Connecting through water, for regional cooperation
The much talked about Chabahar port, which opened a new strategic transit route between India, Iran and Afghanistan that bypassed Pakistan and which is expected to cut transport costs significantly, is not the only such activity that India is pursuing. Large deliberations have been undertaken and focus is now on improving connectivity through water, for enhanced regional cooperation.
India is also developing Colombo and Trincomalee ports in Sri Lanka which will potentially extend India’s outreach in the Indian Ocean, where China is pursuing an expansionist agenda. This is in addition to the current regime in Colombo giving India a stake in Hambantota airport and a key expressway, besides preventing Chinese submarines in Sri Lankan waters in the backdrop of loans from China that have pushed Sri Lanka into debt trap.
Several infrastructure and connectivity projects are being undertaken in collaboration with Japan in the Bay of Bengal region including Andaman Islands, to counter China’s outreach to South Asia through One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative.
India, of late, has enhanced its focus on reviving inland navigation as well, considering the fact that it is cost effective and environment friendly. The National Waterways Act 2016 has declared 106 new waterways as national waterways (NWs) in addition to the existing five national waterways. Prime focus is being given to NW-1 (1620 km of Ganga from Haldia to Allahabad) followed by NW-2 which is 891 km of Brahmaputra from Dhubri to Sadiya in the state of Assam. Feasibility studies are also being undertaken in NW-16, the Barak river (121 km from Lakhipur in Cacher district of Assam to Bhanga, Karimganj).
Both these rivers are also part of the Indo-Bangladesh Protocol Routes for Trade and Transit (PIWTT), Kolkata-Shilghat and Kolkata-Karimganj respectively. As already indicated in one of our earlier articles, in previous TPCI newsletter, waterways built across Bangladesh will not only ease out the long travelling time by road without entering into Bangladesh but will also facilitate our efforts to maintain better relations with East Asian countries, as part of our Act East policy.
The challenges are stiff and need to be ironed out. These include heavy siltation, shifting channels, lack of adequate dept of water during the lean season, constraints in night navigation and absence of other navigation aids in many portions of the channels in Brahmaputra and Barak rivers.
India and Bangladesh have a 2979 km land border and 1116 km of riverine boundary. These also share 54 common rivers, including the Brahmaputra. Proposals are underway to develop waterways between Tripura’s Gomati and Howrah and Bangladesh’s Meghna rivers. Bangladesh is now looking at Indian ports instead of using Colombo or Singapore as a trans-shipment. The shipping ministry has allowed foreign vessel operators to transport containerized cargo meant for import or export within ports located in Indian territory to ensure cargo doesn’t land up in foreign hubs such as Colombo and Singapore.
Another agreement aimed at year round navigation has been made to facilitate bilateral and transit trade between India and Bangladesh for the development of a fairway from Sirajganj to Daikhowa and Ashuganj to Zakiganj. A large part of this will move through NW-2 in India.
To give further boost to Act East policy and increase connectivity with countries in East of India, India is also implementing the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit-Transport Project through Sittwe port in Myanmar to resolve the connectivity problem in the mountainous northeast region. This will include a 225-km waterway from Sittwe Port to Paletwa, both in Myanmar, along the Kaladan river, near Mizoram and then a 62-km road connecting Paletwa to the Indian border village of Zochawchhuah in eastern Mizoram. Other than this, 17-metre long floating terminals have been constructed at 32 places on the Brahmaputra River.
The Chindwin river of Myanmar runs very close to the Indian land. Myanmar government is exploring possibility of dredging sections of the river. If proper connectivity links are established with other modes like roads and railways, with Indian border states of Manipur and Nagaland, it could serve as a region-wise cross-country multimodal network for both cargo traffic as well as tourism.
Some recent happenings including the signing of MoU between Bangladesh and Bhutan on the use of inland waterways for bilateral trade and transit cargo, as well as on passenger and cruise services on the coastal and protocol routes between India and Bangladesh, is ample proof that water connectivity is increasingly being used to enhance connectivity.
Already, Chabahar is turning out to be a success story in terms of activity, with unconfirmed reports coming of traffic being diverted from Karachi to Chabahar. This port cuts transportation time of Indian goods by one-third. This achievement has made it possible for the policy planners to explore new opportunities for enhancing regional connectivity through water and a lot many possibilities are being explored.