India envisions a 5,000 km eastern regional waterway network linking Bangladesh and Myanmar: Sonowal

To gain a stronger presence along the Southeast Asian trade route and counter China’s dominance in the region, India is working with its two main neighbors, Myanmar and Bangladesh, and pushing for better connectivity of ports and waterways via a network of some 5,000 km.

In addition to investing in ports and a multi-modal logistics hub in Myanmar, India is also engaging with Bangladesh in dredging connecting waterways while connecting its own inland waterway network to neighboring ports, says Union Minister for Ports, Shipping and Waterways (MoPSW) Sarbananda Sonowal.

The idea, he recounts during an exclusive interaction, is to connect India to trade routes connecting Thailand and other ASEAN countries like Laos, while ensuring access to the port of Singapore, a key touchpoint on the international shipping route.

“A big beneficiary of this connectivity project would be the Northeastern states. For one, they get better connections to mainland India as ships can now navigate international waters. And then connect to the ASEAN trade route,” he said.

“The eastern regional waterway network, which stretches for about 5,000 km, will cover our own inland waterways and river networks, Bangladesh ports and Myanmar port investments,” Sonowal added.

Sittwe port project

Recently operations at Sittwe Port in Myanmar, partly funded by India, have started and the first cargo movement between Kolkata and Sittwe has taken place.

After a pilot delivery of rice to Bangladesh in March 2023, the first official shipment of 20,000 bags containing 1,000 tons of cement was waved off in May and received a few days later.

Port officials said the plan on the South Asian side is to connect East and Northeast India and Bangladesh with North India, Nepal and Bhutan. This will then be connected to Myanmar from Mizoram via the inland waterway terminal near Sittwe. From there, the river system will connect with Thailand and continue south to Malaysia and Singapore.

According to the project plan, the connection from Paletwa to Sittwe (Myanmar) will be made by inland waterway and from Sittwe to any port in India by sea.

The project includes a Haldia to Sittwe shipping route of 539 km; a movement from Sittwe to Paletwa via the Kaladan River using inland waterways over 158 km; from Paletwa to the Indo-Myanmar border (in Myanmar) by road over a 110 km route; and from the Indo-Myanmar border to the NH-54 (in India) is 100 km of roads.

Construction of an integrated port and inland waterway terminal at Sittwe with land reclamation, a terminal at Paletwa, development of the Sittwe-Palwas fairway, sea dredging at Sittwe, among others.

The Port of Sittwe is a seaport designed to handle 20,000 DWT (Dead Weight Tonnage) at maximum capacity. It is currently operated for 6,000 DWT with a draft of 7.9 metres.

“However, by improving the available draft to accommodate large cargo ships, the ship will be expanded to its maximum capacity,” explained Sonowal.

The Port of Sittwe’s operations were impacted after Cyclone Mocha on May 15. And the port jetty is only operational for relief supplies to the city of Sittwe and adjacent areas, port officials added.

Commitment to Bangladesh

Sonowal added that Indian cargo ships are already using the India-Bangladesh protocol route for better regional connectivity. Routes include Kolkata – Pandu – Kolkata; Kolkata – Karimganj – Kolkata; Rajshahi – Dhulian – Rajshahi and Pandu – Karimganj – Pandu.

Recently, Bangladesh has granted India access to transport goods to the Northeast through its ports at Chattogram and Mongla. Indian traders have to pay transshipment fees (and some other fees).

India has already conducted four dry runs via Mongla – Tamabil – Dawki; Mongla – Bibibazar – Srimantapur; Chattogram routes Sheola – Sutarkandi and Dawki – Tamabil – Chattogram.

“There has been a significant increase in cargo ship traffic in the neighborhood,” Sonowal said.

According to him, offers for dredging waterways had also been made; and dredging is being carried out in the Jamuna region (Brahmaputra is called Jamuna when entering Bangladesh).

“NW1 and NW2 will be connected via the Indo-Bangladesh Protocol route and it has the potential to become one of the busiest routes,” he said.

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