By Sujit Chakraborty, Agartala, July 28 IANS | 4 months ago

Rice from southern India to Tripura via Bangladesh is likely to reach here Thursday, bringing to fruition a three-year-long diplomatic and strategical endeavour between New Delhi and Dhaka.

"The first consignment of 5,000 tonnes of rice in small ships from Kakinada port in Andhra Pradesh reached Saturday at Ashuganj river port in (eastern) Bangladesh via Kolkata port," Food, Civil Supplies and Consumer Affairs Minister Bhanulal Saha told IANS here.

He said: "The rice, meant for Public Distribution System, would now be loaded on trucks from Wednesday or Thursday to take it at the FCI (Food Corporation of India) depots in Agartala."

"Around 20 trucks are expected to arrive Agartala everyday for the next 12 to 13 days from Thursday."

Ashuganj river port in eastern Bangladesh is around 40 km from here. The rice-loaded trucks would reach Agartala from Ashuganj (under Brahmanbaria district of Chittagong division of Bangladesh) within two hours.

Due to the Eid-ul Fitr festival in Bangladesh, unloading and loading of the rice from vessels to trucks was delayed for a few days.

Saha said in the next phase, another 5,000 tonnes of rice would be ferried to Tripura in the same manner and through the same route.

"In view of conversion of railway lines from metre gauge to broad gauge, the Northeast Frontier Railway (NFR) would stop train services in Tripura, Manipur, Mizoram and southern Assam from this year's October to June next year," the minister said.

"In view of this, carrying of food grain and other essentials from different parts of the country to northeastern states of India via Bangladesh is very vital," he added.

Saha said: "I had telephonic talks with Mizoram's Food and Civil Supplies Minister John Rotluangliana a few days back and discussed about the possible problems of carrying food grain from different parts of the country after the closer of the train services to the region."

The minister said after holding talks with the food and civil supplies ministers of other northeastern states, he would approach the railway and union food and civil supply ministers to hold a meeting in Guwahati to ferry food grain and essentials via Bangladesh on a regular basis or as and when the situation arises.

The eight northeastern states, including Sikkim, are largely dependent on the bigger states, specially northern Indian states, for food grain and essential commodities.

The Bangladesh government following three-year-long diplomatic and strategic parleys has, under a special transit facility, agreed to transport 10,000 tonnes of food grain for Tripura across its territory.

"After getting a positive gesture from the Bangladesh government, the FCI started the process three years back to transport food grain and essentials from southern India using the Ashuganj river port and the roadways connected to the northeastern states," FCI's area manager Benugopal Bhuiya told IANS.

"The FCI had earlier floated tenders to select Bangladeshi transporters. After a series of diplomatic and administrative parleys involving various Bangladeshi ministries and India's food, finance, shipping and external affairs ministries, the long-pending matter was settled recently," Tripura's Principal Secretary (Food, Civil Supplies and Consumer Affairs) B.K. Roy told IANS.

Earlier, in 2012, Bangladesh had allowed India's state-owned Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) to ferry heavy machinery, turbines and cargo through Ashuganj port for the 726 MW Palatana mega power project in southern Tripura.

The Indian government had spent several millions of rupees to develop the port and related infrastructure.

"After Tripura, food grain would likely be ferried through Bangladesh for other northeastern states, including Mizoram, Manipur and southern Assam, to save time and costs, besides ensuring certainty," the FCI official said.

"Due to shortage of rail wagons, inadequate storage facilities and various other bottlenecks, the northeastern states have been suffering from poor supply of food grain for most part of the year, especially during the monsoon (June to September)," Tripura's Food, Civil Supplies and Consumer Affairs Minister Bhanulal Saha said.

Surface connectivity is a key factor as the mountainous northeastern region is surrounded by Bangladesh, Myanmar, Bhutan and China, and the only land route to these states from within India is through Assam and West Bengal.

During the monsoon season, road transport becomes very difficult due to floods and landslides.

For ferrying essentials, goods and heavy machinery from abroad and other parts of the country, India has for long been asking Bangladesh land, sea and rail access to the northeast.

Agartala via Guwahati, for instance, is 1,650 km from Kolkata and 2,637 km from New Delhi. The distance between Agartala and Kolkata via Bangladesh is just about 350 km.

The FCI is carrying the food grain via Bangladesh in association with the Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI), involving private transporters.

Indian and Bangladeshi waterways connect West Bengal (Haldia and Kolkata ports) and Assam (Karimganj port). The IWAI and Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority (BIWTA) are operating vessels on these routes.

The two neighbours share 2,979 km of land border and 1,116 km of riverine boundary and also share 54 rivers, including eight rivers flowing from Tripura.

(Sujit Chakraborty can be contacted at sujit.c@ians.in)

(Posted on 28-07-2014)

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