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Bay of Bengal can change the fate of South Asians

Regional connectivity through the Bay of Bengal can change the fate of South Asian people through trade and economy, especially of the landlocked Nepal, Bhutan and India’s Northeast, said economists and foreign relations experts said this week..

Navigation through the Bay of Bengal and regional rivers can largely reduce the cost of transporting goods, help protect the rivers from encroachment, while promotion of hydropower in the mountainous countries like Nepal and Bhutan can help address climate change impacts, they said.

The observations came at a webinar titled “Regional Importance of the Bay of Bengal for Bangladesh and its landlocked and littoral neighbours”.

The Bay of Bengal Institute Project of Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB), International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) and Bangladesh Institute of Maritime Research and Development (BIMRAD) jointly organsed the event.

“If Nepal, Bhutan and Northeast India are able to properly harness the Bay, they may have the opportunity to fully shift from their current status of land-locked to land-linked,” said Bangladesh’s  Additional Foreign Secretary (East) Mashfee Binte Shams in her keynote.

Citing an UNCTAD study, she said transport costs of landlocked countries are 50 percent higher than those of maritime countries, making it hard to grow faster. However, a lack of sustainable infrastructure is holding back landlocked countries from achieving their full potential.

As part of regional integration, Bangladesh has put a premium on quality transport infrastructure to facilitate regional connectivity — both maritime, inland, road and railways, the additional secretary added.

She cited Bangladesh’s inland waterways network connecting Kolkata and Haldia ports to Northeast India through routes designated under India-Bangladesh Protocol on Inland Water Transit and Trade.

Besides, trans-shipment through Bangladesh to Northeast India using sea ports of Chattogram, Mongla and Payra by linking inland waterways will play a vital role for the economies of both countries, Mashfee said. 

However, she said, the ports on the Bay of Bengal are especially vulnerable to extreme weather events and maintaining their physical integrity makes for a strong economic argument. Attracting finance for maritime infrastructure can be difficult for the landlocked countries, she said suggesting a BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal) Joint Port Development Fund. 

BIMRAD Adviser Rear Admiral Kazi Sarwar Hossain (retd) said Bangladesh, a crossroad between South and Southeast Asia, is already heavily investing in infrastructure development, but much more is required the roads, railways and waterways connecting the regional states. 

Policy Research Institute Chairman Dr Zaidi Sattar said Asian countries like Bangladesh heavily depended on western countries for trade in the last decades, but eventually, the largest world economies are going to be in Asia.

Nepal’s former finance secretary Rameshore Khanal said as significance of the Bay of Bengal as a trade route is growing, interests of the superpowers in it are also growing. Bangladesh needs to be extremely careful to make sure that the Bay remains a peaceful space, he added.

He said currently Nepal has maritime access only through Indian ports, but once infrastructure is developed to connect to the Bay of Bengal, it can largely benefit through reduced transport cost and time.

While Bangladesh can provide transit to landlocked Nepal, Nepal can also provide transit for Bangladesh to Central Asia through China, he said, adding that it will further open doors for the countries.

Rameshore Khanal said Nepal and Bhutan can be great sources of hydropower if such projects can be financed. There can also be a common energy market in South Asia, he noted.

Sabyasachi Dutta, director at the Asian Confluence based in Shillong, India — said Nepal, Bhutan, Northeast India, Bangladesh and Myanmar is a unique ecosystem that is very interdependent.

“Given a strong network of multimodal connectivity, the region can shine through regional and extra-regional trade,” he said.

Ambassador Rensje Teerink, head of the European Union Delegation to Bangladesh, said EU is a good friend of the region and seeks to promote regional connectivity, but environmental protection is a must while building major projects.

The Bay of Bengal Institute Project Senior Fellow Ambassador (retd) Tariq A Karim, former ambassador Shamsher Mobin Chowdhury, former Bhutanese Ambassador to Bangladesh Sonam Tobden Rabgye and IUB Vice Chancellor (Acting) Prof Milan Pagon also spoke.

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