On July 21, 2016, the prime ministers of India and Bangladesh jointly inaugurated, through video-conferencing, Asia’s largest Integrated Check-Post (ICP) at Petrapole, 95 km from Kolkata, in North 24-Parganas district of West Bengal, with the West Bengal chief minister too joining on the occasion. This is regarded as a landmark development towards strengthening bilateral trade as well as the border management process.
The Petrapole ICP, encompassing a modern land customs station, with ancillaries spread over nearly 100 acres, will have adequate passenger amenities, facilities for currency exchange and customs clearance, cargo processing and inspection, warehouse and cold storage, quarantine laboratory, etc. for the expeditious clearing of goods and the facilitation of movement of people. It will also ensure comprehensive security oversight on the movement of materials and people. The significance of this development can be appreciated by considering the fact that more than 50 per cent of India-Bangladesh trade is undertaken through this ICP. During 2015-16, trade valued at more than Rs. 15,000 crore was transacted through this point, which is more than all the land ports and customs stations of India, with about 1.5 lakh trucks and 15 lakh people passing through it.
A decisive initiative for a better border management system, including the setting up of ICPs and land-ports with comprehensive functionalities, was taken by the Government of India quite some time ago during the 11th Plan period (2007-2012). This came in the context of consensual acceptance by different governments in New Delhi of the need for promoting a framework for the South Asia Sub-regional Economic Cooperation (SASEC) Programme. Since 2010, international agencies like the Asian Development Bank (ADB) have also assisted such initiatives involving India, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Nepal. However, in 2006 itself, the Cabinet Committee on Security had accorded in principle approval for establishing 13 ICPs, with seven in Phase-1 including one at Petrapole at an initially estimated cost of Rs. 172 crore. The land customs station already existing at Petrapole was to be upgraded and subsumed into an ICP. Construction started in 2010. Since 2012, the Government of India has attempted to factor in improvements in the Petrapole ICP project, in the light of the experiences gained with the first ICP operational at Attari on the India-Pakistan border in Punjab and the working of the ICP at Agartala along the Bangladesh border.
The importance of the Petrapole ICP, apart from boosting bilateral trade, lies in the context of improved connectivity and trade and transit between the north-eastern states and the rest of the country through Bangladesh. Consequent on the above-mentioned transit facilities granted to India by the positively disposed present government in Bangladesh, the ICP at the Petrapole-Benapole border point (Benapole is on the Bangladesh side), which isequipped with all the requisite trade enabling facilities, assumes special significance. Being the relevant local authority, the West Bengal Government will be required to both provide adequate municipal services in the adjoining area and ensure appropriate law and order environment in the North 24 Parganas district through which National Highway-35 passes, leading to the Bongaon-Petrapole ICP. Furthermore, a widening of this National Highway to four-lane width in the Kolkata-Bongaon-Petrapole axis and maintaining it properly are a sine qua non for the further growth of India-Bangladesh trade as well as for meeting the developmental needs of the north-eastern region. Quite significantly, during the June 21 inauguration of the Petrapole ICP, the West Bengal chief minister also spoke about the need for opening a police station at the ICP.
There are still some irritants or constraints in India-Bangladesh relations that need to be sorted out. For instance, some media agencies and political outfits – not all necessarily inimical to India – as well as civil society groups in Bangladesh cite the trade imbalance in India’s favour in this regard. The Petrapole ICP, if made optimally functional and suitably scaled up in the near future, in tandem with the expected growth in bilateral commerce, could help suitably boost imports from Bangladesh, including the import of value-added items based on basic input materials sent from India. However, the authorities concerned at the Union and State levels in India need to be suitably conscious of this requirement and monitor the functioning of the umbrella institution of the ICP in the interest of steady growth in bilateral trade so as to bring about a positive perception among Bangladeshis at large. In a recent interview to a Bangladeshi newspaper, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj has referred to the increasing growth in India’s imports from Bangladesh vis-à-vis exports to that country. The Petrapole ICP’s performance will have greater salience in this respect.
While the channelling of a higher volume of trade through Petrapole should benefit both countries, this new ICP institution also needs to be suitably leveraged to ensure that the logistically constrained north-eastern region also derives benefits. Towards this objective, India may consider assisting Bangladesh in the development of other cross-over points with facilities similar to the ICPs, from where transiting Indian goods will re-enter Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram. If such a cooperative endeavour works out, the prospects of export of raw materials as well as processed items from the north-eastern states to Bangladesh will also increase, apart from facilitating the easier trans-shipment of these items to West Bengal and beyond. In this regard, the Ministry of Development of North Eastern Region along with the Ministry of Commerce and Ministry of External Affairs, need to conceive and work out a suitable executing and monitoring mechanism.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, while welcoming the Benapole-Petrapole ICP, had aptly observed that `Banijya Basati Lakkhi` or ‘business brings fortune’. The ICP would have achieved the desired end if the benefits were to accrue to all concerned.
The author is a retired IDAS officer, who served till recently as an Additional Chief Secretary-level Adviser to the Nagaland Chief Minister/Nagaland Government
Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.