New era opened in SA sub-regional cooperation

Breaking new ground in South Asian sub-regional cooperation, a ship of the Inland Waterways Authority of India, carrying 1,000 tonnes of crushed stone from Bhutan to be delivered in Bangladesh, was flagged off on Friday from Dhubri port on the Brahmaputra in Assam and headed to Narayanganj. This is the first time an Indian waterway is being used as a transit channel for ferrying of cargo between Bhutan and Bangladesh.

Mansukh Mandaviya, India’s Minister of State for Shipping digitally flagged-off the Inland Waterways Authority of India ship MV AAI in Dhubri. The stone aggregates were transported by trucks from Phuentsholing in Bhutan, which is 160km from Dhubri jetty. Bhutan has so far been exporting significant quantity of stone aggregates to Bangladesh through the land route.

Speaking on the occasion, Mandaviya termed as “historic” the cargo shipment to Bangladesh using India as transit and said the move will be beneficial to India as well as Bhutan and Bangladesh and strengthen relations between the neighbouring countries. He said transport of cargo through the Indian waterways will cut short travel time from Bhutan to Bangladesh by 8 to 10 days and reduce transportation cost by 30%, bringing down logistics costs.

Mandaviya said the development “will not only strengthen our ties with our neighbouring countries but will also open up an alternative route to our  north eastern states, making it easier and cheaper to reach goods to these places from other parts of the country.” The exports through inland waterways mode will serve as an alternative mode of transportation which is cheaper and more environment-friendly. It also offers larger shipment size as compared to road, avoiding congestion on land routes, officials said.

While the consignment of crushed stones is being transported in one single barge through inland waterways, by road the same cargo would have taken 50 trucks of 20 tonnes capacity each to carry the same volume of cargo. Indian officials said the vessel’s movement along the waterways is expected to inspire confidence among the Bhutanese exporters to increasingly shift to waterways mode and increase the trade of stone aggregates and other cargo between Bhutan and Bangladesh through India’s inland waterways.

The consignment is expected to reach the Narayanganj port in three to four days. Bhutan Exporters Association (BEA), the proprietor of Bhutan Stones and Minerals (BSM), who is exporting the first consignment, Tshering Yeshi said it was a much-awaited event and it took almost two months to come to this point. Yeshi said the ferrying of the consignment was possible after India and Bangladesh declared Dhubri as a “port of call.” Bhutan had taken it up to with India to use Dhubri port for transit cargo. Accordingly, a standard operating procedure (SOP) was developed and signed during the Bhutanesee Prime Minister’s Lotay Tshering’s visit to Dhaka in April this year. Cooperation on inland waterways was one of the five bilateral instruments signed at that time.

The distance between Dhubri, the third largest city in Assam, from Bhutan’s Gelephu is about 135km, which means export of riverbed materials from Gelephu, Nganglam and Samdrupjongkhar would be easier and cheaper from Dhubri port. After unloading the materials, the trucks can also return the same day from Dhubri, officials said.

Before the movement through the waterway, trucks from Gelephu used to travel 281km to reach Nakugaon in Bangladesh and had to cross Assam and Meghalaya states of India. Exporters from Bhutan used to travel 156km to reach the India-Bangladesh border trading point Changrabandha-Burimari. Trucks also ferry 97km to reach another border point at Fulbari-Banglabandha.

It takes at least seven days for one truck carrying an average weight of 40MT to make a round trip. The cost of land transport increases when problems arise and trucks are stuck in border areas. Trucks sometime halt for more than 10 days. It is the quantity of cargo that gives more advantage to Bhutanese exporters. The cargo ship AAI has a capacity to lift 2,200 tonnes of load and make more than three round trips in a month.