About 1,000 metric tonne (MT) of stone aggregates from Bhutan is the first waterways consignment that will be ferried to Bangladesh via the Brahmaputra river today.

The consignment is lifted from Dhubri Port in Assam, India. In three days, it will reach the Narayanganj Port in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Dhubri port is about 160km away from Phuentsholing. The port is under the Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI).

With this first shipment, Bhutanese exporters and importers now have an additional leeway of transport route with Bangladesh, which is comparatively cheaper than road transportation.

To mark this event, the general secretary of Bhutan Exporters Association (BEA), the proprietor of Bhutan Stones and Minerals (BSM), who is exporting the first consignment, and officials from IWAI, and a Kolkata based shipping company met on July 7 at Dhubri Port.

BEA general secretary Tshering Yeshi said it was a much-awaited event. “It is historic,” he said, adding that it took almost two months to come to this point.

Tshering Yeshi said that the “flagship” consignment was possible after India and Bangladesh declared Dhubri Port as “port of call.” The government had taken it to the Indian government to assist in using the Dhubri Port for transit route for transit cargo. Accordingly, a standard operating procedure (SOP) was developed and signed during the Prime Minister’s visit to Dhaka in mid April this year. Cooperation on inland waterways was one of the five bilateral instruments signed then.

To study the feasibility of the inland waterways, BEA and trade officials also recently travelled to Bangladesh using the same waterways route via Chilmari Port and Mongla Port.

“We found it is feasible and the depth of the river is satisfactory and even convenient in monsoons,” BEA general secretary Tshering Yeshi said.

With the opening of the inland waterways route to Bangladesh, the cost of transportation would decrease by at least 30 percent compared to surface transportation, officials said.

The distance to Dhubri, the third largest city in Assam, from Gelephu is about 135km. This means export of riverbed materials (RBM) from Gelephu, Nganglam and Samdrupjongkhar would be easier and cheaper from Dhubri Port. After unloading the materials, the trucks can also return the same day from Dhubri.

Today, trucks from Gelephu travel 281km to reach Nakugaon in Bangladesh and have to cross Assam and Meghalaya. Exporters from Phuentsholing and Samtse travel 156km to reach the India-Bangladesh border Changrabandha-Burimari. Trucks also ferry 97km to reach another border point at Fulbari-Banglabandha.

It takes at least seven days for one truck carrying an average weight of 40MT to make a round trip. Transportation cost of Nu 850-900 is charged for ferrying one MT load. A truck also pays detention charge of Nu 1,500 per day.

Importers from Bangladesh then bear the transportation cost from border areas. This has affected the final price of stone aggregates and other RBMs.

Further, the expenditure increases when problems arise and trucks are stuck at the border areas. Trucks sometime halt for more than 10 days.

From the inland waterways, it costs Nu 1,000 per MT to reach Narayanganj Port in Dhaka from Dhubri. It is the quantity that gives more advantage to the Bhutanese exporters. The cargo ship has the capacity to lift 2,200MT of load and make  more than three round trips in a month.

The shipping company, Ocean Marvel Shipping Services Private Ltd’s director Prabhakar Prakash said 2,200MT is equivalent to 100 truckloads.

“Waterways is cheaper than road,” he said, adding fuel consumption and manning cost is relatively cheaper. “Waterways is also the best option from an environmental perspective.”

At Dhubri Port, the proprietor of BSM said that waterways as an alternative would decongest the existing overtly jammed land ports.

“The land ports are choked,” he said. “Trucks get stuck for 10 to 15 days. Trucks will return the same day now and it is 30 percent cheaper.”

BEA general secretary Tshering Yeshi also said that exporters and importers in Bhutan could now explore the waterways. “We have showed the way,” he said.

Rajesh Rai | Assam