Trans Asian Highway

Trans Asian Highway integrates of national economies of the region as a part of the globalisation process. This process is largely facilitated by transport connectivity through highways, rail and waterways. For reasons mainly historical and political, this aspect has not received much attention in Asia until 1959.

United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UN-ESCAP) took a historic initiative in 1959 through the Asian Highway Project (AH) covering 15 countries. A year later, Trans Asian Railway (TAR) project was also launched thus further strengthening communication infrastructure in Asia.

The progress of the projects hampered for nearly two decades due to political reasons and warlike situation in some of the countries. In 1992, a new umbrella project is known as 'Asian Land Transport Infrastructure Development (ALTID) was initiated by merger of the two projects, with focus on land transport movement. The objective of the project was to pursue regional cooperation in transport.

The initiation of Bay of Bengal Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) opened up further opportunities for realising the objective of ALTID, in particular southern corridor of ALTID, connecting Bangladesh, China, India, Iran, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Turkey. South Asian countries have already identified their AH and TAR links to establish sub regional connectivity.

A World Bank study has affirmed that identification of TAR routes places Bangladesh in a strategic location. It envisages two possible routes, one through Sylhet and the other through Cox's Bazar. This has the potential to connect Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore with India and Central Asia and this enable Bangladesh to earn revenue only if its existing railway routes are upgraded to international standard.

The development is more encouraging in the Association of South East Asian (ASEAN) region than perhaps in South Asian region. The former adopted a long-term vision (Vision 2020). This vision encompasses harmonized Trans-ASEAN transportation network to achieve which ASEAN Framework Agreement on Facilitation of Goods in Transit was put in place in October 2000. A further initiative taken a year earlier, resulted in the building of ASEAN highway network based on AH framework. It 'includes 23 routes covering some 38,400 km of highways. This sub regional initiative may be viewed as important building blocks for realising the ALTID goal of fully integrated Trans-Asian transportation network with efficient interface with other regions.'

A complementary programme, launched in 1992, covers Greater Mekong Sub region (GMS). Six countries Cambodia, People's Republic of China, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam are involved in this programme. It provides for the development of multi-modal transportation network covering roads, railways and inland waterways. To further facilitate the physical infrastructure part, regulations/procedures of transborder movement of goods and people were simplified and strengthened.

As far as South Asian sub-region is concerned, some kind of transportation network does exist which is not fully exploited due to political and other reasons. If these issues are addressed with strong political vision and leadership, the connectivity issue can be effectively addressed. At the other end, the development after 1947, for the same reasons, did not take adequately into account the regional context of developing a network. Besides, not much attention was paid to system connectivity across borders. Issues like compatibility, uniformity of standards in infrastructure and equipment design continues to impede the development of a regional transportation network.

An encouraging development to attend to the above issues took place following the decision of the 12th SAARC Summit in Islamabad in January, 2004. The decision taken was to opt for an integrated transport system in the region covering SAARC countries. In the same year and same month, twice a week passenger train service between India and Pakistan under the name Samjhota (Understanding) Express connecting Lahore and Atari (India) was introduced. On 15 February 2006, a weekly train service between India and Pakistan was added along Karachi-Khokrapur-Munabao-Jodhpur route. It is said that significant volume of freight traffic movement between central India and Pakistan is now taking place. Similar development took place between India (West Bengal) and Bangladesh by introducing the Moitree (friendship) Express train between Kolkata and Dhaka from 14 April 2008.

Along Bangladesh-Nepal border, movement of cargo by traffic is in place through the India-Nepal corridor along Kakravitta (Nepal), Panitaski (India), Fulbari (India), Banglabondh (Bangladesh) for bilateral trade only. The movement of trucks is low at 4 trucks per week. If full potential of the route could be exploited, Nepal could have easier access to Mongla ports as an additional sea outlet to Kolkata port.

The connectivity between Bangladesh and Bhutan is also there on a similar footing. The use of Phuntsholding (Bhutan)-Changrabanda (India)-Burimari (Bangladesh) is allowed by India to be used for bilateral trade between Bangladesh and Bhutan only.

Movement of passengers through bus between India and Bangladesh covering Dhaka-Kolkata started in 1999 and is still active. Another route covering Agartala has been opened in 2003. Furthermore, Dhaka-Shiliguri bus service has also been opened. If difficulties in obtaining visa for the two countries are properly addressed, there is possibility of increasing in movement of passengers.

Use of inland water since 1972, between India and Bangladesh generally known as transit agreement exists but agreement has to go through periodic renewal. This agreement was first signed between the two countries in 1972. Since then, the practice of two-year renewal has not changed largely due to political differences. This agreement has since been renewed in 2009.

The problems associated with realising the full benefits of regional communication infrastructure, apart from political differences, include development of support service facilities such as easy and transport custom immigration processes, combating informal payments, addressing banking service problems and inadequate truck terminals. [AMM Shawkat Ali]

Bibliography M Rahamatullah, 'Promoting Transport Cooperation in South Asia in Regional Cooperation in South Asia: A Review of Bangladesh's Development 2004', Centre for Policy Dialogue, The University Press Ltd 2006, p. 373-396; 'Bangladesh 2020: A Long-term Perspective Study', The World Bank and Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies, The University Press Ltd 2003 (Third Edition), 88-89.