Roadblocks to Northeast India

Lack of access hurts economic development

By V.L. Srinivasan

Movement of over-dimensional cargo, known as ODC, into the northeastern states of India is a nightmare for project developers and transportation specialists because of the region’s inaccessibility on both political and physical fronts.

Road networks are especially poor in the seven “sister” states in the northeast region — Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura. The poor infrastructure hurts more than industrial activity as local economies  depend on roads for tourism, a major source of income.

When mega-infrastructure developments such as power plants, airports, fertilizer units and other capital projects are started in the hinterland of the northeast region, the prospect of moving cargo from mainland India to its northeast region, which is almost completely cut off by Bangladesh, is often the biggest challenge.

That’s why project logistics providers prefer to turn to alternative routes to access these remote northeast states. Transshipment through neighboring Bangladesh often provides a better solution. In fact, a mid-20th century agreement between India and Bangladesh provides permission for shippers to move cargo through Bangladesh bound for northeast India.

Unfortunately today, political posturing between the two nations has resulted in only a few project cargo shipments receiving a green light to use this route.

One project that was able to take advantage of the preferred alternative route through Bangladesh was a consignment — begun in 2010 and completed in 2011 — whose pieces weighed between 115 tonnes and 350 tonnes. The shipment was bound for a 763-megawatt, gas-based power plant at Palatana near Tripura’s capital city of Agartala, India.

ABC India teamed up with Gulf Orient Seaways of Bangladesh to move the cargo. The overland transport through India and around Bangladesh would have taken 1,650 kilometers from Kolkata to Palatana. The distance was shaved to 350 kilometers by going from Kolkata through Bangladesh to Palatana. The cargo moved by sea to the Ashuganj River port in Bangladesh, then overland to the project site.

Even the much shorter overland route through Bangladesh to Palatana was difficult. The cargo was divided into small pieces for transport by truck, each of which took about 16 hours to cover the 121 kilometers to its destination. Despite this shorter distance, the overland transportation costs were quite high, according to Ashish Agarwal, managing director at ABC India.

Prior to the partition of India in 1947, trade and commerce between northeast India and other Indian states as well as the rest of the world passed through the territories of East Pakistan, which is now Bangladesh.

Rail and river transit across then-East Pakistan continued until 1965 when, as a consequence of a war between India and Pakistan, all transit traffic was suspended. Although river transit was restored in 1972, no progress has been made on allowing road and rail transit.

Like India, landlocked neighbors Nepal and Bhutan are keen to transship cargo through Bangladesh.

Last September, the Bangladesh government briefly allowed Indian shippers to transship cargo bound for its northeastern states. But the privilege was suspended after government officials decided improvements were needed to infrastructure at the Ashuganj River port.

Since then, India has been pressing Bangladesh to continue to allow bulk cargo to be transshipped through Ashuganj Port in accordance with the 1972 Protocol on Inland Water Transit and Trade, known as PIWTT.

ABC India’s Agarwal said with the exception of the state of Assam, most of Indian’s northeastern states are served by a single trunk road. The region’s hinterlands, where big projects are coming up, have no proper roads. This is one reason for the high cost of overland transportation, he said.

“Until recently, there were numerous Bailey bridges in the Guwahati-Shillong-Silchar-Agartala sector that could only withstand up to 30 tonnes,” he said. “Though most of them have been converted to concrete bridges, they cannot take a load beyond 150 tonnes even with the use of multi-axle hydraulic trailers.”

A Bailey bridge is a type of portable, prefabricated truss bridge developed by the British during World War II for military use.

Agarwal said moving the project cargo on the longer route within India would have required construction of temporary bridges over deep gorges, which made the use of the Indian route too expensive.

“To overcome this, we adopted multimodal transportation to move the ODC, which was dispatched by barge from Kolkata through the Indo-Bangladesh protocol route of the inland waterway of Ganges-Meghna-Padma-Brahmaputra,” Agarwal said.

Although India and Bangladesh signed the PIWTT more than 40 years ago, logistics providers say it is not being implemented in a spirit of encouraging trade because of unresolved bilateral issues and the domestic political compulsions of Bangladesh.

“The use of the Indo-Bangla land border near Agartala could reduce the transportation distance from Kolkata to Agartala by as much as 600 kilometers,” Agarwal said.  “But such land custom stations are not being allowed by Bangladesh to check transit cargo for obvious reasons.”

ABC India conducted a feasibility study for the transport of heavy-lift cargo using the Port of Karimgunj far inland in Assam as the landing port in India, and then sending the cargo overland. The company discovered using this route was a technically risky proposition because of the seasonal availability of adequate draft at Karimgunj, steep grades and short turning radii on bends in hilly sections, and load challenges with several large-span bridges.

After prolonged discussions with India, Bangladesh agreed to a one-time permission and allowed the land transit of the Palatana-bound project cargo. It took nine months, with 15 diversions for various bridges and the construction of a roll-on, roll-off jetty at Ashugunj in Bangladesh.

“Initially, the process started smoothly, but faced problems later due to domestic political compulsions as political parties in Bangladesh demanded cancellation of permission given for the land transit,” Agarwal said.

Even Sk. Mahfuz Hamid, Chittagong-based Gulf Orient Sea Ways managing director, said it is not possible to transport ODC weighing between 100 tonnes and 450 tonnes beyond Assam. Only a heavy-deck loader barge can take on such a cargo and transport it through the river route between India and Bangladesh, he said.

“In fact, these jobs are very challenging and need huge special equipment and experience,” he said.

Citing the Palatana cargo move, Hamid noted that even along such a short overland route, 51 bypasses had to be built, and temporary roads had to be constructed for distances up to 15 kilometers.

“We did ro-ro for unloading the cargo, as a crane of that capacity was not available,” he said. “And we made a floating bridge to cross the cargoes over the big river.”

Government officials in India are aware of the monumental challenges facing project cargo moves to its northeast region, and have formed the North Eastern Council, known as NEC, to act as a facilitator in expediting transport to all seven states.

Retired Indian Administrative Services officer and NEC member P. P. Shrivastava said the northeast’s road network is “satisfactory” for a region that is 70 percent hills and mountains, and where cargo movement is impacted by an active monsoon season.

“The convenient way to transport ODC (from mainland India) to the (northeast) states is through Bangladesh,” he said. “The Indian government is holding negotiations with the neighboring country for moving project cargo; this is not only economical but also can be done quickly.”

India has also unveiled plans for a 2.8 billion Indian rupee (US$50.1 million) railway project to connect Bangladesh’s southeastern border town of Akhaura with Tripura’s Agartala. The project is expected to begin this year, as the Indian government is scheduled to announce funding for the project in March from the FY2013-14 budget. The project will be funded exclusively by the Indian government, with cooperation from Bangladesh.

A recent report on regional connectivity published in the Journal of Bangladesh Institute of Planners concluded that Bangladesh and its neighbors could benefit considerably from transportation connections that link Nepal, Bhutan and northeast India.

Bangladesh would benefit from transit fees and transport charges, as well as Indian investment in its transportation network development.

Political observers in Bangladesh have warned security implications could derail the project, however. If those concerns could be addressed, and connectivity provided to hinterland countries and territories, new trade possibilities would open up for Bangladesh, the report concluded.