Roads without borders

If one does not count the Indo-Pakistan land border, which has to have its own solutions, the problem of closed terrestrial crossings may be resolving itself elsewhere in South Asia. We are referring to the so-called "growth quadrangle" that includes Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and the Indian Northeast. Inder Kumar Gujral visited Nepal in early June, and perforce the Gujral Doctrine had to be applied. New Delhi decided to grant Kathmandu, with immediate effect, a land access to Bangladesh through the Northeast "chicken neck" on a six-month experimental basis. While the exact route details are still murky, and notwithstanding a bit of a fluster among Nepalis on what to do with the route once it was granted, this event has to be seen as an advance for regional understanding one which will possibly have a snowball effect.

Regardless of how useful the land corridor eventually is to Nepal, Mr Gujral´s decision has to be welcomed. India was acceding to an obvious principle of good neighbourliness by allowing Nepal the use of third country transit, thereby giving it the option of challenging the monopoly of the Calcutta Port Authority, under whose inefficient straitjacket Nepal´s government and business have suffered for decades. The possibility that now exists of Nepal exploring a route to the sea other than Calcutta will certainly be sobering for the babus over at the Authority.

The route granted Nepal starts at the country´s southeast border post of Kakarbhitta. It runs east along Indian Highway 31C, and a turnoff at Bagdogra brings it to the customs depot at Phulbari, across from where lies Bangabandh in Bangladesh. A highway built as a pork barrel for the people of North Bengal by then-President Hussain Mohammad Ershad takes one southwards to the delta country, over the Ganga, past Jessore and Khulna to the port of Mongla.

While nothing to rave about for the moment, the Khulna region is economically active, with many Korean businesses having set up shop here. The port itself, or the distributary Pusur, is being spruced up with financing from the Asian Development Bank.

Kathmandu officials hope that the new route, besides providing an alternative route to the sea, will allow access to the Bangladeshi market, in much the same way that is already happening between Bhutan and Bangladesh. The market is there for Nepali produce, horticulture, livestock, and even rocks, in high demand in the deltaic country. Nepal´s total export to Bangladesh in 1995/96 was NPR 386 million, and imports were to the tune of NPR 680 million. The officials project an increase of more than half in those figures within a couple of years, with upto 60 trucks travelling between the two countries every day.

The Nepali foreign ministry is, of course, looking at Bhutan´s experience in all this. For, and this may come as a surprise to many, Thimphu has quietly been enjoying for years the very transit facilities which have just been granted Kathmandu. Trucks from Phuntsoling in Bhutan cross over into Bangladesh Budimari, further east of Phulbari.

New Delhi hopes that its bonafides as evident in granting the Phulbari route will push Dhaka into acceding to India´s own demands for transit through Bangladesh. In fact, Nepal´s then-Foreign Minister Prakash Chandra Lohani used the very argument in the negotiations with Mr Gujral. And indeed, the northeastern states have never been closer to getting a route to the Chittagong port, what with a friendly government in power in Dhaka and New Delhi talking the Gujral Doctrine. It is quite likely that Bangladesh will be amenable to helping out the Northeast, if only because Dhaka businessmen would be the first to benefit if any major (and unexpected) economic upturn were to overtake the Northeast. It is less likely, however, that Dhaka will be agreeable to a more direct land connection between the northeastern states and the Indian mainland (rather than Chittagong), which is a much more sensitive matter in terms of domestic Bangla politics.

Beyond transit, the breakthrough Nepal has achieved could also lead to more developments.

Indian businessmen themselves represent a pressure group which has been demanding more transit points for doing more commerce with Bangladesh, which has opened as a lucrative market for India. The port in Mongla could conceivably benefit not only Nepal and Bhutan, but in a region where efficiency and cost differential might mean more in future than it does today, also North Bihar, West Bengal and Assam.

Taking the tantalising vision one step further, there is always Tibet. Once the slumbering economic giant up beyond the Himalayan divide chooses to rise, it will look for immediate access to the sea, which for Lhasa is the Bay of Bengal rather than the South China Sea. Coming over the high mountain passes into Gangtok or Kalimpong, trucks from Lhasa, too, may, in the not too distant future, start taking National Highway 31 into Bangladesh.

As an Indian commentator who travelled to Kathmandu with Mr Gujral put it with regard to the granting of the Phulbari access, "The importance of the thing is surely psychological as much as economic at present. But one must always look ahead."

Once the dominoes fall, and the Phulbari route could be the beginning, who knows where the chain reaction will reach. Such is the power of commerce, and it is not always for the worse.

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Himal Southasian