Agartala: The Internet Gateway

On 23 March 2016, ‘Broadband’ and ‘Power’ formed the basis of further strengthening of bilateral relations between India and Bangladesh, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi, along with his Bangladeshi counterpart, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, jointly inaugurated via video conferencing, a 10 GB internet broadband line connecting Cox Bazar in Bangladesh to Agartala in Tripura, and a 100 MW power supply line connecting Surjyamaninagar in Tripura with South Comilla in Bangladesh.

This is yet another example of how bilateral regional cooperation between neighboring countries can improve lives of those living on both sides of the border and yet be commercially viable to both countries.

The agreement to purchase 10 GB bandwidth from Bangladesh was signed between BSNL and Bangladesh Submarine Cable Company Limited (BSCCL) in July 2015 when Union Communications and Information Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad laid the foundation stone for the Optical Fibre Line connecting the two countries. Tripura is now India’s third International Internet Gateway (IIG) after Mumbai and Chennai.

What this means for India and Bangladesh?

In 2013, a TRAI Report highlighted the challenges faced in expediting the broadband infrastructure across Northeastern states due to difficult hilly terrain, low density of consumers in many areas, insurgency etc., that was delaying the expansion of 2G and emerging 3G services across the entire north east territory.

With Bangladesh taking initiatives for establishing their broadband network, there was some discussion on the possibility of India accessing Broadband linkages from Bangladesh. But lack of political will on both sides delayed further progress. With the Modi government coming to power in 2014, bilateral relations got a boost and both road, energy and digital connectivity came back into focus, with urgency being shown by both sides.

BSCCL of Bangladesh has since emerged with excess broadband capacity, while north eastern India continued to suffer from poor broadband connectivity and poor uptimes. This was mainly on account of the 2000 km optical fibre cable (OFC) that runs from Kolkata through tough terrain right up to Tripura. This resulted in poor broadband quality which hampered growth of e-governance initiatives by the state government in Tripura and other states of North East.

With the new agreement signed, BSNL invested Rs. 20 crore to establish the necessary infrastructure for the international long-distance gateway at Agartala which included laying of the OFC line.

The new OFC line connecting with Cox Bazar in Bangladesh just 352 km away, will mean excellent quality of broadband and 99% uptime in broadband availability. And the benefits will be available to all northeastern states.

Commercially, it means that BSCCL will receive Rs. 8 crore annually from BSNL in return for 10 GB broadband linkage, which will help BSCCL further improve its services and infrastructure in Bangladesh.

The deal has come after several bureaucratic delays and hard negotiations over the last four years, and with much prodding from the Chief Minister of Tripura Manik Sarkar. On his part, PM Modi took personal interest and initiative to push through the deal, in a bid to improve India’s relations with Bangladesh.

Energy continues to strengthen bilateral relations

Bangladesh is rapidly developing and needs energy to power that development. India has excess capacity in the east which it can offer to Bangladesh for a win-win situation for both nations.

The ONGC Tripura Power Company (OTPC) set up a 2 x 363.3 MW power plant at Palatana in Tripura, with the objective of generating and supplying power to all North Eastern states in India.

However, transporting the heavy power gears to the location during the construction phase was a challenge. On India’s request, Bangladesh government agreed to facilitate transfer of the equipment through Bangladesh but requested the Indian side to supply 100 MW of power to Bangladesh. This was agreed to in an agreement signed between OTPC and the Bangladeshi side, wherein Bangladesh would buy power from India at Taka 6.43 per unit (Rs. 5.12) on a ‘no power, no payment’ basis.

The deal is in addition to an already existing agreement, under which, India is supplying 500 MW through West Bengal to Bangladesh. The present agreement to supply an additional 100 MW through Tripura is likely to give a big boost to the border areas of Bangladesh that has been suffering due to inadequate and intermittent power supply.

PM Modi assured his counterpart that India would continue to supply of electricity to Bangladesh as per its needs. Increased cooperation between the two countries in the energy sector can be seen through Indian involvement in several power projects coming up in Bangladesh, including the 1,320 MW power plant, that is slated to be Bangladesh’s biggest power project.

Other initiatives to improve cross-border relations

In order to improve cross-border trade and people-to-people contact between India and Bangladesh, India has begun work on extending the railway line from Agartala Railway station to Akhaura Railway station in Bangladesh, near the Agartala border. The 15 km railway line is part of the initiative taken by the Indian government to improve the movement of goods and services between India and Bangladesh.

The Indian government has already set up a multi-purpose integrated check post in Agartala that will oversee cross-border trade from the Indian side. This will be yet another border opening after Petropole-Benapole border checkpoints.

Hope for other countries of South Asia

The growing trade and diplomatic relations between India and Bangladesh serves as an example to other nations in South Asia with whom India currently faces political and diplomatic hurdles, which is holding back economic development of the region.

Efficient cross-border road and rail connectivity, along with harnessing and sharing of energy, will go a long way in transforming the lives of people of the region. Let’s hope the momentum carries on.