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Exporters explore water routes to save cost

Among the several factors contributing to the ongoing export halt of riverbed materials (RBM) from the bordering towns to Bangladesh, most issues hinge on the high cost of transportation involved.

In Gelephu, stones and boulders are ferried across 281km to Nakugoan in Bangladesh. In doing so, transporters have to cross two Indian states of Meghalaya and Assam including five districts.

The current cost of transportation stands at about Nu 35,000 in ferrying boulders on a 10-wheeler truck from Gelephu to Bangladesh. An additional Nu 7,000 is incurred as incidental expenses, which includes extortion fees along the way.

Given the high cost involved on road transportation, exporters with the Gelephu stones and aggregates (GSA) export group are exploring riverine mode of transport to ferry the RBMs to Bangladesh.

While the government has already signed the standard operating procedure (SOP) on the operationalisation of the memorandum of understanding on the use of inland waterways for transportation of bilateral trade and transit cargoes earlier this year, Kuensel learnt that the group is also studying the feasibility of inland water routes through two locations in Assam – Dhubri and Joghigopa.

Dhubri is located about 140km from Gelephu and already has an established port through the Brahmaputra river. Joghigop is 90km away from Gelephu and also has potential to serve as a water route to Bangladesh.  

Sources say the government would also use the Dhubri port to ship goods to Bangladesh from Bhutan. An inaugural shipment was supposed to be delivered through the route during the Prime Minster’s visit to Bangladesh in April earlier this year. However, it was learnt that the shipment could not be sent.

As per the SOP, there are four agreed trade routes – Chittagong, Mongla, Payra and Narayanganj to Daikhawa in Bangladesh. Narayanganj port would be used primarily as a port of call for loading and unloading bilateral trade cargos, according to the SOP.

The entry and exit points for trade through the water route from Bhutan would be from Gelephu, Phuentsholing, Nganglam, Lhamoizingkha, Samdrupjongkhar and Samtse. There are 13 similar places identified in Bangladesh, according to the SOP.

According to some exporters, the introduction of water routes would not only solve the current high transportation cost but also curb the extortion fees collected along the way including the harassment Bhutanese transporters go through.

Sources say several projects worth more than USD 125 billion (B) is underway in Bangladesh and it would require at least USD 25B worth of boulders and aggregates to execute the projects.

Given the large requirement of stones and boulders, some exporters said that if the transportation issue is resolved, export of boulders and other RBM from Bhutan could surpass revenue earnings from hydropower and tourism sectors.

Economic diversification through expediting inland water routes could also help address the current trade deficit, said exporters.

Use of waterways is expected to reduce the transportation cost by five times.

To date, Bhutan has been using the Kolkata seaport for export and import of goods to third countries. The commencement of this agreement would provide Bhutan with alternative sea routes.

Once the cargos are unloaded in Kolkata, goods are transported by road to Phuentsholing covering about 700km. The distance from Dhubri and Joghigopa to Phuentsholing is 150km and 215km respectively.

Younten Tshedup | Gelephu

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