Haldibari railway station in Cooch Behar, West Bengal, located at a distance of 4.5 km from the international border and 7.5 km from Chilahati railway station in Bangladesh, and donning both customs and immigration facilities, is ideally placed to be upgraded into an Integrated Check Post. That will reduce logistic cost and carbon emissions, enhance bilateral and sub-regional trade, and lead to prosperity of local people on both sides of the border.
The need and importance of railway cooperation as a mode of connectivity between India and Bangladesh is reinforced in the India-Bangladesh Joint Statement released during the recent visit of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit to India. In the Joint Statement, both countries underscored the importance of implementing bilateral and sub-regional rail and other connectivity initiatives.
They welcomed the ongoing bilateral cooperation in converting the Tongi-Akhaura line in North-eastern Bangladesh to dual-gauge, supply of railway rolling stock, capacity building for the personnel of the Bangladesh Railway, and sharing of information technology solutions for improved services of the Bangladesh Railway.
It also highlights the importance of new initiatives such as the Kaunia-Lalmonirhat-Mogalghat-New Gitaldaha link, establishing a link between Hili and Birampur; upgradation of track and signalling systems and railway stations along the Benapole-Jashore line, link restoration between Burimari and Changrabandha, construction of a container depot at Sirajganj. Put together, they reflect the intensity and depth of their cooperation in railways.
These developments follow several milestones achieved by the two countries in railway cooperation. Out of the seven railway lines between India and the then East Pakistan, which became defunct following the India-Pakistan war of 1965, five have been restored.
While Petrapole-Benapole and Haldibari-Chilahati are for freight as well as passenger movements, Gede-Darshana, Singhabad-Rohanpur, Radhikapur-Birol lines are only for freight transport. Additionally, two new lines – Agartala (India) – Akhaura (Bangladesh) and Mahisasan (India) – Zero Point (Bangladesh) are under progress.
These ongoing and proposed railway projects have huge potential to improve connectivity and trade between Bangladesh and India, and beyond. A World Bank report titled ‘Connecting to Thrive: Challenges and Opportunities of Transport Integration in Eastern South Asia’ argues that seamless transport connectivity between India and Bangladesh has the potential to increase national income by as much as 17 percent in Bangladesh and 8 percent in India.
In order to achieve this, it is important to assess the available scope, coverage and infrastructure in these projects and explore the possibility of their upgradation. One such example is the Petrapole-Benapole railway line, which has been fully integrated and made part of the existing ICP at this border point. Similarly, the project to connect Agartala with Akhaura and integrating it with the ICP there has a huge potential to further enhance and facilitate trade between the two countries.
Establish an ICP in Handibari
For the unversed, the Haldibari-Chilahati rail route was re-opened in 2021, with a freight train service flagged off from New Jalpaiguri. It carried 30 wagons of stones. At present, around 20 freight trains run through this route in a month. In addition to freight trains, a passenger train, Mitali Express, from New Jalpaiguri to Dhaka through the Haldibari-Chilahati route is operational from June, 2022 as the third passenger train service between India and Bangladesh, the other two being Kolkata-Dhaka and Kolkata-Khulna.
It is to be noted that the Haldibari Land Custom Station has been made EDI (Electronic Data Inter-change) enabled, which is a critical factor for cross-border trade facilitation. The Haldibari station is well connected to the New Jalpaiguri station, located at about 60 km west of Haldibari, which, in turn, is connected to the rest of India as well as Northeast India through rail and road network.
Local businesses are of the opinion that allowing exports of agricultural goods, such as lemon, chili, potato, from the Haldibari station should be considered. This will reduce logistic cost of local exporters and can give a huge boost to the local economy. Currently, local exporters have to transport goods to the New Jalpaiguri station that ultimately go to Bangladesh via Haldibari.
In regard to passenger movements, the current system does not allow boarding and de-boarding at the Haldibari station. The immigration check post at the Haldibari station only deals with railway personnel and staff traveling on passenger and freight trains. The freight trains with necessary customs and immigration clearances enter Bangladesh, get unloaded at the Bangladesh side, and return back to India; while passenger trains go to Dhaka. There is demand to expand the scope of immigration facilities at the Haldibari station.
Here it is important to mention that there is a large number of families in Haldibari whose relatives reside at the other side of this border within a distance of about 50-150 km. However, they are required to travel up to Dhaka, the end point of the passenger train service and travel back a few hundred kilometres to visit their relatives. Allowing boarding/de-boarding of passengers at the Haldibari station will significantly reduce travel; thus, boosting travel and tourism.
In short, considering all these potentialities, the Haldibari station makes a good case for its upgradation to a railway-led ICP. Haldibari area, having a fertile land, has good potential to export agri-products including vegetables to Bangladesh. Similarly, there can be export of fish and other local products from Bangladesh to India.
As per local stakeholders, the area has sufficient land under the possession of the Indian Railway till the ‘zero point’, which can be used for this upgradation. This calls for an in-depth assessment of economic and trade potential of the area.
* Singh is a Fellow and Verma is Research Associate, CUTS International, a global public policy think- and action-tank on trade, regulation and governance