The rise of Siliguri

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Prospects and concerns for Bangladesh

 

It’s no surprise the media of both Bangladesh and India were in a frenzy over the reopening of the Haldibari-Chilahati train connection. This, and many major developments near North Bengal-Nepal-India-Bhutan has characterized the upcoming economic activities of the Eastern Himalayan region. As India has finally shifted its focus from West to East, Siliguri, a northern city in India’s West Bengal is becoming the hub of economic activities.
Unknown to many, the Northern Bengal, Cooch Behar, Nepal, Bhutan and Sikkim region had thriving business networks trading in clothes, goods, salt, and more between British India and subordinate kingdoms of Bhutan, Nepal, Sikkim, etc. After the partition of 1947 and two wars fought in 1965 and 1971, the trade link gradually declined. However, successive Indian governments continued to build Siliguri as a trade hub. Today it’s the second-largest city in West Bengal (After Kolkata) and the second fastest-growing city in Eastern India (after Guwahati). The rise of Siliguri as the center of Eastern Himalayan trade has immense potential for Bangladesh considering economic gains thanks to its geographic position and booming market. The issue brings some concerns as well.

Siliguri as a trade hub

The city of Siliguri sits on a vital land bridge, the chicken neck corridor, dubbed as India’s gateway to the East. It’s a 22 Kilometer stretch of land between Nepal, Bhutan, Sikkim, and Bangladesh. The bridge also connects Assam and sister states with mainland India. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has developed and implemented the Act East policy, aiming to reconnect India with her Eastern neighbors. Siliguri serves as a crucial gateway and its development impacts the economies of the bordering states.
Siliguri is connected with the neighboring city of Jalpaiguri and together they are the busiest metropolises in the north of Bangladesh. Himalayan Terai, along with its lush green forests, and Mountain Rivers is well endowed with natural resources. The region has long become a specialized economic center of tea, technology, tourism, food, and forestry. Educational institutions and tourism attract millions from mainly India’s West Bengal and Bangladesh.
The city is well integrated with India’s national highway to four borders: Fulbari and Changrabandha of Bangladesh, alongside one in Nepal and Bhutan each. According to an Asian Development Bank report, the Indian government considers the city as a key aggregation point. In recent times many rail and road-based clearance depots have been developed in this thriving city. Asian Highway 2 connects all except Bhutan, the highway runs just past these facilities. The Asian Highway 48 connects Bhutan with Siliguri. Under the Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal Motor Vehicles Agreement (BBIN-MVA), Siliguri will be a key point of the South Asian road network supposed to connect the BBIN countries with Thailand and Myanmar through Bangladesh.
Chilahati-Haldibari rail corridor was reestablished amidst much fanfare on August 1. The new railway surely will cut time for transits to Assam, West Bengal, and Himalayan states. The new rail link of 513 kilometers connects New Jalpaiguri and Dhaka. Meanwhile, Dhaka is also developing an internal rail connection with the Northern region. A rail route from Bogra to Shirajganj under the Indian Line of Credit is part of this effort. The new line will cut the travel time from Dhaka to North Bengal by three hours. Dhaka expects to develop a close economic connection with the Siliguri region to smoothen goods transport and business. The proposed Tinbigha corridor of 6 kilometers connecting North Dinajpur and Jalpaiguri of India with Tetulia in Bangladesh can also bring transit benefits. Both have exchanged border enclaves in 2015 to simplify the boundary. Many of these past enclaves are situated in adjoining regions.

The delta republic wishes to integrate closely with the Indian market, Siliguri can be a key hub for that purpose. Bangladesh already uses this transit point for entering the Bhutanese and Nepalese markets.

For decades, North Bengal has been an impoverished region, affected by yearly famine known as Monga. Since 2009, the Bangladesh government has been trying to build road and rail infrastructure along with bridges and economic zones to solve the problem. The 1000 acre Sirajganj Economic Zone Ltd (SEZL) with more than 400 factories planned to introduce Automobile engineering, food processing, RMG, leather, plastic and fertilizer, electric equipment, and pharmaceutical industries in North Bengal. The project is expected to create half a million jobs.
About 1.6 million Bangladeshi tourists visit India every year. Many students, patients, and tourists frequent the Siliguri-Jalpaiguri-Darjeeling-Dooars region for education, health, and sightseeing. Well-developed tourist and bulging industrial sectors are attracting more and more Bangladeshis every year. Bangladeshi goods, especially food, beverage, and plastic goods enjoy wide popularity in the North-Eastern market of 50 million. The delta republic wishes to integrate closely with the Indian market, Siliguri can be a key hub for that purpose. Bangladesh already uses this transit point for entering the Bhutanese and Nepalese markets.

Concerns for Bangladesh

The development of Siliguri as an Indian transit hub contains certain issues needing to be addressed on Bangladesh’s part. India is planning to use Siliguri as an alternate transit hub, avoiding dealing with Bangladesh. In the past, Indian governments had agreements with Myanmar generals to use the Kaladan river of Arakan-Chin states to connect with Mizoram and the rest of the Indian North-East. In 2002 the Bangladesh government declined a joint pipeline offer between Myanmar, Bangladesh, and India. The Kaladan project has gained pace ever since. The Kaladan project will connect India with Myanmar and Thailand, experts assume once, in operation, goods can be transported from Kolkata port to Mizoram cutting the distance in half. Siliguri will also connect the North-East with the rest of India. The planning of a rail and road network bypassing Bangladesh can decrease the importance of Chittagong and Mongla port to a great deal.
However, instability in Rakhine and Chin state thanks to insurgent groups like Arakan and Zomi Revolutionary Army has troubled the viability of the project. On the other hand, Siliguri has its own set of problems. The disputed region of Dokhlam in Bhutan-China-Sikkim lies nearby. The city is of key military importance, and far well connected with Assam.
In the meantime, the development of Siliguri and the chance of increasing connection among neighboring nations has brought Nepalese proposals to connect with Mongla port. As the link has to be over Indian soil, both governments are trying to persuade their neighbor to open up linking channels. Bangladesh has also been trying to revitalize the Mongla port and increase the capabilities of Chittagong. The country imports coal through Mongla to operate the Rampal power plant. Nepal wishes to cut time and cost but the decision from the Indian part is yet to be finalized.

A peculiar problem is the absence of a Visa office in Siliguri. Despite improved transport and communication, Indians wishing to enter Bangladesh have to go to Kolkata for visas. Various taxes and provisions continue to hamper the smooth entering of Bangladeshi goods into the Indian North-East market. Integrated Check Posts (ICP), vital for cross-border trade, are yet to be fully functional on Indian sides of the border.
Tug of war between the state and union government in India, and also between Bangladesh and West Bengal hampers the development. The unresolved issue of Teesta water, the demand of Gorkhaland, and increasing Chinese presence on the border have made many wary of the economic prospects. Siliguri’s cramped and inefficient infrastructures and roads and underdeveloped border facilities are key obstacles. While Bangladesh has already developed its cross-border facilities in North Bengal, Indians are yet to fully follow suit.
In short, Bangladesh is ready to utilize the development of Siliguri’s economic prospects. Political goodwill and continuing efforts in the future has the potential to bring long-standing changes in the economies of Eastern Himalaya and Bengal Delta.

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