AROUND THE REGION
Changing geo-politics in Northeast
Massive boost to connectivity through Bangladesh is changing the way Northeast is perceived in India and the way those in region perceive themselves. The biggest beneficiary of this change is tiny Tripura. The state which had the confidence to initiate trans-border hostile covert operations to crush a violent insurgency now has pushed all kinds of connectivity projects -- rail-road, waterways, Internet gateway -- with Bangladesh, even as some other states have wasted their energies demonising Bangladesh.
With the submarine cable from Cox's Bazar drawn into Agartala, Tripura is all set to emerge as India's third Internet Gateway. The Agartala-Akhaura rail link is in the works and once throughy, there is every chance of a Agartala-Calcutta direct rail service via Dhaka, aside the bus service plying that route. The Centre has also sanctioned funds for connecting Tripura's Haora and Gomti river with Meghna in Bangladesh.
The multi-modal connectivity is becoming a reality and Tripura is soon becoming India's door to Northeast. Chief MInister Manik Sarkar is also pepped up by the prospect of an access to sea -- this will Northeast's access to the Bay of Bengal but one that will run through Tripura.
Six years of Awami league rule has seen the turning of the tide. With a slew of agreements ranging from coastal shipping deal to Motor vehicles protocol to surplus bandwidth sale agreement , India and Bangladesh are all set to usher in a new chapter in improved connectivity that would be crucial to the success of India’s Look East policy.
That has changed the geopolitical scenario. No longer is Assam important to access Northeast. There are alternative routes to do that through Bangladesh. The easiest being one through Tripura. India has decided to invest 10 billion rupees for the Akhaura-Agartala rail project. The Agartala-Kolkata direct bus service via Dhaka is already up and running.
Once the rail service works out after the Agartala-Akhaura route is up and running, Tripura and not Assam will be India’s gateway to its own Northeast. And with Bangladesh sure to allow use of its ports, the Chittagong-Sabroom corridor will be used by Indian freight movers rather than the land route through Srirampur in Assam’s disturbed Kokrajhar region. That saves distance, money and time.
Not that Bangladesh is any less disturbed. The Sitakunda area of the Dhaka-Chittagong saw the worst violence during the BNP-Jamaat’s transport blockade and dozens of trucks and buses were burnt. That could happen again but Sheikh Hasina’s determination to crush all agitation may ensure that Tripura remains the easiest passage between the Indian mainland and the Northeast.
That will mean the tiny state will emerge as a possible industrial destination for both Indian and Bangladesh capital. With the extension of the submarine cable from Cox’s Bazar to Agartala on the cards and the surplus bandwidth sale agreement between India and Bangladesh through, Tripura has the opportunity to turn itself into a destination for IT industry. It is a historic opportunity that Tripura’s Left government will not miss.
The big advantage that Manik Sarkar – and that Buddhadev Bhattacharyya did not have – is the state thankfully does not have an eternal agitprop spoiler like Mamata Banerjee. The state’s major Opposition leaders are from the Congress. Sudip Barman is an engineer with military schooling and will never do what Mamata did to stop the Tatas at Singur. Neither would any of his party topbrass in Tripura. They will never stoop to such levels. With a Congress-Left understanding in Bengal likely to bring down the Trinamul and keep the BJP away, the principal opposition of the Left in Tripura is all set to be its friend and ally. No Opposition is good news for the state.
So this is Tripura’s moment. The fact that Ratan Tata is taking interest in the state is not just because he is impressed by the Left leadership but because he has a strong sense of geopolitics and geoeconomics. The man who took the Tatas to UK big time is also the man who wanted to take them to Bangladesh and West Bengal big time but failed. In Tripura, he has the opportunity to locate his businesses in a safe zone with peace and power and proximity to the two Bengals which comprise a huge 250 million market ( Bangladesh and West Bengal) but where the Tata experience has been less than savoury.
Tripura needs to get Tata Trust for charity and other reasons – but still better if it can get the TCS for an IT park that will draw on the state’s skilled manpower (now forced to Bengaluru and Hyderabad), surplus power, high speed Internet and social peace to thrive. For that to happen, the state needs smart ministers (literally smart as in capacity to understand and use IT) who can make Tripura the next big thing for Indian industry.
Manik Sarkar , for all his success in tackling insurgency and doing up infrastructure projects and implementing Central plans effectively, is yet to display a flair for attracting industry and investment. I-T is neither his forte nor the minister he has to run the department. He needs outside-the-party talent -- the Left Front has an engineer in a senior Forward Bloc leader Shyamal Roy and the Congress local boss Sudip Barman is one as well. Sarkar may consider an IT development committee with both Roy and Barman in it representing the Left Front and Congress and then draft in the services of Tripura boy Saumen Sarkar , a vice president (IT) with Bank of America. This NRI organises a Tripura Conclave each year to discuss major problems of the state and strategise to handle them -- he has much passion for the state and its future.
This is where Sarkar will have to get over his 'all-through-the party' approach and help bringing about the realisation of the Tripura dream. The state that was once remote and forgotten in Indian geo-political imagination is all set to emerge as a roaring success.
(Subir Bhaumik is a former BBC Correspondent and now works as Senior Editor of Dhaka-based bdnews24.com. His books on Northeast "Insurgent Crossfire" and "Troubled Periphery" are well acclaimed. His forthcoming book "Agartala Doctrine" is being published by Oxford University Press. )