Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina yesterday said political boundaries should not be barriers to trade as she and her Indian counterpart Narendra Modi inaugurated the Maitree Bridge over the River Feni. Modi termed the bridge a new trade corridor for the two countries.
The 1.9-kilometre-long bridge connects Khagrachhari's Ramgarh to Tripura's Sabroom, and puts connectivity at the centre of the celebration of 50 years of bilateral relations between the two countries.
"The bridge is expected to significantly improve the socio-economic condition of the people of Tripura and surrounding north-eastern states of India. We hope it will also contribute towards improving the livelihoods of those living on the Bangladesh side of the bridge," Sheikh Hasina said in a video message during the virtual inauguration.
Terming the bridge the "new business corridor" between the two countries, Narendra Modi said, "The bridge is poised to herald a new chapter for trade and people to people movement between India and Bangladesh. With this inauguration, Tripura is set to become the Gateway of North-East with access to Chittagong Port of Bangladesh, which is just 80 kilometres from Sabroom."
For freight and passenger transportation, Bangladesh already has five rail routes with India. They are Benapole-Petrapole, Darshana-Gede, Rohanpur-Singhabad, Birol-Radhikapur, and Chilahati-Haldibari. Meanwhile, the Akhaura-Agartala and Dhaka-New Jalpaiguri train services are scheduled to open soon.
Additionally, the two countries now have nine roads and eight air routes.
There are also transhipment deals connecting India's north-eastern region with the rest of the country through Bangladesh's Chattogram and Mongla ports.
'The bridge will be a game changer'
Delhi-based Research and Information System Professor and regional connectivity expert Dr Prabir De believes the Maitree Bridge will be a game changer.
"The bridge will make product transportation to different Indian states easier. Further, it will provide easy access to Chattogram Port due to its proximity," he told BBC Bangla.
Prabir De said the bridge will benefit both India's north-eastern region and Bangladesh.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina also said the bridge will facilitate cargo transportation from West Bengal to the landlocked north-eastern Indian state Tripura via Bangladesh.
From Agartala, the nearest Kolkata seaport is around 1,600 kilometres away while the distance from Agartala to Chattogram Port is less than 100 kilometres. The bridge is also only 80 kilometres away from Chattogram port.
"Undoubtedly this is a historic moment," Sheikh Hasina said during the inauguration, adding, "We are creating a new era in South Asia through providing connectivity to India."
She said Bangladesh wants the framework so that the bridge helps Bangladesh trade in a much easier way with Nepal and Bhutan alongside India. "We expect the framework we are inaugurating today will also help Bangladesh to trade in a smoother way not only with India, but also with Nepal and Bhutan," she added.
Bangladesh becoming attractive due to geography, growth
Sheikh Hasina said Bangladesh's growth trajectory, along with its geographic location, makes it an extremely attractive neighbour in South Asia.
"As one of the leaders in the global textile industry, we have carved a distinct path for ourselves and the country has become a favoured destination for foreign investment," she continued.
Sheikh Hasina said Bangladesh is ready to maximise its locational advantage as a connectivity hub between South and South-East Asia.
"We believe the cross-border transport systems that Bangladesh is developing with India are an important step in this regard and will enable us to play an important role in regional trade and commerce," she added.
In 2015, the two premiers jointly inaugurated the construction of Maitree Bridge from Dhaka. The Indian government-owned National Highways and Infrastructure Development Corporation Limited constructed it at Rs133 crore in five years.
Translating friendship into connectivity
During her speech, Sheikh Hasina said the bridge will enable Tripura's people to use not only Chattogram Port, but also Chattogram's international airport.
Apart from nation-to-nation connectivity, Indian External Affairs Minister Jaishankar also mentioned they prioritise people-to-people connectivity.
Regional connectivity expert Dr Prabir De said Indian tourists from Assam, Tripura and Mizoram will be able to visit Bangladesh's Cox's Bazar, or tourist spots in the Chattogram Hill Tracts, once the bridge opens.
Further, people from Bangladesh's Cumilla and Chattogram will be able to go to Tripura easily for tours and medical treatment. They will also be able to go to several Indian states by air from India's Agartala.