July 12, 2019 was a momentous day for trade and connectivity in the BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal) sub-region. That day, the then Indian Minister of State for Shipping, Mansukh Mandaviya, digitally flagged off a ship named MV AAI of the Inland Waterways Authority of India, carrying 70 truckloads of stone chips from Bhutan on its voyage from Dhubri riverport in Assam to Narayanganj in Bangladesh. It covered a distance of 600 kms in four days. Estimates show that, as compared to traditional land routes, this use of waterway reduced the transportation cost by 30 percent and travel time by eight days.
Emergence of the Dhubri riverport
Since 2019, some significant progress has been made for better use of the Dhubri riverport. It has emerged as a gateway for export of boulders and stone chips from Bhutan to Bangladesh. Our interactions with local stakeholders revealed that at present on an average five ships having 250 metric tons capacity move daily from this riverport to Bangladesh.
These stone chips are priced US$ 20 per metric ton. Thus, the value of Bhutan’s per day export through this riverport is about US$ 25,000. If this trend continues and assuming that exports happen 20 days a month, the total value of Bhutan’s export of stone chips through this riverport will be about US$ 6 million. This will constitute a little less than two percent of Bhutan’s total export, which was valued at about US$ 370 million in 2021 and more than 25 percent of its total export of boulders and stone chips.
What is even more important is that primarily Bangladeshi ships are used for the transportation of boulders and stone chips, thereby increasing employment and livelihood opportunities at the various levels. Earlier empty ships used to return back to India but now they carry back cotton wastes and some other products, reducing their overall cost of operations.
In addition to facilitating trade between Bangladesh and Bhutan, the Dhubri riverport is playing an important role in enabling connectivity and trade between Northeast India to the rest of India. To this effect, a pilot trial run on this route from Patna in Bihar to Pandu near Guwahati, Assam was conducted in February, 2022. A vessel named MV Lal Bhadur Shashtri carried 200 metric tons of rice via the National Waterway-1 (NW-1, the Ganges) and then followed the India-Bangladesh Protocol Route through Khulna, Narayanganj, Sirajganj, Chilmari in Bangladesh and finally reached the National Waterway-2 (NW-2, the Brahmaputra) through Dhubri and Jogighopa where a multi-modal logistics park (MMLP) is under construction.
The vessel reached the Pandu port in 25 days covering a distance of 2,350 kms. Most importantly, this was not a stand-alone initiative. In February, 2022, another vessel named MV Ram Prasad Bismil sailed from Haldia to Pandu carrying 1,800 metric tons of steel and another vessel carried 252 metric tons of petroleum products from Haldia in West Bengal to Silghat, a town in Assam. Movements of some other vessels on this route have also been recorded recently.
Now, it is understood that the Inland Waterways Authority of India is planning to run fixed schedule vessels between NW-1 and NW-2 via the Protocol Routes. It is expected to herald a new era of inland water transport for Assam and other parts of Northeast India.
Dhubri’s location in lower Assam and its proximity to Bangladesh in the South, Bhutan in the North, Northeast India in the East, and Nepal and the rest of India in the West makes it an ideal multi-modal enabler for promoting sub-regional connectivity and trade. The port has road connectivity with two places in Bhutan, Phuentsoling though Cooch Behar in West Bengal and Gelephu through Kokrajhar in Assam. It is also connected with national highways (two kms from the riverport), railway lines and an airport.
The National Highway-17, which starts from its junction with the National Highway-10 at Sevoke in Darjeeling, West Bengal passes through Siliguri, Golakganj, and Dhubri before terminating in Guwahati, Assam. In Guwahati, it connects with the National Highway-27, which starts from Gujarat in western India and terminates in Silchar, Assam, thereby connecting the western and northern states of India with the Northeast.
With regard to railway connectivity, Dhubri is well-connected with Guwahati in the east and New Cooch Behar in the west. The Alipurduar Division of the Northeast Frontier Railway has started operating goods train through the newly-constructed New Cooch Behar-Gauripur-Abhayapuri-Goalpara section, which is a part of New Maynaguri-Jogighopa railway line project.
With these connections in mind, there is the need for timely completion and operationalisation of the multi-modal logistics park in Jogighopa, Assam. It is well-connected with Gelephu in Bhutan. The Inland Waterways Authority of India is in the process of setting up a coal-handling terminal at this MMLP.
The nearest airport to Dhubri is at Rupsi in Kokrajhar, Assam, which is presently operating under the UDAN (Ude Desk ki Aam Nagarik) initiative. It has connectivity with Kolkata in West Bengal and Guwahati in Assam.
Realising this potential will hinge on an efficient multi-modal and intra-regional connectivity and logistics system. This calls for establishing a better connectivity between this riverport with nearby roadways.
Dhubri town is highly congested and has little scope for any new road connectivity to the riverport as that will result in displacement of a large number of people and their rehabilitation will be a huge challenge. Therefore, it is necessary to construct a link road with the Dhubri-Phulbari river bridge, which is located within four kms of this riverport. This river bridge is under construction and is expected to be completed in 2026. A link road connecting this bridge with the Dhubri riverport will cater to a large number of potential areas, which can contribute to diversification of traded products. To conclude, with the Dhubri riverport as a centre, if one draws concentric circles along with the mapping of nearby connectivity initiatives, one can see its potential to emerge as a cobweb of connectivity and trade in the BBIN sub-region. Let’s do that including a detailed study on trade potentiality through both trade creation and calibrated/inter-modal trade diversion of nearby areas.
Bipul Chatterjee is Executive Director and Suresh P Singh is Fellow, CUTS International, a global public policy think- and action-tank on trade, regulation and governance.