India pushes rail connectivity with Bangladesh, however matching China’s deep pockets close to not possible



Even as New Delhi attempts to draw an old friend closer, Beijing has been playing the long game by investing over $31 billion in Dhaka as part of its Belt and Road Initiative.

News of India making a renewed push for its ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy amid a stand-off with China by giving Bangladesh 10 broad-gauge diesel locomotives is unlikely to set off alarm bells in Beijing.

Because comparing India’s offerings to China’s massive investments in Bangladesh’s infrastructure, including in its railway network, is akin to a peashooter being rolled out to counter a cannon.

Hindustan Times reported that the handover of the locomotives is part of a commitment made during Bangladesh prime minister Sheikh Hasina’s October visit.

External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar and Railways Minister Piyush Goyal are slated to attend the event — coming after the first cross-border container train reached Bangladesh on Sunday with 50 containers of FMCG goods and fabrics — along with their counterpart AK Abdul Momen and Mohammed Nurul Islam Sujon, as well as envoys and other senior officials, as per the report.

As per PTI, 72 percent of Bangladesh’s locomotives have already crossed their economic life. Till last May, the Bangladesh Railway had 178 metre-gauge (MG) locomotives, of which 139 have crossed their 20-year economic life. Of its 90 BG locomotives, 55 have completed their economic life.

India pushes rail connectivity

As per a report in The Times of India India and Bangladesh are jointly working to enhance rail connectivity by developing some crucial railway projects as well as by restoring some old rail links.  “A total of 17 railway sector projects have been included in LoC (line of credit) assistance extended by India to Bangladesh, with a commitment of $2.44 billion,” said an official source, adding India had offered all credit to Bangladesh at a rate of interest of one percent per annum and repayment over 20 years with a moratorium for five years.

The railway projects which are being implemented with a line of credit assistance include the Kulaura-Shahbazpur railway line at a cost of $78 million, likely to be completed by end of this year, and the Khulna-Mongla railway line project worth $389 million, includes a railway bridge, is likely to be completed by June 2021.

Apart from these, a 12-km cross-border rail link is being built under grant-in-aid between Agartala and Akhaura town on the Dhaka-Chittagong trunk line. This is likely to be completed by March 2021 and will further enhance freight and passenger connectivity between India and northeastern states, a source told The Times of India.

Beijing plays a long game

Even as New Delhi attempts to draw an old friend closer, Beijing has been playing the long game by investing over $31 billion in Dhaka as part of its Belt and Road Initiative, mainly in infrastructure and energy, vowing that it would be a ‘top priority’ in receiving any developed coronavirus vaccine and excluding 97 percent of its products from tariffs.

Not to mention the not-so-small matter of overtaking India as Dhaka’s top trading partner in 2015.

Coming specifically to the Bangladesh Railway, as per The Financial Express, four of the 17 projects recently selected by the government for ‘priority investment’ by China are from its railway: the Joydevpur-Ishwardi double line project at a cost of $1045.59 million, conversion of Akhaura-Sylhet metre gauge line to double gauge line at a cost of $1272.9 million, construction of Joydevpur-Mymensingh-Jamalpur double gauge line for $581.26 million and construction of new inland container depot near Dhirasram Railway Station at a cost of $200 million.

The list of priority projects has been prepared in line with the decision taken at the first meeting of the Bangladesh-China Investment Cooperation Working Group, held recently, a senior official of the country’s finance ministry told the newspaper.

And China isn’t letting the COVID-19 outbreak get in the way of stopping work on existing projects. The Global Times at the end of May boasted about how the construction of the Padma Bridge (Bangladesh’s largest) was underway despite the coronavirus pandemic.

Dewan Md Abdul Kader, manager of Padma Multipurpose Bridge Project from the Bangladeshi government’s Bangladesh Bridge Authority told Xinhua that with the installation of the 150-meter span, 4.5 km of the bridge was now visible. Kader said engineers of the Major Bridge Engineering Group Co, Ltd (MBEC) were continuing their relentless efforts to ensure the project was completed despite the COVID-19 outbreak.

Hasina has claimed that the bridge could bolster the country’s GDP by an estimated two percent. The 168 km-long rail line, linking Dhaka and western district Jessore, will be a major freight and passenger transport line.

A possible Bangladesh tilt?

There have also been disturbing indications of Dhaka possibly tilting towards Beijing. A recent report that Hasina did not meet India’s High Commissioner despite repeated requests over the past four months is bound to make bureaucrats and politicos in Delhi a little uncomfortable.

Bangladeshi daily Bhorer Kagoj reported that all Indian projects have slowed down since the Hasina was re-elected in 2019 and that Chinese infrastructure projects have been receiving more support from Dhaka.

“Despite India’s concern, Bangladesh has given the contract of building an airport terminal in Sylhet to a Chinese company. Indian High Commissioner Riva Ganguly Das tried for four months to get an appointment with the Prime Minister of Bangladesh but did not get it. Bangladesh has not even sent a note of appreciation to India in response to Indian assistance for the COVID-19 pandemic,” said the newspaper’s editor Shyamal Dutta in an article on the recent tilt of Dhaka towards Pakistan and China.

And there’s more bad news. As per The Tribune, the Beijing Urban Construction Group (BUCG) was awarded the contract to build a new terminal in Sylhet’s MAG Osmania Airport. Sylhet borders India’s northeast, which is a sensitive region, and would only further aggravate New Delhi.

Not to mention a reported strain in ties between India and Bangladesh over the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) last year despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Hasina publicly calling the ties between India and Bangladesh a ‘shonali odhyay’ (golden chapter).

“Bangladesh is India’s best friend in the neighbourhood and remarks about pushing back infiltrators and lumping Bangladesh in the same league as Pakistan has generated a lot of worry among the public,” a senior Bangladeshi official, speaking on condition of anonymity while referring to the CAA, had told Hindustan Times.

Closer relations between Beijing and Dhaka would be most unpleasant for India, which is already facing an openly hostile Islamabad.

As this op-ed makes the stakes clear in chilling detail: “China is no longer a possible partner; it is a clear adversary. The military threat is real; the prospects of global cooperation with Beijing are limited; the competition in the neighbourhood is a zero-sum game where China is seeking to erode India’s influence.

“The neighbourhood has become more fragile. Political elites in neighbouring capitals, driven by nationalism and Chinese attention and investment, are open to undermining India. And, most critically, the economic growth that drove the Indian story is today in jeopardy, with a likely contraction in the economy, unemployment, demand deficit, and an unpredictable policy environment.”

Since India cannot compete with Beijing based on the size of its cheque book, it would be better served by emphasising in its relationship with Dhaka its deep cultural ties and shared values.

With inputs from PTI

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