North-East India, despite being a part of mainland India, is far remote and far more inaccessible than we think. Among the north-eastern states, Tripura, Mizoram, Manipur and south Assam lie almost entirely on the other side of Bangladesh. The partition of India along religious lines did not favour India her connection with her own north-eastern states.
The narrow chicken’s neck at Siliguri is the only connection between the rest of India and the north-eastern states and parts of north West Bengal. If the Siliguri corridor is blocked for some reason, the entire north-east India gets cut off from the rest of the country. This happens when there is an accident or protests, or terrorists operating in the region, or due to natural calamities. Sikkim is connected to the rest of the country using only one major national highway, which is often blocked during the monsoon due to landslides.
Mizoram, Manipur, Tripura and south Assam are further disconnected from the rest of the north-east by the Borail range, with only one road and one single rail connection. The Borail range is highly susceptible to landslides and floods, leading to frequent blockades. The same region is much better accessible from Bangladesh, as the border lies entirely in the plains. With both new and old road and rail connections being set up, and even waterways being revived, this region has better connectivity with Bangladesh than the rest of India.
The Agartala-Akhaura rail line, connecting Agartala, the capital of Tripura, with the Comilla region of Bangladesh, is expected to be commissioned soon. Another historic rail line exists between Sylhet and Karimganj, which was responsible for connecting the whole region with Lumding junction, and subsequently to the rest of the Indian Railway network. The single-line passes through the major flood and landslide prone Borail hills, which is as of now closed due to a series of massive flash floods in the state since May 14, 2022. The flood washed away the whole Haflong station, including trains standing in it, and also killed 36 people as of 30th May, 2022.
Bangladesh also connects the north-east to the historic port city of Chittagong, offering cheaper trade between north-east India and the rest of the world. Southern Meghalaya region like the Dawki and Cherrapunji are easier accessible from the Bangladeshi side of Mymensingh. The chicken’s neck can be widened if the adjoining Rangpur division of Bangladesh is incorporated into it. The historic Darjeeling Mail, before partition, used to pass majorly through Bangladesh, which even today is the shortest route.
A bus route has been inaugurated to connect Kolkata in West Bengal to Agartala in Tripura through Bangladesh, which takes one-third the original time. Bandhan Express, connecting Kolkata to Khulna and Maitree Express are relaunched after Covid-19. Mitali Express connecting Siliguri with Dhaka is to be launched on 1st June, 2022. Two more routes in Malda and Uttar Dinajpur districts of India are open for freight operations. However, most important road and rail connections between Assam and West Bengal through Bangladesh are still defunct, including the Geetaldaha-Bamanhat-Golakganj section and the Karimganj-Sylhet section.
It is not possible in the short term to make the India-Bangladesh border an open border, or a nearly open border as with Bhutan, or a semi-open border as with Nepal. However, looking in the long term, both Indian and Bangladeshi Governments are thinking of some sort of open borders, or land ports to facilitate easier movement of goods and people from one country to another. The Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal motor vehicle agreement may just be the policy required for easier movement of goods. However, for easier movement of people, we need to wait for some more time, as many north-east Indian states are already protesting the massive influx of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh in the recent years.
Written by – Himadri Paul