Though the Mitali Express provides better connectivity between Bangladesh and India, its true potential can only be reached if it is expanded to other ports.
Amongst the ongoing efforts to boost connectivity are Bangladesh’s offer to extend the Chittagong Port to benefit India’s landlocked states of Assam and Tripura, the promise of operationalising the much-awaited Akhaura–Agartala rail link by the end of 2022, and adding new ports of call and protocol routes to the shared inland waterway network for better trade. Furthermore, Bangladesh has proposed connecting the land ports of Bhadrapur-Bairagi Galgalia, Biratnagar-Jogmani and Birganj-Raxaul with Banglabandha-Fulbari and Birol-Radhikapur via road. The recently inaugurated Padma rail-road bridge in Bangladesh also holds the potential to improve physical linkages between the two countries. In this multitude of initiatives, how the Mitali Express further advances connectivity between these countries and whether it benefits the wider sub-region, is worth contemplation.
The recently inaugurated Padma rail-road bridge in Bangladesh also holds the potential to improve physical linkages between the two countries.
The air-conditioned Mitali Express train service covers a distance of approximately 513 kilometres between Dhaka Cantonment and New Jalpaiguri, in nine hours. The train has two technical stops at Haldibari and Chilahati, as it will be driven by an Indian driver and a Bangladeshi driver, on respective sides of the border. By way of improving connectivity, this train service has been designed to provide an affordable and reliable means of transportation between India and Bangladesh, which will in effect boost bilateral trade and the tourism industry. For example, by connecting Bangladesh with North Bengal, the Mitali Express facilitates travel for Bangladeshi tourists to favoured Indian destinations like Darjeeling, Dooars, and Sikkim. It, therefore, opens up more opportunities to establish robust people-to-people connections. As India’s North Bengal shares borders with Nepal, Bhutan, and Bangladesh, and its Northeast shares borders with Bangladesh, Myanmar, Bhutan, and even China, the train service also provides an avenue for expanding land connectivity with the wider subregion, as India aspires to in its ‘Neighbourhood First’ and ‘Act East’ Policy. Reopening of this route, also facilitates domestic transport within India, as it runs a shorter distance between Kolkata and Siliguri or New Jalpaiguri, thereby, reducing travel time by four hours.
By way of improving connectivity, this train service has been designed to provide an affordable and reliable means of transportation between India and Bangladesh, which will in effect boost bilateral trade and the tourism industry.
Apart from the BBIN initiative, India and Bangladesh are also considering the platform of BIMSTEC to ramp up regional connectivity. The Bay of Bengal Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) is the regional organisation devoted exclusively to the Bay of Bengal region, in which both India and Bangladesh are members. The BIMSTEC Master Plan on Transport Connectivity which was released by the Asian Development Bank in April 2022, devotes an entire section to rail transport since six out of its seven member countries are linked by land. In an interesting take, however, according to this plan, the “railway sector is becoming less important for intra-BIMSTEC transport, and environmental factors favouring the use of rail are unlikely to appreciably change this trend.” This is because there is little shared interest regarding international rail services. Generating a regional momentum for developing rail infrastructure is therefore difficult. The only common need for rail links is to access important seaports, which is particularly important for the landlocked member states of BIMSTEC. Recently developing the shared Buddhist and temple circuit has also been identified as a common demand for improving rail connectivity. It may be understood that from a sub-regional perspective, the utility of a labyrinth of railways is limited. Its scope increases when paired with other forms of transport. Therefore, to realise the true potential of a train service such as the Mitali Express, its reach needs to be expanded to major ports as well as Nepal and Bhutan—the other landlocked members of BIMSTEC— via multi-modal means. This, however, does not undermine its current significance which lies more at the bilateral level. Its present value is in connecting the two neighbouring countries and strengthening social and cultural ties between the people who share ethnolinguistic, historical, and cultural affinities. From a policy perspective, it highlights the growing bonhomie in India-Bangladesh relations.
By connecting Bangladesh with North Bengal, the initiative also provides Bangladeshi citizens with a land route to Nepal via India and the landlocked Himalayan country access to the sea for its commerce.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.
Sohini Bose is an Associate Fellow at Observer ResearchRead More +
Prarthana Sen was Research Assistant with ORF Kolkata. HerRead More +