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Railways in Tripura - the biggest boost to the trade

Jayanta Kumar Das

Just as the Northeastern states of Tripura enters in the Broad Gauge rail map of India, it now looks set to get the biggest boost to the trade. This has already come after the states of Tripura got connected to the rest of the nation with the 'Tripurasundari Express' has began its first ever journey from the capital town of Agartala towards Delhi on July 31, with its inauguration by India’s Railways Minister Suresh Prabhu and his Bangladesh counterpart, Mohammed Mazibul Hoque in Agartala. At the same time the foundation stone of another jey rail line was laid connecting Agartala in India with Akhaura in Bangladesh.Both projects have come up critical to the region, opening up direct linkages with mainland India, and with it, boosting the scope for greater trade and commerce and people to people ties. As mentioned above, the India-Bangladesh broad gauge rail link will connect Agartala in India with Akhaura in Bangladesh, and is expected to get completed by 2019.

However, in yet another recent momentum for the state of Tripura and Centre's gift to the Tripura, the Agartala-Udaipur rail line of Agartala-Sabroom Project was flaged off on January 24, Tuesday. The Agartala-Sabroom just like the Agartala-Akhaura rail link to come up as a critical for the state of Tripura as it looks set to get the trading ties with the Bangladesh boost up.The new train linkages revisit the old connectivity and freight routes established under the colonial era, when most of the subcontinent was under the British Indian Empire.Today, the India-Bangladesh railway project seeks to capitalize on opportunities for expanding trade, tourism, and commerce between the two nations. According to the Indian Railways Ministry, upon its entire completion, the composite India-Bangladesh rail link project will connect Agartala, Tripura (India) with Ashuganj and Chittagong Port (Bangladesh), at a distance of 54 km (33.55 miles) and 213 km (132.35 miles), respectively. Similarly, it will connect Agartala to Kolkata (India) via Dhaka (Bangladesh), covering a distance of just 514 km (319.38 miles).

The significance of this project therefore becomes obvious as currently, the railway distance between Agartala and Kolkata is 1613 km (1002 miles). The new railway project via Bangladesh cuts this distance by over 1000 km (621 miles). As a result, the India-Bangladesh railway project has massive implications, both for the socio-economic development of the northeastern region and for improving ties with Bangladesh.The new rail link will ease both ordinary travel and freight transport, open up multiple trade points, and advance the scope of commerce and tourism. For example, the Agartala-Akhaura link alone will provide full rail connectivity from east to west of Bangladesh, facilitating transit from Chittagong and Mongla ports to Tripura and the rest of India’s northeast. This means that Indian ships could dock in Chittagong port and use the rail linkage to access India.In terms of impact on the tourism sector, the ease of transport and regional development will directly feed into more tourist footfall and better prospects for the hospitality industry. Under the plan scheme ‘Swadesh Darshan’, the Ministry of Tourism provides Central Financial Assistance (CFA) to State Governments/Union Territory Administrations, for various tourism projects, which includes the ‘North-East India Circuit’. Such schemes will now have a better chance of implementation.

A few other advantages may also materialize. The rail link opens up transparent routes to India, offering greater economic and job opportunities. This in turn will check the influence of anti-India insurgent groups that operate out of the northeast states and promote illegal infiltration along India’s borders. Promoting development in the region, thus, becomes a win-win proposition for both India and Bangladesh as it allows the region’s youth to partake of the development, instead of getting recruited into insurgent groups. Moreover, building the India-Bangladesh rail linkages also assists in India’s future plans to connect with the Southeast Asian states, including Myanmar, which shares its borders with four northeast Indian states.The U.S. in particular has been keen on seeing India emerge as a counterweight to China’s heavy presence in the South Asian – ASEAN regions, and India too, desires the expansion of its sphere of political and economic influence. Building regional networks by road and rail and other infrastructure projects form an integral part of India’s Act East policy.

The India-Bangladesh rail project plays an important role in the current regime’s foreign policy agenda with respect to its immediate neighbors. It also introduces Bangladesh as a direct stakeholder in the region. Further, the development of the northeastern states is a key objective of the government, which seeks to reap the economic benefits of greater integration. More importantly, the new rail connectivity serves as a counter to China’s aggressive foreign policy moves with respect to all of India’s neighbors, an outcome that will have takers in Washington as well. Finally, the long term plan for India is to connect its northeastern region with Southeast Asia, for which the India-Bangladesh rail project serves as a starting point. The benefits of the new and improved rail linkages are thus not only economic, but also geopolitical, and will contribute to greater regional stability.