On 27 March 2018, Shyamoli N.R Travels announced on their Facebook page that the company was going to introduce a new bus route connecting Dhaka and Kathmandu. Within a very short time, hundreds of comments from travel enthusiasts poured in, all welcoming the move and enquiring for more details.
The following month, a trial bus run was conducted, where delegates from Bangladesh, India and Nepal as well as Asian Development Bank travelled to Nepal on two buses, starting from the BRTC International Depot in Dhaka.
The trial indeed began with much gusto. Apparently proud to be becoming the first company in Bangladesh to begin such a multi-national bus service, Shyamoli N.R Travels even announced which 'luxurious' bus they were going to use. The officials, during the trip, stayed in places including Siliguri in India, held meetings with officials from the participating countries, and even were welcomed with a cultural show in Kathmandu.
But the much awaited launch of passenger service never materialised.
This particular route is just an example. There has been much talk about both regional and sub-regional connectivity in the last decade, but the hype is yet to translate into reality.
In 2015, a motor vehicle framework agreement was signed by Transport Ministers of four South Asian countries: Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal (BBIN). The sub-regional agreement sought to facilitate the seamless cross-border movement of passenger, cargo and personal vehicles between these countries. As the Bhutanese parliament did not ratify the agreement, the enthusiasm receded a bit, but the other countries decided to move forward without Bhutan.
This Dhaka-Kathmandu bus service was rooted in the BBIN plan. The officials who took part in the trial run said there was no shortage of enthusiasm among the citizens of the participating countries.
"Everyone was excited about the initiative. Nepali students who were studying in Bangladesh were overjoyed that they were about to get a direct road transport service between Nepal and Bangladesh. They even organised a cultural show to welcome the delegation," reminisced the then BRTC chairman Farid Ahmed Bhuiyan, who was leading the delegation.
A protocol between the three countries was supposed to be signed later.
Although the citizens of the relevant countries took the initiative warmly, why did it not materialise eventually?
Jibon Chakroborty, Manager, Shyamoli NR Travels, told The Business Standard that the problem arose because the bus had to travel through three countries. He answered in affirmative when asked if the transit through India was the key issue. However, when asked to give further details, the manager said the matter was under government's purview and suggested contacting BRTC.
Md Tazul Islam, the current chairman of BRTC, said that the process was delayed due to the pandemic.
When reminded that the pandemic hit two years after the trial run, the BRTC Chairman said he has newly joined the corporation, adding, "Last week I sent a letter to the ministry regarding the resumption of the bus services with India and opening the route to Nepal through the facilitation of Foreign Ministry."
Seeking anonymity, another source in the Road Transport and Highways Division told The Business Standard that a meeting among the delegation from three countries – Bangladesh, India and Nepal – was scheduled on 12 November. However, the meeting has been canceled, and the source stated that they have no idea why. The last meeting, according to the source, was held in February 2020, before the Covid-19 hit.
Foreign ministry officials did not issue an official statement explaining what led to the failure to start the bus service between Bangladesh and Nepal, but several sources from both the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Road Transport and Bridges, requesting anonymity, blamed 'narrow regional politics.'
Although the bus service between Bangladesh and Nepal via India could not be started yet, India had been enjoying the similar privilege since 2015 when the Kolkata to Agartala via Dhaka bus service was flagged off.
Separate bus services between Dhaka-Kolkata and Dhaka-Agartala had been operational since earlier. Another bus service connecting Dhaka, Shillong and Guwahati was inaugurated in the same year, linking India's West Bengal to three North Eastern states via Bangladeshi capital Dhaka.
At present, road connectivity between Bangladesh-Nepal and Bangladesh-Bhutan is marred by visa complications for the transit country as well as the absence of direct bus services.
Professor Mustafizur Rahman, Distinguished Fellow, Centre for Policy Dialogue, said, "Even the standard operational procedures of the Motor Vehicle Agreement had been finalised, but still it could not be operationalised. It says a lot about the state of our regional cooperation."
The professor also mentioned the 'hardware' problems that prevail. "To facilitate the unrestricted cross-border movement of vehicles, we need to establish an integrated customs system, ensure interoperability of the systems, standardise and improve infrastructure at least at the border points and many more. But there is little progress in this respect, which is frustrating."
Professor Mustafizur Rahman pointed out that if we are to reduce the cost of doing business, achieve export competitiveness, and cut import cost to benefit the consumers, we have to accelerate the efforts to improve sub-regional connectivity.