India has long sought road transit facilities through Bangladesh for the transport of goods from West Bengal to other Northeastern states. Due to unresolved bilateral issues and internal political objection, Bangladesh has consistently avoided the subject over the past few years. With changes to the governments in both countries the transit issue has recently gained new momentum. The Awami League, the ruling party of Bangladesh, is very eager to sign a comprehensive transit deal with India for all forms of transportation - roads, rail and waterways. Historically, the Awami League has had close ties to the India’s ruling Congress party.
In fact, the present government is overwhelmed by the fact that Bangladesh will get a major financial benefit from any transit deal. Not only financially, there are opportunities for other long-term benefits. This is clearly reflected in the government’s decision to provide a limited scale transit facility to India by amending the 1972 bilateral Protocol on Inland Water Transit and Trade (PIWTT) effective since April of last year. It allows India to transport goods from Kolkata to the Ashuganj river port point in Bangladesh, and then to Agartala in northeast India by road links.
As agreed, India will pay Tk 100 million (US$ 1.25 million USD) to Bangladesh annually for the maintenance of river channels which it will use as a transit route, with no tariff and transport related service charges. There is much talk now between different government departments about the parameter of fixing tariff rates, if full-scale transit facilities are given to India. However, the government is not taking into consideration the necessity of doing extensive homework or study to assess the potential environmental risks of transit in Bangladesh. In the present global scenario, any large-scale project implementation requires prior environmental assessment as to the effects of environmental degradation on the economy of the society in terms of poverty, food insecurity and health hazards.
For example, in the case of providing transit facilities to neighboring states, Switzerland set tariffs only after the assessment of environmental loss of transit traffic in the mountain Alps. Earlier this year, the Bangladeshi government’s core committee on transit proposed 17 routes for transit traffic – seven by road, seven by rail and three by waterway. It is in fact suicidal for Bangladesh to grant transit facilities to India through its multiple routes when environmental issues are being avoided. Even discussing these concerns in public has largely been ignored by civil society groups, political parties and the mainstream media.
Of course, transit will pose a serious threat to the environment in Bangladesh. The establishment of new road and rail links that require acquiring land will not only evict thousands of people from their homes, but will also destroy trees, water bodies and productive farmlands. Some effects have already begun to appear from the use of limited transit passage by India. In July 2010, Dhaka and Delhi signed a project for the development of road communications from Akhaura to Agartala at a cost of $33 million to facilitate Indian ODC (Over Dimensional Cargo) movement. The prime responsibility for implementing the project was given to Indian ABC Construction.
According to a PROBE News Magazine report (November 5-11, 2010), “Work is on at full speed. About 500 trees have been felled for the purpose and nearby water bodies are being filled up with cement and sand bags over which steel sheet are being placed for the trailer to ply with the ODC. Local people complained that these arrangements will obstruct natural water flow in the area causing serious water-logging during monsoon.”
It is observed that the impacts of water logging on the local environment, economy and livelihoods are numerous. The impacts of water logging have been identified as damaging to roads, disruption of communication, losses to business and employment and less industrial production.
Water pollution, increase of fish diseases and spilling or the overflow of fishponds occurs during the water logging period. Homes and latrines collapse resulting in serious health hazards and various water born diseases break out in that period. The report further stated that the local district administration already started the process of acquiring land at the village Charchartala near the Ashuganj fertilizer factory silos to set up the transshipment centre and a yard with the capacity for 60 thousand containers. The land in question has several rice mills, a shrine and many houses.
But that’s not all—very recently a long diversion road was built through a Bangladeshi river called Titas for facilitating transshipment of Indian heavy machinery and equipment by Over Dimensional Cargo (ODC) lorries as the existing roads and bridges will not able to handle the weight. Local media reports that this concrete road across of the river Titas has created a serious decline in the freshwater flow, heavy siltation in the riverbeds and ecological imbalance in the areas. The agricultural production on adjacent land has been seriously affected by the flooding of cropland. All the people whose life and livelihoods are inextricably linked to the river Titas face an uncertain and gloomy future. The environmental damage is enormous.
The question is, can Bangladesh bear such environmental losses of transit traffic since the country is fighting for survival against climate change, sea level rise and the recurrent natural disasters? The government must therefore make sure that transit plans are environmentally affordable, not just economically beneficial. Otherwise the costs of environmental damage could be higher than the financial benefits of transit.