NEW DELHI: India on Monday handed over the Bangladesh 10 railway locomotives in a bid to bolster its “neighbourhood first" policy against the backdrop of China, with whom New Delhi is engaged in a tense border standoff, making major inroads into India’s periphery.
The handover of the broad gauge diesel locomotives, part of grant assistance from the Indian side, is in line with a commitment by New Delhi made during Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit to New Delhi in October. The locomotives were handed over during a virtual event attended by Indian foreign minister S Jaishankar and railways minister Piyush Goyal and their Bangladeshi counterparts AK Abdul Momen and Mohammed Nurul Islam Sujon.
“Railways have ensured that the two countries can continue our bilateral trade without any disruption and health risk" during the covid-19 pandemic, Railways minister Piyush Goyal said in comments after the flagging off of the 10 locomotives. Both the Indian and Bangladesh Railways are “ensuring a better future for the people," he said.
"Parcel train and container train services have been introduced (between India and Bangladesh) via Benapole in Bangladesh. Both these services have already started in the month of July. These have enabled us to move a wide range of products from both sides," he said.
"The leadership of both, India and Bangladesh, are committed to reviving the pre-1965 railway connection between the two countries. Out of the seven rail links that existed then, four are functional now. To further strengthen rail connectivity in the region, one new rail link, between Agartala in India and Akhaura in Bangladesh is being constructed and financed under Grant Assistance of India," Goyal said.
Monday’s development follows the first cross-border container train reaching Bangladesh on Sunday with 50 containers of FMCG goods and fabrics. It also comes after a landmark achievement in the area of maritime connectivity between the two countries with the first shipment of container cargo from Kolkata to Agartala in India’s landlocked northeast reaching its destination via Bangladesh’s Chattogram port.
The connectivity initiatives with Bangladesh coincide with other moves by India to cement ties with countries in its periphery in the middle of a standoff with China. In recent years, Beijing has made a determined effort to reach out to countries in India’s periphery to draw them into China’s sphere of influence. In the case of Bangladesh, Chinese president Xi Jinping on a visit during 2016 signed deals worth $ 20 billion eclipsing India’s Lines of Credit worth $ 8 billion since 2011. In Nepal, Chinese diplomats have been brokering a peace deal between prime minister Khagda Prasad Sharma Oli and his party colleagues who are keen to see him relinquish the prime minister’s post, according to news reports. In Sri Lanka too, China has offered a concessional loan $ 500 million to overcome economic problems faced by the Sri Lankan government due to covid-19. On Saturday, India announced a $400-million currency swap facility for Sri Lanka under the regional SAARC framework, with another request for a bilateral swap facility for $1.1 billion from Colombo also under active consideration by New Delhi. In the Maldives, a statement by the Indian high commission on Sunday said New Delhi would “announce another substantial financial assistance package" to help post-covid-19 economic recovery. This is after New Delhi provided $400 million through an extended currency swap arrangement to tide over a liquidity shortage.
In his remarks, Jaishankar described ties between India and Bangladesh as “time tested" and one based on mutual trust and respect.
“Very few countries such close fraternal ties as ours. Our partnership today stands out as a role model for good neighbourly relations in our region. As your close friend and neighbor we are happy to witness the transformative growth in Bangladesh," Jaishankar said. He noted that after the covid-19 pandemic spread, the business communities of the two countries had used freight trains to ensure raw material supplies. “India remains a committed development partner of Bangladesh," the minister added.
According to a person familiar with the development, India-Bangladesh railway cooperation was a key element in efforts to promote trade and connectivity. Both sides are working to enhance rail connectivity by developing new projects and restoring old links. Currently, the four operational rail links between the two sides, all of which originate in West Bengal, are Petrapole-Benapole, Gede-Darshana, Singhabad-Rohanpur, and Radhikapur–Birol.
The first container train that reached Bangladesh on Sunday left the Container Corporation of India Ltd’s (CONCOR) terminal at Majerhat near Kolkata on Friday and crossed over using the Benapole-Petrapole link. This container train will now be a regular service connecting CONCOR terminals in India to stations in Bangladesh such as Benapole, Jessore, Singia, Noapara and Bangabandhu Setu West, Indian officials said. The two sides signed an MoU for the service in April 2017 and a trial run was conducted in April 2018.
There are also two passenger trains – Bandhan Express from Kolkata to Khulna and Maitree Express from Kolkata to Dhaka – though services are temporarily suspended due to the pandemic.
Seventeen railway projects with a commitment of $2.44 billion were included in assistance extended by India to Bangladesh. India has offered lines of credit for these projects at a rate of interest of 1% a year, with repayment over 20 years with a moratorium for five years.
Nine projects have been completed, including supply of wagons and equipment. The Kulaura-Shahbazpur line, being built at a cost of $78 million, is set to be completed by the end of this year, and the Khulna-Mongla line worth $389 million is set for completion by June 2021.