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Connectivity: The India-Bangladesh land bridge

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Himal Magazine

February?2011

By?Kanak Mani Dixit

Can a formal bilateral communiqu? be a ?game changer?, foretell a ?paradigm shift?, in a Southasian relationship? If India and Bangladesh manage to follow through on promises to open up their economies for transit and trade as set out in a memorandum of January 2010, a new era could dawn across the land borders of Southasia. The challenges are bureaucratic inertia in New Delhi and ultra-nationalist politics in Dhaka.
The political partition of the Subcontinent in 1947 did not have to lead to economic partition, but that is ultimately what happened. This did not take place right away, and many had believed that the borders of India and Pakistan?s eastern and western flanks were demarcations that would allow for the movement of people and commerce. It was as late as the India-Pakistan war of 1965 that the veins and capillaries of trade were strangulated. In the east, in what was to become Bangladesh just a few years later, the river ferries and barges that connected Kolkata with the deltaic region, and as far up as Assam, were terminated. The metre-gauge railway lines now stopped at the frontier, and through-traffic of buses and trucks came to a halt. The latest act of separation was for India to put up an elaborate barbed-wire fence along much of the 4000 km border, a project that is nearly complete. Today, what mainly passes under these wires are Bangladeshi migrants seeking survival in the faraway metropolises of India ? and contraband.

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Photo credit: Sworup Nhasiju
This half-century of distancing between what was previously one continuous region has resulted in incalculable loss of economic vitality, most of it hidden under nationalist bombast. Bangladesh lost a huge market and source of investment, even as the heretofore natural movement of people in search of livelihood suddenly came to be termed ?illegal migration?. Bangladeshis were wounded by the unilateral construction of the Farakka Barrage on the Ganga/Padma, a mere 10 km upstream from the border, which deepened the anti-Indian insularity of Dhaka?s new nationalist establishment. Forced to chart its own course, Bangladesh concentrated on developing its own soil and society, uniquely building mega-NGOs such as Proshika, BRAC and Grameen, developing a healthy domestic industrial sector such as in garment manufacture, and learning to deal with disastrous floods and cyclones.
In India, the lack of contact and commerce led increasingly to an evaporation of empathy for Bangladesh, which became an alien state rather than a Bangla-speaking sister Southasian society. The opinion-makers of mainland India wilfully ignored the interests of the Indian Northeast, which they see as an appendage with no more than four percent of the national population. The seven states of the Northeast, meanwhile, became weakened economically with the denial of access to Bangladesh?s market and the proximate ports on the Bay of Bengal. Mainland India, of course, could easily afford to maintain its strategic and administrative control through the ?chicken?s neck? of the Siliguri corridor, but few considered the economic opportunities lost to the Northeast over five decades.
Distrust and xenophobia in Bangladesh, the imperial aloofness of New Delhi, and the Northeast?s lack of agency delivered a status quo in disequilibrium in the northeastern quadrant of Southasia that has lasted decades. Unexpectedly, there is a hint of change. A relatively little-remarked-upon memorandum between the prime ministers of Bangladesh and India holds out the possibility of erasing the anti-historical legacy of closed borders and rigid economies.