Petrapole-Benapole border accounts for about 70% of Indo-Bangla trade (File photo)
NEW DELHI: West Bengal is proving to be a major obstacle to India’s neighbourhood policy.
A decision by the Mamata Banerjee government to stop all goods from Bangladesh through the Petrapole-Benapole border since March has resulted in serious damage to bilateral trade and it came to a head on Wednesday with Bangladesh refusing to allow Indian trucks to cross the border.
As a result of Bengal’s actions, bilateral trade with Bangladesh dropped to $424 million in April-May, as compared to nearly $2 billion for the same period in 2019, with serious disruption to imports from Bangladesh. In the first five calendar months of 2019 (Jan-May), it was $4.1 billion but in 2020, it is just $2.9 billion.
Bangladeshi traders and government have been expressing unhappiness for some time, which spilled over on July 1 leading to Bangladesh stopping Indian trucks. Even so, sources said, 106 trucks had been let through into Bangladesh.
No exports from Bangladesh have been allowed to come via Petrapole-Benapole since March 23, day before the lockdown was ordered. It briefly resumed on April 29, but shut down again on May 2, following some local protests. Trade restarted on June 7 and slowly the volume rose to around 250 trucks per day from around 24 aday. But it was all one-way trade with only trucks from India going to Bangladesh but nothing being allowed to come from the other side.
Interestingly, there has been no stoppage of goods from Bangladesh via Tripura, but only through Petrapole-Benapole which accounts for about 70% of Indo-Bangla trade. Sources here said Bengal even went so far as to stop trucks going to Nepal and Bhutan via the state. In April, the home ministry asked the Mamata Banerjee government to allow truck movement to these countries since they are landlocked and depend on India for goods movement. This is also part of India’s global commitments.
The Centre had told Bengal its actions were in “clear violation of the MHA orders issued under Disaster Management Act 2005 as well as well as Articles 253, 256 and 257 of the Constitution”.
On the domestic front, this was also the time when the Centre and the Bengal government were at loggerheads over the state’s handling of the Covid crisis.
Faced with a serious disruption in trade which could have a negative impact on other aspects of bilateral ties, the Centre is looking for other options to bypass the Petrapole-Benapole ICP. For the first time, goods have been moving through the resurrected India-Bangladesh rail network. On Friday, the Syama Prasad Mookerjee Port, Kolkata, announced that it would serve Indo-Bangla trade by introducing a new service between Kolkata Dock System and Chattogram (Chittagong) through Indo-Bangladesh Protocol Route.