India will hand over 10 railway locomotives to Bangladesh on Monday, reflecting a renewed focus on the "neighbourhood first" policy to bolster economic ties and connectivity within the region amid the border standoff with China.
The handover of the broad gauge diesel locomotives, part of grant assistance from the Indian side, is in line with a commitment by New Delhi during Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's visit last October, people familiar with developments said on condition of anonymity.
The locomotives will be handed over during a virtual event to be joined by external affairs minister S Jaishankar and railways minister Piyush Goyal and their Bangladeshi counterparts AK Abdul Momen and Mohammed Nurul Islam Sujon, as well as envoys of the two countries and senior officials.
The handover will come close on the heels of the first cross-border container train reaching Bangladesh on Sunday with 50 containers of FMCG goods and fabrics.
Last week, the two sides marked a notable achievement in maritime connectivity with the first shipment of container cargo from Kolkata to Agartala in the landlocked northeastern region via Bangladesh's Chattogram port.
The connectivity initiatives with Bangladesh coincide with other moves by India to shore up relations with key neighbours amid the standoff with China. In reject weeks, New Delhi has kept a wary eye on stepped up activities by Beijing in regional capitals such as Kathmandu, Male and Colombo. The people cited above believe China was behind Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan's recent outreach to his Bangladeshi counterpart.
On Saturday, India announced a $400-million currency swap facility for Sri Lanka under the Saarc framework, and Colombo's request for a bilateral swap facility for $1.1 billion is also being considered by New Delhi.
The Indian mission in Male, in a statement on Sunday to mark the Maldives' Independence Day, said India had provided $400 million through an extended currency swap arrangement to tide over a liquidity shortage and will soon "announce another substantial financial assistance package" to help post-Covid-19 economic recovery.
The people said India-Bangladesh railway cooperation is a vital element of efforts to promote trade and connectivity. Both sides are working to enhance rail connectivity by developing new projects and restoring old links. Currently, the four operational rail links between the two sides, all of which originate in West Bengal, are Petrapole-Benapole, Gede-Darshana, Singhabad-Rohanpur, and Radhikapur–Birol.
The first container train that reached Bangladesh on Sunday left the Container Corporation of India Ltd's (CONCOR) terminal at Majerhat near Kolkata on Friday and crossed over using the Benapole-Petrapole link.
This container train will now be a regular service connecting CONCOR terminals in India to stations in Bangladesh such as Benapole, Jessore, Singia, Noapara and Bangabandhu Setu West, Indian officials said. The two sides signed an MoU for the service in April 2017 and a trial run was conducted in April 2018.
There are also two passenger trains – Bandhan Express from Kolkata to Khulna and Maitree Express from Kolkata to Dhaka – though services are temporarily suspended due to the pandemic.
Seventeen railway projects with a commitment of $2.44 billion were included in assistance extended by India to Bangladesh. India has offered lines of credit for these projects at a rate of interest of 1% a year, with repayment over 20 years with a moratorium for five years.
Nine projects have been completed, including supply of wagons and equipment. The Kulaura-Shahbazpur line, being built at a cost of $78 million, is set to be completed by the end of this year, and the Khulna-Mongla line worth $389 million is set for completion by June 2021. A cross-border link of 12 km between Agartala and Akhaura is set to be completed by March 2021 and will enhance freight and passenger connectivity between the rest of India and the northeastern states.
Experts believe the attention given to ties with Bangladesh is part of efforts to overcome the impact of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) on bilateral relations. Bangladesh's leadership was irked by reports that illegal migrants in states such as Assam would be deported to the neighbouring country.
Maya Mirchandani, senior fellow at Observer Research Foundation and professor of media studies at Ashoka University, said: "We've neglected the neighbourhood for some time. Bangladesh has been upset since CAA was passed, and the perception it has created about ethnic Bengali Muslims in particular."
She added: "In the current context, with Chinese adventurism on India's borders, it is imperative for Delhi to be less dismissive of neighbours falling into China's 'debt trap' and be more pro-active about repairing ties that have been starved for attention."