Bangladesh opens land port, no infrastructure across the border

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DHAKA : The construction of Balla land port infrastructure has been completed in the Kedara court area near the Bangladesh-India border in Chunarughat of Habiganj at a cost of about Tk 490 million. But across the border in Paharmura area of India’s Tripura state, there is no customs station. The whole area there is deserted with even no roads, according to a news released in local newspaper of Bangladesh.

Therefore, even after eight months have passed after the completion of infrastructure, the export-import activities could not be started through this land port of Chunarughat.

Balla land port was constructed at the special interest of former shipping secretary of Bangladesh Mr. Ashok Madhab Roy. But as there is no customs station in the Indian part of the border. As a result, the money spent on building the infrastructure has practically been wasted. Officials feel there is nothing to do now but wait for India to set up a customs station on the other side.

The project to develop infrastructure of Balla land port was taken up six years ago and ended last June. Under this project, everything required for an ideal land port including yards, weighing machines, office buildings, dormitory, boundary walls, roads, and various services were constructed.

Although the project was completed eight months ago, the land port could not go into operation as there are no such facilities in the Paharmura area of India on the other side of the border. Bangladesh Land Port Authority spent public money on construction of the infrastructure despite knowing about non-existence of port facilities in India.

A total of 24 land ports have been constructed across the country to facilitate trade with neighbouring India. However, 12 are now operational as full-fledged land ports. Officials say that it is not possible to start the activities of the rest due to lack of sufficient infrastructure.

A spot visit on 4 March revealed that the Indian part of Paharmura area is almost deserted with no immigration facilities.

This correspondent talked with India’s Paharmura export-import association’s Secretary General Mr. Dhiman Poddar about the issue over phone. He told the local newspaper of Bangladesh Prothom Alo that no infrastructure has been constructed in India but he heard about land acquisition.

He said Assam-Agartala highway is 1.5 kilometres away from Balla border. But there is no road connecting the highway with Paharmura except for a narrow walking trail.

Balla land port officials sent a letter to the Bangladesh Land Port Authority Chairman drawing his attention to the current state of affairs. The letter urged the BLPA Chairman to bring the issue to India’s notice but the matter saw no headway in the last eight months.

BLPA Chairman Mr. Jillur Rahman Chowdhury told Prothom Alo, “We’ve constructed land port facilities in Balla but could not go into operations. Indian authorities were requested to set up land port facilities in Tripura’s Paharmura last December. They gave an initial nod. Now we have to wait until they set up land port facilities there.”

The Balla land port is located in the Kedaracourt area, some 18 kilometres away from Chunarughat upazila and 151 kilometres from Dhaka. An assistant director has already been recruited in the land port. Some other human resources were also recruited in the land port.

Shayestaganj upazila of Habiganj is the hometown of Mr. Ashok Madhab Roy, who took the charge of acting secretary of shipping ministry in December 2015. He became full secretary in June next year.

Balla customs station was declared as a land port on 26 March 23, soon after Mr. Ashok Madhab Roy took over as secretary. After that, a project of Tk 489 million was taken up to develop the infrastructure of the land port. The project was passed by the National Economic Council Executive Committee (ECNEC) meeting on 1 July 2017.

It is known that the then shipping secretary had a special interest in passing this project. There is a local gossip that Mr. Ashok Madhab Roy is interested in joining politics.

BLPA is an autonomous body established under the shipping ministry. A top official of BLPA told Prothom Alo on condition of anonymity that Mr. Ashok Madhab Roy exerted his influence in declaring Balla as a land port and implementation of the project. The project was taken mainly due to his interest.

Mr. Ashok Madhab Roy was contacted for comment over the issue.

Asked if the money was wasted, he replied that if Habiganj district authorities send a letter to foreign ministry about the importance of the Balla land port and the ministry corresponds with Indian authorities, then this problem can be solved.

Port infrastructure may not have been built on the Indian side of the border yet but things will certainly change, said Mr. Ashok Madhab Roy.

Asked why the project was taken, Mr. Ashok Madhab said Balla border had a customs station beforehand. As the customs station had no infrastructure, goods used to be transported across Khowai river during monsoon. In the dry season, the labourers would carry goods crossing the river in waist-deep water. That is why the infrastructure of the land port was built in the south-east corner of the customs station.

Balla customs station dates back to the British era, and was in operation irregularly. There is some irregular import and export along the Balla-Khowai river route which is located three kilometres away from the Balla land port.

It has been learnt that when a shipment arrives here, the customs superintendent from Agartala, the capital of Indian state Tripura, comes in the morning and clears the goods and returns the same day.

Mr. Mohammad Ali, Chairman of Gazipur union parishad in Chunarughat upazila, said that the land port was not required at all as infrastructure development of the Balla customs station and construction of a bridge over the Khowai river would have been enough. Also, it is not true that export-import business will be good only if a land port is built in Paharmura area of India as this region of India is totally neglected.

When the project was taken up in 2017, it was said that if the infrastructure of this land port is developed, trade and commerce with the state of Tripura will expand.

Officials of the land port authorities said the land ports that were developed in the past had at least one customs station across the border in India but this was not the case in Balla.

However, this is not the first instance of declaration of land port by exerting influence. Influential ministers and MPs get interested in land port announcements and infrastructure development in their areas to get political mileage with local people.

Soon after the incumbent government came to power in its first term, Nakugaon customs station at Nalitabari in Sherpur district was declared a land port on the recommendation of a then minister. The 29 km long road from Sherpur district to Nakugaon land port was too narrow for cargo trucks to ply back then.

On the other side of the border, there was no infrastructure at Dalu customs station in India. There was little trade in the border area. However, the objection of land port authorities and NBR about turning this customs station into a land port did not hold water.

Recently, a train to India’s Siliguri through Chilahati has started operation. Chilahati customs station was declared a land port in 2013 at the behest of a then minister from Nilphamari. But since there was no customs station in the Haldibari area of Cooch Behar in India, this land port was not operational for long.

A state minister lobbied for construction of infrastructure at Chilahati land port recently. But the BLPA did not take up that project as there was no infrastructure in the Indian part.

Asked about Balla land port, Transparency International Bangladesh’s (TIB) Executive Director Iftekharuzzaman told Prothom Alo, “This is a glaring example of using state resources to attain personal interests in the name of state objectives. Many have benefited financially, some have benefited in other ways by this initiative. Whoever has exerted influence in passing this project has liability. Those who were involved in project approval and implementation also have liability. They all should be held accountable.”

Iftekharuzzaman said the Balla land port project is an example of misuse of power and wastage of public money.

Source : Prothom Alo

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