Millennium Post

Route to North-East

History corroborates the notion that cordial relations with Bangladesh and Bengal are a prerequisite for sound economic development of the landlocked North-Eastern states

East Bengal, present Bangladesh had historically played an important role in the economic development of the landlocked North-Eastern states of India. A quick look into the geographical history of Assam and the North-East region would reveal the importance of Bengal, especially East Bengal (Bangladesh) in the development of this region. The boundaries of different divisions, under British rule, were repeatedly changed to make this region economically and administratively viable for self-rule. It may be recalled that in 1824, following the First Anglo-Burmese War, Assam was occupied by British forces and on February 24, 1826, it was ceded to Britain by Burma. In 1826 Assam was made part of Bengal under the Bengal Presidency.

On February 6, 1874, Assam, including Sylhet, was severed from Bengal to form the Assam Chief-Commissionership (also known as the North-East Frontier Agency-NEFA). In the same year Goalpara (present-day Kokrajhar, Bongaigaon, Dhubri, and Goalpara districts of Assam), which came under the Bengal Presidency in 1765 from its former rulers Koch kings were annexed to Assam.

In September 1874, Shillong was chosen as the capital of the 'Non-Regulation Province' of Assam. Historian, J B Bhattacharjee (2005) had termed this as the 'first partition of Bengal (1874)'. The new Commissionership included the five districts of Assam — Kamrup, Nagaon, Darrang, Sibsagar and Lakhimpur, Khasi-Jaintia Hills, Garo Hills, Naga Hills, Goalpara district and Sylhet-Cachar comprising of about 54,100 sq miles. Then in 1897, the Lushai Hills were transferred to Assam.

After the second partition of Bengal in 1905, Assam became part of the new province 'East Bengal and Assam' headquartered in Dhaka. The Chittagong, Dhaka and Rajshahi divisions, the Malda district and the States of Hill Tripura, Sylhet and Comilla were transferred from Bengal to the new province of Eastern Bengal and Assam. Beginning of 1905, peasants from East Bengal began settling down in the riverine tracts (char) of the Brahmaputra valley encouraged by the colonial government to increase agricultural production.

The 'East Bengal and Assam' province was annulled in 1911, following a sustained mass campaign for the unification of Bengal, and on April 1, 1912, the two parts of Bengal were reunited and a new partition, 'Assam and Sylhet', based on Assamese speaking areas, was created to form a new administrative unit under a Chief Commissioner.

On April 1, 1946, Assam Province was granted self-rule and in July 1947, the 'Sylhet referendum' was held in Sylhet Division to decide whether Sylhet would remain in Assam and join the new country of India or would join the province of East Bengal and the new country of Pakistan. The referendum decided in favour of joining Pakistan's East Bengal. However, the Barak Valley remained in India's Assam. On August 15, 1947, when Bengal was again partitioned, Assam became part of the Indian Union.

Partition of Bengal and the subsequent emergence of an independent country in Bangladesh have practically isolated the North-Eastern states from the rest of India. This isolation from the main centre of power has proved very costly for people of this region and it gets reflected in the basic economic indicators like the share of North-Eastern States' GSDP in the country's GDP. In 2017, the total GSDP of eight North-Eastern states was Rs 5 lakh crore compared to Rs 172 lakh crore of country's GDP which amounted to only 2.9 per cent of the national GDP. As per 2011 Census, this vast landmass house 3.7 per cent of the total population of India which indicates that per capita production was lower than the national average. One of the reasons for low GSDP of North-Eastern (NE) states is their inability to attract investment — both local and foreign. During April 2000–March 2018, the NE states could attract only 0.03 per cent of FDI equity flow which entered into India. Even Indian commercial banks have not extended credit to the NE entrepreneurs to the extent they deserved. Data show that over the years, the credit-deposit ratio of North-East region has remained nearly half of the national average. For example, in 2017, the C-R ration of seven sisters of NE was 38.2 per cent against the national average of 73.8 per cent. Lack of fund and sustained siphoning of peoples' savings and natural resources like tea, timber, oil, coal etc., to other parts of the country have resulted into a vicious circle of inadequate resource, poverty, unemployment and political unrest.

Access to Bay of Bengal and rest of India, through Bangladesh, are essential for harnessing the unutilised economic capability of these states. In the first decade of this century, the government of India wanted to revive the old sea route to connect North-East states with Kolkata and other ports on the Bay of Bengal. Accordingly, an ambitious project — the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project — connecting the eastern Indian seaport of Kolkata with Sittwe seaport in the Rakhine State of Myanmar by sea was initiated. Prior to the partition of Bengal, this sea route had been operational for several decades. As per the plan, the supply chain would link Sittwe seaport to Paletwa in Chin State of Myanmar via the Kaladan riverboat route, and then from Paletwa by road to Mizoram state in North-East India. However, for various reasons, the project has not yet been completed.

As an alternate route to the North-East, India is developing railway route from Chittagong's Cox Bazar's deepwater port to South Tripura district, at a distance of 200 kilometres, by rehabilitating the railway link from Santirbazar in India to Feni in Bangladesh, where a road and rail bridge is being built to connect the "Belonia, India–Parshuram, Bangladesh road and rail crossing check posts.

After years of persuasion and negotiations, the Bangladesh government has agreed, in December 2019, to offer transport and transit rights to the North-Eastern states. It has been decided that Bangladesh will not impose transit charges and customs duties on India for transhipping cargos through Chattogram and Mongla seaports for its landlocked North-Eastern states and vice-versa. Only administrative fees would be charged. Unfortunately, the Indo-Bangladesh relation has turned ugly after the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). One cannot expect good relation from a neighbouring country when its citizens are being constantly 'labelled as 'intruders' and 'termites'!

As a retaliation to Indian government's propaganda against Bangladesh, it's Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen and Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan have cancelled their scheduled visits to India and on December 18, and Bangladesh has, at the last minute, cancelled talks over sharing of river data with India.

Landlocked North-Eastern states, especially Assam, Mizoram, Meghalaya and Tripura, cannot afford to antagonise Bangladesh. Historically, Bengal has played a very important role in the economic development of this region.

Views expressed are strictly personal

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