Asian Highway in Bangladesh and India Revisited
I remember writing about Asian Highway issues long back. The situation has changed quite dramatically from then. Bangladesh has joined AH Network despite the little benefit has been promised. A lot of experts has mentioned that Bangladesh won’t get anything from this highway. It is partially true. Bangladesh could have had more to gain if the route through Chittagong to Yangoon was approved.
I came across a nice article in the Daily Star today that discusses highs and lows of Bangladesh decision to get out of the project and then reconsidering it. There are a couple of places Bangladesh could ask for alternative routes – first one is to avoid Tamabil and to join the route through Karimganj-Silchar.
The blue line is what the Asian Highway would look like right now. The red line was what was proposed initially by India and the UNESCAP. The Bangladeshi expert, who was interviewed by the Daily Star mentioned that Bangladesh actually chose the blue line as AH route among the alternatives. From any common sense, that defeats the purpose. The red line mostly goes through plains and the blue one through hills. The road length, as obvious from the map, is 400km longer through the blue line.
The interesting comment in the interview was the reason behind such a decision. Mr. Rahamatullah (ex-Director of UNESCAP) says –
“I heard some communications ministry top policymaker saying: “Since India has offered this route, it must have some deep interest in it, so we can’t go for it.””
On Dhaka-Chittagong-Gundum-Myanmar route (roughly shown here, wrote about it before), he noted that in future if Bangladesh can convince Myanmar, it could be included in AH route. It is unlikely that it would be treated as AH1, since Myanmar does not have interest in it. India is almost 10 times bigger business partner of Myanmar and it is reasonable for them to look for faster access to India. He also told that Myanmar already have good roads in that direction since the second largest city of Myanmar (Mandalay) is connected through it. However, for a country like Thailand, the proposal of Bangladesh should be more suitable.
But I disagree with him where he says joining AH Network does not mean allowing transit to India. While he is legally correct, it’s understandable that India won’t allow foreign traffic to Bangladesh till it reciprocates with a transit deal. Hence, sans transit deal the Asian Highway would be a mere domestic route for Bangladesh. There is a bigger problem to convince other member states why Bangladesh doesn’t allow transit to India. Bangladesh is a signatory of WTO. WTO treaty clearly mentions mutual transit for each of its member states.
The Article V of WTO treaty states (paragraph 2) that –
“There shall be freedom of transit through the territory of each contracting party, via the routes most convenient for international transit, for traffic in transit to or from the territory of other contracting parties. No distinction shall be made which is based on the flag of vessels, the place of
origin, departure, entry, exit or destination, or on any circumstances relating to the ownership of goods, of vessels or of other means of transport.”
To clarify what transit means, the Havana charter of WTO negotiations states that –
“”a movement between two points in the same country passing through another country was clearly ‘in transit’ through the other country within the meaning of paragraph 1.””
India-Bangladesh transit is merely the same as the above, it connects two points in India via a route through Bangladesh. As a least developed country (LDC), Bangladesh gets sufficient time to fulfill its commitments towards WTO. Currently, Bangladesh ministers “officially” say that their roads are not good enough to handle the additional volume of trade. Once the Asian Highway is operational, this logic would hardly work. Interestingly, Bangladesh joined WTO in 1995 when BNP led alliance was in power. Ironically, the same BNP led alliance is against the transit deal till date. I doubt they overlooked this article.
For India, the AH1 is a mixed basket. In the North East region, the circuitous AH proposal should help India to improve the quality of roads as most of important regional Indian cities (Imphal, Kohima, Dimapur, Guwahati and Shilong) are connected to it. The former proposal could only have touched Silchar and Imphal. However, in it’s own interest, India should prepare the latter route also. At the same time, no route is suggested for connecting Mizoram to Sittwe – a proposed trade port to be used by India in near future. Sittwe has been developed as a port to be used by North East India at a cost of 100 million US Dollar. In next 4 years, it should be ready to use. India also did not get Myanmar to agree to Indian proposal to upgrade Stillwell road (also known as the Ledo Road), that connects India to China directly. Both India and China are quite eager for it and completed the respective section of work. Now the connector between India and China would be the Asian Highway 3, which goes through Myanmar to Kunming, China. The other important miss would be the development of Siliguri corridor, which India could have got if Bangladesh stayed out of Asian Highway. However, from international transport point of view, it would have been a disaster. Hopefully, India would get all these to be included as minor Asian Highways at a later point of time.
One nice thing about this stretch of Asian Highway is that it goes through a lot of National Parks in India. A better quality road should make way for a higher tourism revenue in North East Indian states. Not only that, they could now easily get connected to prosperous South East Asia to latch onto economic boom. In next few decades, the North East India, riding on high literacy, could turn out to be a major outsourcing destination for South East Asian Nations.