Mangla Port ready to send and receive cargo from Bhutan, India and Nepal, Chairman tells visiting journalists

“We are ready to send and receive cargo from Bhutan, India and Nepal,'' Mangla Port Chairman Commodore M.A.K. Azad told visiting journalists about plans to use jetties at the confluence of two major rivers on the edges of the Sundarbans for trade that goes beyond Bangladesh's borders.

A host of issues remain to be sorted out but Commodore Azad is confident that by the time these are settled, goods from the three countries could begin moving from here, marking a major turn in ties among the four SAARC members. Close by, another symbol of SAARC cooperation — a thermal plant to be jointly built by Bangladesh and India — is taking shape. The confidence expressed by Commodore Azad is in tune with the sentiments expressed by Bangladesh Premier Sheikh Hasina last month about promoting physical connectivity with countries in the South Asian region.

Major drive

After achieving Independence in 1971, Bangladesh has alternated between enthusiastic and splenetic approaches to connecting up with near neighbours. “This is a major drive of my foreign policy,” Ms. Hasina said on her first visit to Agartala last month. “If Bangladesh has to survive we have to develop a symbiotic relationship with our neighbours,” senior Foreign Ministry official Syed Masood Khandekar told the visiting journalists in Dhaka.

If transhipment or transit to the three countries becomes a reality in the coming years, Bangladesh will earn additional revenue from Mangla, where cargo handling has not kept pace with the rapid increase registered at other ports in the region. For traders from Kathmandu, Thimphu and India's northeastern States, transportation time and cost could come down provided Bangladesh's charges for using its roads, railways and port are not too stiff.

Environmentalists fear

Several hurdles, common to countries in the region with multiparty, democratic set-ups, remain to be crossed. For one, environmentalists are already agitated over the impact of the coal-fired plant on the fragile health of the Sundarbans. In parallel, the Opposition is trying to rev up protest against land acquisition.

There are logistical issues too. The power plant wants to use two Mangla port jetties for bringing in supplies. The existing users complain that coal dust will be a major dissuading factor for users from Bhutan, Nepal and India. But the other alternative of constructing brand new jetties would push up electricity tariff. Dhaka also has also to take a call on widening roads and strengthening bridges — it took the journalists an entire day and more to cover about 400 km from Dhaka to Khulna.

Acrimony

The bigger question is: will Bangladesh be able to sustain the enthusiasm expressed by the ruling Awami League-led coalition? The window for ensuring greater connectivity of all types — people-to-people, trade and energy — seems to be closing as politics becomes more acrimonious in the run-up to next year's elections. The main opposition, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, and its partner, the Jamaat-e-Islami, are boycotting Parliament and have planned a major march to Dhaka next month to seek the ouster of the Hasina government. Both parties have maintained for several years that the proposal for greater connectivity is an Indian ploy to dominate the region.

In this worsening political atmosphere amidst high inflation and a slowing economy, analysts wonder whether the drive to connect India, Nepal and Bhutan, besides Thailand and China, be sustained?

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