Asia - Pacific

Proposed India-Bangladesh rail link sparks mix of optimism and backlash

South Asian neighbors signed an agreement for a first-of-its-kind railway link during Prime Minister Hasina’s visit to New Delhi in late June

Faisal Mahmud  | 02.07.2024 - Update : 03.07.2024
Proposed India-Bangladesh rail link sparks mix of optimism and backlash FILE PHOTO

  • South Asian neighbors signed an agreement for a first-of-its-kind railway link during Prime Minister Hasina’s visit to New Delhi in late June
  • The plan has kicked off a firestorm of criticism, with Bangladeshi opposition parties going as far as labelling it ‘anti-state,’ charges the government denies
  • Bangladeshi analysts say Dhaka has a lot to gain from the agreement but suggest more discussions for better ‘benefit-sharing’

DHAKA, Bangladesh

One of the significant agreements inked during Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s recent visit to India was about a first-of-its-kind railway link between the South Asian neighbors.

Both governments hailed the landmark project, which will connect India’s northeastern parts to Bangladesh, as a major step in enhancing regional connectivity.

However, the plan has kicked off a firestorm of criticism in Bangladesh, with opposition parties going as far as labelling it “anti-state.”

Hasina’s government has dismissed the claims, asserting that the rail link will boost economic development.

For India, the link through Bangladesh offers an alternative route to the Siliguri Corridor – a narrow passage also known as Chicken’s Neck, which the two sides utilize as part of a 1980 trade agreement.

Bangladesh, in turn, would gain facilitated access for its products to reach Nepal and Bhutan through the network, which would also have a goods train service.

Discussions about the railway link were happening for quite some time.

Right before Hasina’s late-June visit to New Delhi, Indian Railways revealed to local news outlet The Telegraph its plans for a new 1,275-kilometer (792-mile) rail track – 861 kilometers (535 miles) across Bangladesh, Nepal (202 kilometers or 125 miles), and northeast India (212 kilometers or 131 miles).

Indian officials confirmed that the operational network will cover these distances, allowing India to transport goods and passengers to its northeastern states, while enabling Bangladesh to transport goods and passengers to Nepal via Indian territory.

Why the uproar?

Concerns raised by opposition parties in Bangladesh center on allowing Indian Railways to operate within the country, which they contend could compromise national security.

They also criticize the current arrangement for lacking adequate transit and transshipment fees, arguing that India is the primary beneficiary.

Speaking to Anadolu, Ruhul Kabir Rizvi, senior joint secretary general of the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), claimed the railway would “weaken the country’s security and intelligence system.”

“It’s their train and their goods. They will obviously deploy their own security to protect those,” said Rizvi.

“That basically means you are allowing Indian security personnel to enter Bangladesh on a regular basis.”

Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, secretary general of BNP, said at a press conference on June 26 that the railway deal is not only “bad” but also “dangerous” for Bangladesh.

“What does Bangladesh gain by allowing a corridor through its territory, instead of India utilizing the Chicken’s Neck?” he said.

“The entire benefit seems to be India’s.”

Located in a strategic nook in northeastern India, the Chicken’s Neck is the narrowest point of the subcontinent, nestled between Nepal to the north and Bangladesh to the south, and just about 170 kilometers (105 miles) from the border with China.

This link through Bangladesh will help India avoid hundreds of kilometers of extra distance to connect with its seven northeastern states through the Chicken’s Neck, said Alamgir.

“What will Bangladesh get in return? Transit and transshipment fees? How much are those? The government never clarifies those,” he added.

The proposed railway deal comes in the backdrop of an “anti-India” campaign ongoing in Bangladesh since its general elections in January.

The campaign was fueled by claims that Hasina’s victory was made possible by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s support, with New Delhi helping ease considerable pressure from the West, particularly the US, for Dhaka to hold free, fair and inclusive elections.

What has the government said?

Hasina has asserted that her government would never do something to harm the country’s interests.

Asked about the potential security threat at a press conference after her return from New Delhi, she said: “Should Bangladesh keep its doors closed? Look at Europe, where there are no borders.”

Hasina said Bangladesh is an independent and sovereign nation, adding that she has “opened all communication channels, and the people will reap the benefits from it.”

Aaqib Md. Shatil, a Cambridge-based sustainable development expert, believes that “Bangladesh has a lot to gain” from the railway deal.

India has committed to extend transit facilities for Bangladeshi goods to Nepal and Bhutan, countries where Bangladesh exported goods worth more than $50 million from July 2023 to April 2024, he explained.

“Bangladesh has a market to capture in both countries. If we cooperate with each other, this connectivity will help Bangladeshi businesses export more goods in the coming years,” he told Anadolu.

“Moreover, the most significant part, in my view, is the Indian commitment to Bangladesh regarding energy connectivity with Nepal and Bhutan,” said Shatil.

Nepal alone has hydroelectric potential of 72,000 megawatts, while the highest amount of electricity Bangladesh has ever generated is 16,477 megawatts, he said.

“Bangladesh’s reliance on imported fossil fuels is growing. If Bangladesh can leverage this energy connectivity, there is huge potential for Bangladesh to import cheaper hydroelectricity from Nepal and curb its dependence on fossil fuel imports,” said Shatil.

For Mustafizur Rahman, an economist at the Bangladeshi think tank Center for Policy Dialogue, there is no doubt that India stands to gain considerably more from the rail deal.

India will be able to significantly cut transport costs to its northeastern states, he said.

To alleviate concerns and balance things out, Rahman suggested the two sides should discuss a “benefit-sharing arrangement” and find ways to ensure that Dhaka gets as much out of the agreement as New Delhi.​​​​​​​

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