The Bay of Bengal has to be viewed as a region that can cater to the independent national interests of littorals.
The Bay of Bengal, the biggest Bay in the world, is gradually reclaiming its importance. There is visibly a growing interest in the Bay among littorals as also among extra-regional actors. Focusing on the Bay of Bengal, ORF Kolkata has been conducting a year-long study on maritime connectivity covering India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar. As part of this study, an international conference on ‘India’s Maritime Connectivity: Importance of the Bay of Bengal’ was organised by Observer Research Foundation, Kolkata in collaboration with the Consulate-General of Japan in Kolkata on 19-20 February 2018.
In the inaugural session of the conference, attention was drawn to the need for leveraging local, national, international interests for achieving maritime connectivity in the Bay region. For connectivity to grow, it is important to match international standards to improve economic prosperity. There is a lot of synergy between India’s Act East Policy and Japan’s idea of a free and open Indo-Pacific which calls for a strategic and diplomatic partnership between the two. It was pointed out that a natural consequence of India’s participation in the Quad grouping would be to become a member of the APEC in future. During discussions in the session focusing on customs and administration of maritime trade, introduction of automated customs clearance systems was proposed.
The topic of the second business session was ‘Strategic Convergences and Divergences’ in the Bay. It was highlighted that energy and trade security of emerging powers are the key reasons for the Bay attracting attention in recent years. It was also acknowledged that technological progress was a catalyst too for connectivity. Following from this, it was argued that the enhancement of connectivity should be based on rule of law.
India can act as an anchor of integration in the region. The Bay of Bengal has to be viewed as a region that can cater to the independent national interests of littorals. The importance of the Andaman and Nicobar islands was underscored. We need to sustainably and strategically exploit the Andaman and Nicobar islands, but sadly we have not done much yet. The islands are an asset to the country and the larger Bay region as well. Finally, the creation of a platform where the top partners of Asia along with other stakeholders could initiate and continue dialogue was discussed.
The first day of the conference concluded with a business session on ‘Port Logistics: Strengthening Connectivity over Bay of Bengal’ which began by deliberating the need for more dialogue and awareness about Indo-Bangladesh Protocol Routes and the potential for inland waterway trade that it holds. The operations of the Chittagong port were highlighted and the possibility of enhancing the capacity of the port which would enable it to cater to the international market more effectively was discussed. This could also help boost traffic at the Pangaon Inland Container Terminal.
The importance of developing road connectivity in India’s northeastern States was also highlighted. Sri Lanka has been able to develop its capacities for transshipment significantly and in this respect, Colombo port and Hambantota are best suited in terms of geographical location and infrastructural capabilities. It was pointed out that a careful study needs to precede the proposal for any port in the Bay to be considered as a free port.
Discussions also revolved around the state of affairs in Myanmar and it was pointed out that development of ports could tend to connect Myanmar with the Bay away from her present inland trade connections with China, for instance. Finally, attention was also drawn to the fact that growing inroads of China into Myanmar often has a spill-over effect in the local dynamics of the country.
Business session on the second day of the conference focused on ‘Linking India’s Northeast and Bangladesh with the Bay: Importance of Inland Waterways.’ Transportation by rivers is one of the most important means of communication in Bangladesh and inland rivers connect even the remotest locations there. Road transportation system has developed at a much faster rate than the river transportation system due to lack of understanding of how river systems function.
The inland waterways system has the potential to be a major channel of connectivity between Bangladesh and India’s northeast and help boost trade between the two countries. Hence, port and other infrastructural facilities need to be upgraded for development of inland waterways system and this can be a major opportunity of co-operation between sub-regional actors.
Our focus on river transportation system has been more investment oriented and less focused on revenue generation. For revenue generation, the private sector needs to be taken on board and sufficient incentives have to be provided to it. The development of river transportation system can be brought about by increasing demand for the same. For that to happen a robust origination and destination analysis needs to be undertaken so that we can decide what types of goods can be shifted from road transportation to river transportation. The development of tourism potential of the Brahmaputra river was also discussed.
This report is compiled by Pratnashree Basu, Associate Fellow, ORF Kolkata.