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi waves to supporters in Agartala to announce about 'Act Fast for Northeast' policy on Dec 18 last year. AFP

Recently, Indian Foreign Minister S Jaishankar stated that, if there is one border and one region of India which has dramatically improved in the last decade, it is eastern and northeastern India. And the reason for that is that India has vastly improved its relationship with Bangladesh.

Not only that, but recently India also has expressed interest in building and operating an airport in Bangladesh. India wants a piece of Bangladeshi land in Brahmanbaria to upgrade and expand Agartala airport, which is set to become the third international airport in India's northeastern region by the end of this year or early next year.

Following the completion of the project, flights between Agartala and Dhaka, as well as other Bangladeshi cities like Chattogram and Sylhet, would be operated. The main reason behind this is, Bangladesh is the trump card for India to implement its Act Fast for Northeast policy.

And of particular importance for India is the "Chicken's Neck" or Siliguri Corridor, a narrow strip of Bangladeshi land which separates the entire northeastern region with the rest of India's Mainland. If a person was to set out on a journey from Agartala to Kolkata or New Delhi entirely on Indian territory, then the person would have to cover a distance of 1,650 kilometres and 2,637km, respectively. But if one were able to cut through the corridor then, the distance from Agartala to Kolkata would only be about 550km.

Most of Bangladesh's major cities are located within 300km of India's northeastern region, so when it comes to connectivity in the northeast, the country plays a crucial role, providing shortcuts on land and river. As such, Bangladesh has major role in the development of India's northeastern states -- the most prominent of which are Assam and Tripura.

Bangladesh For Tripura

Tripura is an important part of India's northeastern states, as it is considered India's gateway to the Southeast Asian region.

There is a saying in South Asia which says, "if Bangladesh is India-locked, Tripura is Bangladesh-locked."

The relationship between Bangladesh and Tripura is a long one; it is civilisational, historical, lingustic and cultural. From time immemorial, the people of Tripura and Bangladesh, have shared their problems and prosperity. Tripura and Bangladesh share a porous border, which stretches over 856km, and 85% of Tripura's border is adjacent to India.

The Agartala–Akhaura (Bangladesh) railway link is expected to be completed in June.

When completed, it will connect Gangasagar in Bangladesh to Nischintapur in India along 10.6-km line, and Nischintapur to Agartala railway station along 5.46-km track in India. Trade relations will improve with the introduction of the Agartala-Akhaura railway line. Not only that, but India also plans to develop an integrated cargo checkpoint and handling facility at Nischintapur, which is the junction point of the Agartala-Akhaura rail link at Tripura.

This rail link will reduce the journey time between Agartala and Kolkata, by routing traffic through Dhaka instead of Guwahati. The travel time between Agartala and Kolkata will be reduced to 10 hours from the current 31 hours, as it will travel a mere 550 km instead of 1,600km.

India and Bangladesh currently have four operational rail links between West Bengal and Western Bangladesh -- Petrapole-Benapole, Gede-Darshana, Radhikapur-Biral, and Singhabad-Rohanpur. The present line will not only help people from Agartala but also those from the Indian state of Mizoram, which is located about 150km away.

With the completion the Feni bridge connecting Sabroom, Tripura with Chittagong, Bangladesh, and the Agartala–Akhaura rail line, Tripura would emerge as a well-connected state.

Once completed, it will allow Tripura to develop its potential and onward connectivity to Myanmar and Thailand through its road network.

Tripura's Maharaja Bir Bikram airport would become the third international airport in the landlocked northeastern region once its terminal is completed by the end of this year.

After the completion of this airport, flights between Agartala and Dhaka, as well as other cities like Chittagong and Sylhet would be operated. Not only that, recently Indian High Commissioner to Dhaka Pranay Verma has shown interest to invest in new airports in Bangladesh to facilitate the connectivity of northeastern states. Air connectivity will not only strengthen the connectivity between Bangladesh, the Indian mainland, and Tripura but also between India and Southeast Asian countries.

Bangladesh For Assam

Bangladesh is situated in a crucial geostrategic location for Assam.

Bangladesh forms a triangle around Assam along with Bhutan and Myanmar. Because of its strategic location, there are many opportunities for trade, transportation, commerce, and connection between Bangladesh and Assam.

Moreover, as India's bridge to Southeast Asia, Bangladesh is a natural pillar of the Act East policy. It can act as a "bridge" that can facilitate economic and political linkages with Southeast Asian region and beyond.

Bangladesh is also an important part of regional cooperation fora, such as BBIN and Bimstec. As such, it has access to many channels to increase commerce with Assam and subsequently open up access to Asean nations, because both India and Bangladesh have made significant progress in improving connectivity through roads and railways.

At present, Bangladesh also permits India to transfer commodities between different parts of India through Chattogram and Mongla ports, which lowers the cost and increases the speed of shipping. The development of not only these two states, but also the other five states of the region's "seven sisters", are inextricably related to Bangladesh. That's why India repeatedly acknowledges Bangladesh's importance to its Act Fast For Northeast policy.

Samara Ashrat is PhD fellow, International Relations, University of Bucharest. She writes about South Asia politics for 'Eurasia Review.'

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