Inclusive Economic Opportunities for Brahmaputra River Communities

Inclusive Economic Opportunities for Brahmaputra River Communities

Protocol Reforms on Inland Water Transit and Trade Usher a Positive Move

Friendly relationship between India and Bangladesh is built on the foundations of common history, socio-economic and cultural ties. In recent times, this has reached greater heights with the proactive initiatives by both countries to strengthen bilateral cooperation. The 2019 October visit of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to India led to the identification of priority areas of cooperation including defence, development, energy, culture, border security, trade and regional connectivity. Within months of the release of the joint statement they have covered another important milestone in Indo-Bangladesh relationship, with the second addendum on protocol on inland water transit and trade between India and Bangladesh; this is effective from 20 May, 2020.

With this addendum, the number of Indo Bangladesh Protocol (IBP) routes will be increased from eight to 10. Five more ports of call and two extended ports of call have been added increasing the number to 11 and two, respectively, in each country. Countries have agreed the use of shallow draft mechanised boats on Dhubri-Chilmari route. With 54 trans-boundary rivers flowing between India and Bangladesh, sustainable, coordinated management and development of its transboundary waters is important to ensure sustainable development growth of riparian communities. This addendum is path-breaking as it promises to open avenues of economic opportunities for the local communities reliant on rivers.    

Rivers in Northeast India were once vibrant before the advent of railways. River space in navigation shrunk further with partition. Prominent ports in Assam that once connected with the Bay of Bengal slowly reduced to insignificance leading to uncertainties for the vibrant riparian economy including the ferry operators. The Northeast India, surrounded by international borders, after the ‘Act East Policy’ is now being seen as the gateway to South East Asia. The emphasis on regional connectivity and trade is revitalising dead and dying navigation routes and ports of call. The inclusion of Jogigopha and Bahadurabad as the new ports of call will improve connectivity for Meghalaya, Assam and Bhutan. This is also strategically important as it can effectively catalyse trilateral transboundary cooperation between Bhutan, India and Bangladesh.   

Bhutan being a landlocked country faces logistical challenges; the cost of transportation by land is too high, its rivers are not navigable and transport by air is very costly. Mostly into the export of electricity, food products and minerals, the trade barriers for Bhutan is quite significant. “River transportation routes in Assam is four to five times cheaper but unfortunately these are not being used to its full potential,” ays Dasho Dorji Norbu, a consultant with Gelephu Think Tank Business Member (GTTBM) Bhutan.

During the ‘Roundtable Consultation on Transboundary Cooperation for Inclusive and Sustainable Development of Riparian Communities in Brahmaputra Basin’ held in Kokrajhar earlier this year, Dorji urged the region to capitalise the potential of many non-protocol routes which can be made navigable and will benefit all including Bhutan, India and Bangladesh. He further stated that while it will be particularly helpful for exporters of boulders and minerals, with less transit time it can also open avenues for traders of perishable commodities including fruits. Middle riparian Assam has a very important role to play in the trilateral cooperation between Bhutan-India-Bangladesh. The Consultation was held jointly by Oxfam India, CUTS International and NERSWN on 25 February.

Legislative frameworks including Bangladesh’s Inland Shipping Ordinance, 1976 and India’s  Inland Vessels Act, 1917 have historically excluded the smaller vessels which is operated and managed by the most marginalized and poor sections. The protocol addendum, is thus welcome, as it has at least succeeded in making a slight progress on their inclusion; both countries have agreed to allow the use shallow draft mechanised vessels provided these are registered under the above two Acts.

While this move can revitalise the local economy in Lower Assam and Bangladesh, it is important to try and shun ambiguities on how vessels, ferries and boats are defined in the Act. In the Kokrajhar Consultation in February, experts emphasised that inclusion of currently unregistered vessels will be very critical to cater to the needs of the poorest and that both Governments should explore models for their inclusion without compromising on parameters of safety and security. It cannot be completely denied that in lower Assam, there are early apprehensions on how small vessels can compete with commercial cargo vessels from Bangladesh in this changing environment.

On the issue of inclusion, a greater challenge is to ensure increased participation of women entrepreneurs in transboundary trade. Civil society representatives from India, Bangladesh and Bhutan did deliberate on it only to conclude that the socio-cultural impediments for women entrepreneurs from India and Bangladesh are deeply rooted to the social norms and will need persistent efforts to make a dent. There are examples of one or two women entrepreneurs from the Northeast but for most parts it is still a long way to go. Governments need to take a gender-sensitive approach and provide enabling platforms to ensure that women entrepreneurs have equal opportunities like other traders. There is, thus, a need to carefully draw a plan for inclusion of all marginalised stakeholders.

Spaces of community inclusion in the transboundary cooperation have been largely missing in South Asia but the recent protocol has provided scope for inclusive spaces in inland water navigation and trade. As the economic cooperation between the two countries grow, it will be important to ensure that these emerging opportunities percolate to the most marginalised livelihood groups. If the riverine communities in the border areas including the food producers, women SHG groups, MSMEs, and traders are able to explore an immediate market across border should gain economically.

It may be an opportune time for stakeholders involved in rural livelihood programme, border area development programmes and similar relevant programs to step up and advocate for converging platforms right away so that when these protocols are operationalised, these marginalised groups are well prepared to benefit from these reforms.   

The upshot is that in order to make the best of these protocol reforms, a lot will depend on the flexibility and adaptability of Governments to include ferries, small vessels, mechanised and non-mechanised boats on these IBPs. This can make a significant impact in developing new market opportunities, inclusion of smaller tradesmen, and can potentially transform the local livelihood.

The author currently works with Oxfam India and is part of the team from Oxfam, CUTS International and NERSWN, jointly working for inclusive spaces in the inland navigation and trade under its TROSA initiative.

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Transboundary Rivers of South Asia (TROSA)

A programme to understand and address challenges related to transboundary rivers and communities in these river basins.

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