It is important to facilitate cross-border trade as producers and consumers living in Indo-Bangla border areas stand to gain from it, said Bipul Chatterjee, executive Director of CUTS International – a global policy think- and action-tank on trade, regulations and governance.
"We need to optimise the number, as well as content, of rules and regulations, plus facilitate their implementation for thinning the border," he said this on September 24 while speaking at a webinar held by CUTS International under a regional programme on, "Trans-boundary Rivers of South Asia," managed by Oxfam Novib.
The webinar brought together traders and business communities from India and Bangladesh to discuss specific concerns about cross-border trade via waterways, read a press release.
According to Subimal Bhattacharjee, director of Jookto – a grassroots organisation in the Barak Valley in Assam working on socio-cultural and economic development of local communities – the opportunities for the Barak valley are immense as it links Bangladesh with other north eastern states.
"The ground work done by CUTS and Jookto has identified that the problems faced by producer communities across borders are similar. A major constraint is infrastructure challenges," he said at the programme.
Abu Taher Md Shoeb, president of the Sylhet Chamber of Commerce, mentioned procedural issues, non-recognition of standards and infrastructure constraints as major bottlenecks of trade between Bangladesh and Northeast India.
Shalahuddin, manager-export, Premier Cement Mills Limited, Bangladesh, said, "Trade via waterways saves time and money. As a result, consumers get better access to locally-produced low-cost products. Encouragement of such trade of local products will contribute to local areas development in the border areas of Bangladesh and India."
The business group recently sent the first cargo consignment from Bangladesh to Tripura.
The opening of a new trade route between Sonamura in Tripura and Daudkandi in Bangladesh on a pilot basis had generated huge excitement among the traders, said Sujit Roy, general secretary, India-Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Tripura Chapter) and All Tripura Merchants Association.
"This needs to be converted to regular cross-border trade happening through this route. Unless navigational challenges are addressed, its full potential may not be realised," he added.
Speaking on the occasion Niranjan Roy, professor of Economics at the Assam University, commented, "Inland waterways are the most cost-effective means of transportation. Our common legacy of history says that there are a lot of opportunities, which should be re-explored."
For trade to last for a longer period, it is important to ensure people-to-people connections and confidence building measures on the ground, he added.
According to Arun Roy – an expert on river engineering and inland water transport – instead of looking for big vessels, one should encourage smaller boats to facilitate cross-border trade between India and Bangladesh via small stretches of waterways.
"Small boats can navigate low-depth conditions and are economical for short-haul trade. Trade can happen throughout the year," he said.
Deborshi Bhattacharjee, president of the Assam Exporters and Importers Association, Karimgunj, emphasised the importance of balanced trade.
The removal of port-specific restrictions on tradable commodities, establishing quarantine facilities through testing laboratories and upgrading waterway channels by dredging are three major issues he brought up.
Echoing this, ML Debnath, president of Tripura Chamber of Commerce insisted that India and Bangladesh should make further efforts to increase the depth of navigation routes by dredging specific stretches of the River Gomti and River Bhairab.
Additionally, he stressed the importance of removing port-specific restrictions on trade and reducing high tariffs on some Indian goods – that Bangladesh imposes.
"At least locally-produced items from Tripura should be allowed to be traded with Bangladesh," he argued.
In his remarks, Jyotiraj Patra, project manager of the TROSA Programme, articulated the need for making opportunities inclusive and people-centric by building partnerships and ensuring the participation of young business leaders – including women.
Bipul Chatterjee and Subimal Bhattacharjee said CUTS and Jookto would prepare a memorandum covering the suggestions made by various parties at the webinar and submit it to the relevant ministries in India including at the state level in Assam and Tripura.
Through their partners, it would also be taken forward to the relevant stakeholders in Bangladesh, they added.