Doubt over benefit from Nepal rail link
Analysts emphasise two-way transit, use of Chittagong and Mongla ports by the Himalayan country
A rail transit between Bangladesh and Nepal, as desired by India at the foreign secretary level talks in Dhaka, could only be fruitful if Nepal is given a go-ahead for external trade through the use of Bangladesh’s Mongla and Chittagong ports, say analysts.
“This is not very clear whether Nepal will be allowed to use Bangladesh ports for its exports and imports,” said Dr M Rahmatullah, a noted transport expert and former director (transport) of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (Escap).
No side will benefit from the proposed transit facility unless the Himalayan landlocked country does its foreign trade via Bangladesh, viewed Mustafizur Rahman, executive director of the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD).
“What I have understood from the talks it must be a two-way traffic and Nepal should be allowed to go to a third country via Bangladesh,” said Rahman of the private think tank.
Although Bangladesh and Nepal had signed a transit agreement in 1976 for boosting bilateral trade, it could not be implemented, as India did not allow its territory to be used for passage at that time.
Both Bangladesh and Nepal have to use Indian territories for road or railway connectivity between them.
Early this week Delhi’s foreign secretary Nirupama Rao talked Bangladesh-Nepal railway link issue with her Dhaka counterpart. Both sides hinted at a likely deal in this regard during the upcoming visit of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to India next month.
Both Rahmatullah and Rahman — the two trade and transport experts — pointed to the existing treaties where Bangladesh is allowed for bilateral trade with Nepal and Bhutan on road. But Dhaka and Kathmandu have been seeking railway link for years to make the trade useful, they said.
Rahmatullah, who also led a regional study on multi-modal transport system, sees no benefit from the proposed railway transit if not Nepal allowed external trade through Bangladesh’s sea ports.
“The recent Dhaka-Delhi talks did not match what we expected,” he said in his reaction.
However, Mustafizur Rahman thinks Nepal will be allowed to do external trade via Bangladesh.
Ananya Raihan, another trade expert, also said one-way transit will not benefit any country.
But he laid more emphasis on regional connectivity than any bilateral one.
“Why the transit issue with Nepal is seen separately bypassing the regional transit,” Raihan questioned.
Two-way trade between Bangladesh and Nepal was nearly $80 million in 2008-09 fiscal. Of which Nepal’s exports were about $70 million.
Meanwhile the Bangladesh Railway (BR) is working on to find out the most convenient route for rail transit to Nepal after India’s positive response, officials said.
“If Dhaka could sign deals with Delhi and Katmandu on Chilahati-Haldibari as the transit point on Bangladesh-India border, it would be most convenient for rail passage,” said a senior BR official.
India’s Jogbani station on the Nepal border is just 35 kilometres away from Chilahati in Bangladesh. The station is also close to Bhutan.
On the other hand, the Rohanpur-Shinghabad border point, which India appears to have settled as a possible transit point on its border, is more than 150 kilometres away from Jogbani station.
“We have identified Chilahati-Haldibari transit point as the best rail route to Nepal, but it depends on government decision,” the official said.
He said Bangladesh will have to build eight kilometres of new broad gauge track, while India needs to build three kilometres on its territory for the proposed route.
The Bangladesh Railway had broad gauge track up to the border with India there, but the link was removed some years ago, he added.
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