The Bangladesh government’s decision to allow India use of its territory for transit of cargo and passengers to the North East may be seen as a major concession in Bangladesh. But Indian users are showing little interest to avail themselves of the facility.

In June 2015, the prime ministers of both the countries flagged off bus services between Agartala in Tripura and Kolkata in West Bengal through the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka. The State transport departments of West Bengal and Tripura offered to run two separate services for three days a week.

Policy makers expected the service to be a major hit among travellers, as the distance travelled is only 500 km compared with the 1,650-km journey through the chicken’s neck or Siliguri corridor.

Unviable pricing

Two years later, both the state governments are finding it tough to sustain the service for want of passengers.

While the West Bengal government run service has become in frequent, Tripura has suspended the service for the last one-and-a-half months, following an accident, but no one seems to be missing it.

According to sources, the bus barely got four-five passengers per trip against a capacity of 45.

The reasons are not difficult to fathom. Passengers need multiple entry visa from Bangladesh to travel. The journey takes 17-20 hours and the fare is ₹2,000.

Compared with this, a flight between Kolkata and Agartala takes only an hour and costs ₹3,500 for this weekend. The fare falls to ₹2,200-2,300 for travel next week.

“The bus fare is way too steep,” admits an official. The Indian authorities were keen to cap the bus fare at ₹1,500. But Bangladesh wanted to keep the fare higher to ensure higher earnings.

The goods transit through Ashugunj river port has met a similar fate.

Inaugurated in June 2016, it allowed Indian users to ferry cargo from Kolkata port to Ashugunj in Bangladesh via inland water. From Ashugunj the cargo would travel 50 km to reach Akhaura border gates with Tripura.

In Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was accused of sacrificing the country’s interests. The bone of contention was the government’s decision keep transit fee at Taka 192.2 (₹152) per tonne as against a proposal of Taka 1,245 (₹986) made by a committee (Core Committee of Transit).

A recent report by the Dhaka-based think-tank Centre for Policy Dialogue shows that from June 2016 to January 2017, only three shipments were routed through Ashugunj. Sources in Tripura government confirm limited use of the facility.

The long turnaround time (21-28 days), rudimentary port facility, transit related procedural hassles, and uneconomical transit fee vis-a-vis the road and rail transport through the Siliguri corridor are some of the reasons for its limited use.

Transporting goods through Siliguri has become an attractive option after the introduction of broad-gauge rail services to Agartala in January this year.

According to Manik Dey, Transport Minister of Tripura, most of the cement, rice, steel, construction material movement in the State has shifted to rail. Petroleum products, which are still supplied by trucks, will shift to rail too once Indian Oil sets up a depot in Agartala.

Strategic option

But New Delhi is still keen to keep the transit option open as it can be used for ferrying essentials in case of emergency

Delhi has also proposed a soft loan to Dhaka for the development of container terminal at Ashugunj. A $338.8-million loan was granted for redevelopment of the road from Ashugunj to Akhaura.

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