GOLAKGANJ, Jan 1 � Trade and commerce existed for centuries between the upstream communities of the Brahmaputra and the people in the downstream or the flood plain areas, which are now in Bangladesh. And Dhubri was a prime link in the trade. Now termed as international border trade, it was actually a tradition between the communities living in the hills and plains.
For long, barter was the principal mode of exchange in this region. Land, water and railway links between India and the present Bangladesh existed till the mid-1960s. Following the Indo-Pak War of 1965, the links were suspended till 1972. This came as a jolt for the entire region, especially West Bengal. The Northeastern region became more isolated and thousands of people were rendered jobless, while illegal or informal border trade flourished.
Rail communication with Bangladesh dates back to pre-Independence days. This rail link has been in existence since 1862. Trains of the East Bengal Railway (EBR) used to ply regularly between Calcutta and Bangladesh destinations. Later, the EBR came to be known as the Eastern Bengal State Railway (EBSR). Around 1905, passenger services started between Calcutta and the district town of Khulna (now in Bangladesh) via Bongaon of North 24 Parganas district. However, in 1957, except for the Dhaka Mail, all other passenger trains were withdrawn. The Dhaka Mail continued to ply between Dhaka in the erstwhile East Bengal and Calcutta via Rangahat in Nadia district.
Earlier, passengers had to cross the Padma river by boats to catch the connecting train to Sealdah. It was very troublesome. This problem was solved when the Hardinge Bridge was constructed. It eased the passage of trains to Sealdah via Geetaldaha. Some time after the partition, there was also a railway link from Bamonhat to Golokganj, both in Dhubri district now. This railway line went up to Guwahati via Dhubri. The trains touched stations like Bhurungamari, Sonahat and Pateswari of Kurigram district (all in Bangladesh).
Before Independence, both goods trains and passenger trains regularly plied all over the region, unhindered by borders. Old residents of Haldibari still recall the time when they used to travel to Sealdah by a train, cutting through what is now Bangladesh. The importance of this means of communication was boundless. It eased movement of passengers and goods, thereby facilitating trade and commerce besides spreading art and culture.
Laid in 1923, the rail track between Bongaon and Benapol of Jessore district of Bangladesh still exists. Train services on this route were disrupted when the Indo-Pak War broke out in 1965, and finally came to a grinding halt in July, 1972 after the birth of Bangladesh. The Dhaka Mail via Ranaghat stopped running after the 1971 Indo-Pak War. Another existing rail link is the one between Mahishasan in Karimganj district and Sahabazpur in Bangladesh.
As far as trade on rail between India and Bangladesh is concerned, Dhubri, Karimganj and Cooch Behar are of paramount importance. Given the common international borders that exist and the potential market therein, eastern India is the natural trading partner of Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar and eastern Nepal.
In 1972, after the Bangladesh Liberation War, India and Bangladesh signed a deal on international border trade (IBT). As per the arrangement, an arc of 8 km within each other�s boundaries was thrown open to traders from either side. But the vital trade routes had been closed. Traders of the Northeast incurred huge losses due to the cessation of this trade. The State governments of Meghalaya, Mizoram, Tripura and especially Assam and West Bengal, have been repeatedly urged by the trading community to take urgent measures to persuade Bangladesh to reopen these important and essential trade routes. If the river and land routes with Bangladesh are reopened, it will revive trade, reduce freight cost and develop each other�s river-dependent economies.
International border trade and transit rights between India and Bangladesh are not only a complex subject but are fraught with pitfalls. India has over the years emerged as one of the largest trading partners of Bangladesh. With a little more effort and organization, the economy of the West Bengal and the Northeast could be greatly strengthened by allowing transit facilities and the opening up of more land routes with Bangladesh, installing full-fledged riverine transport services and making the rail links fully operational.