The Proposed Asian Highway and Bangladesh
14 Dec, 2005
- It is Mr. Mujib's greatness that has made him to call me an expert on Bangladesh's trade through Chittagong Port. I want him to know that I am not an expert of any sort, let alone the vast subject of trade of Bangladesh through its major port. I will, however, make a sincere attempt at shedding some light on the Port of Chittagong, as it had been my good fortune to be able to keep myself associated with the shipping industry of Bangladesh for over 25 years. I spent most of my time in the Port City of Chittagong.
Mr. Mujib has asked for my input because of the controversy that evolves around the Asian Highway Route proposed by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific. It is a controversy because Bangladesh wants to change the proposed route of the Highway, whereas 27 nations connected with it have already agreed to the proposal by ratifying it in 2004.
To understand why Bangladesh insisted on re-routing the Highway, it is necessary for us to take a look at its geographical map first, before judging Bangladesh's insistence positively or negatively. Though I am not at all qualified to pinpoint the reason or reasons, which might have forced Bangladesh to negotiate the route of the Highway, yet I will make an attempt to look at it from my own personal perspective. But before doing that, I would like to say a few words on the Port of Chittagong and the Transit Facility Bangladesh had once granted to Nepal.
Chittagong is the main sea-port of Bangladesh. It handles almost eighty-five percent of the country's sea-borne trade. Established in the 15th century, this port gained its full prestige after the creation of Bangladesh in 1971. Despite the fact that it is rightly considered to be the lifeline of Bangladesh, its successive governments never tried to turn it into a modern port. As a result, it continues to serve the nation with the facilities and infrastructure it had inherited from its founders some two hundred years ago.
The Port of Chittagong has 15 Jetties of which only 13 are equipped with shore cranes, each having a lifting capacity of about 1.5 tons. For handling heavier cargoes, there was a floating crane, but it became unusable in or about 1991. Its river-moorings had no shore cranes, and ships berthed at the moorings had to use their own derricks or cranes for unloading or loading their cargoes. I understand that the river-mooring berths have since been converted into a couple of Container berths, thus enhancing the port's capacity to handle containers ships by a great extent. These two container berths would be supplementing the two container berths that were constructed about a decade and half ago.
Mongla is not a full-fledged sea port. It is an anchorage where ships load and unload their cargoes into barges and coastal ships, while remaining anchored or moored in the middle of the Pussur River. The draft of the river is rather shallow and navigation for large ships is not very safe.
Some berths were built by the side of the river many years ago. It was not a move that one could say was motivated by the viability of the project. Though light draft vessels do take berth at these jetties, but the number of suitable ships to come alongside is very limited. Operations at these jetties are not cheap, due to which reason, Shipowners prefer to keep their ships anchored in the middle of the river.
Mongla Port has become a curse for Bangladesh. Labor force here is highly politicized. Their militancy is the result of the Dock Labor Management Board, which Ershad, the former dictator of Bangladesh, had created to serve his political purpose. This organization has become the death nail for the Mongla Port.
On account of the highly damaging activities of the Mongla Port laborers, many Shipowners do not want to send their ships to this port. I believe it was blacklisted a few times in the past by many Shipowners of the world. I do not have latest information on this matter.
Because of the reasons I have stated about the Mongla Port, the Port of Chittagong has been placed in a situation where it has to shoulder most of the burden of the country's seaborne trade. It has, therefore, seen severe congestions in the past; it is likely to face congestions in future as well. Congestion at this port is likely to become acute in days ahead, as there is no scope to extend its size and operational abilities in future.
The eastern side of the port is blocked by private properties. Another part of it remains occupied by the naval ships of Bangladesh Navy. Chittagong is, perhaps, one of the few ports of the world, which is required to co-exist along side the war ships of the country!
No expansion can take place after the Oil Moorings of the Port, as the stretch of the river that runs from the moorings to the mouth of the River Karnafully is very shallow. Moreover, the Gupta Khal bend is very narrow. This part of the river must be left open in order to enable ships to navigate the narrow bend with a reasonable amount of safety cushion at their disposal.
Despite the fact that Chittagong is not a very efficient port, Nepal had sought, and was granted permission by the Government of Bangladesh to import its goods through it many years ago. Nepal began importing Cement Clinker for its Cement Factories. One of my Companies had handled two such consignments on behalf of the Nepalese importers.
It was a toiling experience. Bangladesh Railways would not have suitable wagons to place alongside the ship. When wagons were loaded, engines would not be available on time to remove them from the jetty. When a full rack was prepared, Railways would not tell you when it would be able to leave for its destination.
When the rack reached the Indian border, Custom officers would not be available to sign off the documents. And the arrival of the rack in Nepal depended on the availability of engine from India's side. In short, Nepal hardly knew when its consignments of Cement Clinker would be reaching its factories.
Nepal had tried to develop its sea-trade through Chittagong due to the reason that operations at the Port of Calcutta had become almost erratic and unbearable. Laborers at this port functioned under the Dock Labor Management. Since the laborers controlled this organization, and they got paid through it, even without working, cargo handling became very expensive at this port. To avoid paying high cargo handling costs at Calcutta, Nepal tried to develop an alternate port for their trade by coming to Chittagong. They also tried to use Mongla port, but I do not think their experience at this port was any better than that of the Port of Chittagong.
Whether or not the Nepalese are still using the Ports of Bangladesh is not known to me. But permitting countries like India and Nepal to use Chittagong Port for the purpose of transiting their cargoes is not a good idea for Bangladesh. My reasoning for saying so is as follows:
The trade volume of Bangladesh has grown much over its pre-independence volume. It would increase in future as well. But to handle the volume of its own trade, Chittagong Port does neither have now, nor would it have in future, enough capacity. Since it would be difficult for Chittagong Port to meet Bangladesh's own needs in future, the question is how it is going to accommodate extra number of ships, which would arrive in future with cargoes bound for India and Nepal.
Would not those ships create congestion at the port? Would not congestions compel foreign Shipowners to impose congestion surcharge on the import and export trade of Bangladesh? Would not storage of transit cargoes for India and Nepal create space shortages in the Storage Sheds of the port? Would the revenue that the transit cargoes would generate be enough for Bangladesh to offset its losses? Would Bangladesh's inefficient and fragile infrastructure be able to withstand the load of activities the Transit Rights, granted, especially to India, would generate?
Above are some of the questions Bangladesh government must address before granting Transit Facilities to India and Nepal. Any hasty or political decision is likely to become a death trap for Bangladesh.
Let's now consider why the Government of Bangladesh might have refused to accept the plan for Asian Highway, which is known as AH-1.
It is my belief that one of the reasons, which had led us, the Bengalis of East Pakistan, to the war of secession in 1971, was our Bengali nationalism. Our nationalism found its expression in the slogan "Joy Bangla". Inspired by this slogan, we Bengalis took up arms to drive away the Pakistani soldiers from our soil. So far as I know, none of the Bengalis had taken up arms, and died, for and in defense of a particular religion or creed.
But those who were opposed to the Bengali Nationalism sided with the Pakistanis, with the belief that the secession of East Pakistan would bring death to Islam. Those Islamist elements were defeated and their voice disappeared from the land of the Bengalis.
For so long as the voice of the Islamists had remained silenced and their activities almost grounded, Bangladesh did not face much difficulty in maintaining its secular character. But this character was not ordained to last for long, for Jamaat-e-Islam got its life back with the revival of citizen of Gulam Azam, its Amir.
Gulam's induction in the political arena of Bangladesh changed its political landscape. To win the favor of the illiterate and ill-informed Muslims of the country, Jamaat played with their religious sentiments. To make their mission of converting the secular-minded Muslims back to strict Islamism successful, the Jamaatis needed an enemy of Islam, and they quickly found this enemy in a disproportionately large India, and in its huge Hindu population.
The enemy found, the Jamaatis proceeded with intimidating the Muslim population of Bangladesh with various threats. One such threat was the concocted intention of the Indian Hindus to convert them to Hinduism, once Awami League (AL), the largest secularist party of the country, was voted to power. And this threat was founded not on India's military or economic might, but from its Hindu's "uloo dhuni". It is a sound that the Hindu women produce, on festive and religious occasions, by moving their tongues within their mouths.
Jamaatis and other opponents of secularism told the Muslims of Bangladesh that if they voted AL to power, their country would become a Hindu State. From its mosques will come out no Azans (calls to Muslim prayer), as these would be replaced by the uloo dhuni of the Hindus.
Highly scared, Muslims voters sided with the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the largest pro-Islamic Party of the country. But the people's support was not enough to make it the country's governing party. So it allied itself with the Islamists.
BNP formed the government, but it had to give away two of the country's most important ministerial portfolios to the Jamatis in exchange of their support. These portfolios are the Ministry of Home and the Ministry of Agriculture.
The Ministry of Home enabled its Minister to influence almost all of the functionaries of the government. The Ministry of Agriculture enabled its Minister to influence almost all the farmers of the country. Both these ministers, working in unison, won over a large number of the country's Muslims to their side within a short period of time.
The result of the win-over is crystal clear. The BNP government is not only unable to contain terrorism some of the Islamists have taken recourse to in order to establish Allah's laws in the country, it has failed to arrest Bangla Bhai, the mastermind of terrorism, despite the fact that the Prime Minister of the country issued direct orders to nab him without any delay.
The law enforcing agencies of the country are unable to arrest him, because he is being protected by some of the influential quarters of the Jamatis. The Prime Minister is unable to have her orders implemented, firstly, because the would-be implementers of her orders have already vowed their allegiance to the Jamatis. Secondly, she cannot take the Jamaatis to task for harboring the terrorists, as such an action on her part would force the Jamaatis to leave her cabinet, a situation she would like to avoid at any cost in order to retain her prime ministerial position.
In a nutshell, the Prime Minister of the country has become a hostage of the Islamists. Her inability to act firmly against the Jamaatis has divided her cabinet into two groups. One group wants her to take action against the Islamists; the other stands firmly behind the Islamists.
It is under the above situation that the government of Bangladesh has refused to ratify the Asian Highway route plan AH-1. This plan envisages a route that is supposed to run from Tamabil in Sylhet to Benapole or Bangladandha. Why the government of Bangladesh wants to see the Highway pass through Dhaka-Yangon Road via Teknaf is not really understandable.
Despite the fact that the Foreign Ministry of the country, headed by a matured and far-sighted businessman, pleaded for the acceptance of the route plan AH-1, "because of the importance of the road network in trade and commerce and relations with neighbouring countries- New Age, Dec. 13, 2005", but the majority of the cabinet members rejected its pleading, as they did not want to offend the Jamaatis by accepting its proposal.
The Jamaatis do not want the government to ratify route plan AH-1, as it is likely to "turn out to be a transit route for India-New Age, Dec. 13, 2005", a privilege they do not want to grant it (India) in order not only to ensure that India is not able to reap any benefit out of the project, but also to keep their Muslims brethren happy with their anti-Hindu stance.
Conclusion: Bangladesh rejected Asian Highway route plan AH-1 not because of any economic or logistical reasons, but for its Jamaati and pro-Jamaati leaders' political advantages. To consider this matter any differently would be a gross mistake.