India and Bangladesh, on 9 March 2021, inaugurated an economically crucial bridge built over the Feni river, which connects Tripura, a state in north-eastern India, to Bangladesh. The bridge was inaugurated by Prime Minister Modi virtually and is called Maitri Setu also known as Friendship Bridge. The 1.9 km bridge, which connects Sabroom in India with Ramgarh in Bangladesh, is poised to usher in a new age in trade and commerce between the two countries. The project’s cost is around 1.3 billion Indian Rupees. Since north-eastern India is landlocked, due to the inauguration of Maitri Setu, Tripura could become a ‘gateway of northeast’ as it will provide the state access to the Chattogram port of Bangladesh which is only 80 km away from Sabroom.
The idea of this bridge was announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2015 and work on it started in June 2017. The project is fully funded by the Indian government and is constructed by the National Highways and Infrastructure Development Corporation Limited (NHIDCL), which is an Indian government-owned company. This will prove to be the fastest land route from northeast India to Chattogram port in Bangladesh. Earlier, goods would have to travel 1,600 km through the Siliguri corridor from Agartala to reach Kolkata port instead of 450 km through Bangladesh. But, due to Maitri Setu, trade goods would now have to travel just around 200 km from Agartala to Chattogram port in Bangladesh lowering the transportation cost to 80 per cent. This bridge holds immense importance for both states. According to the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, Maitri Setu represents the strengthening of bilateral relations and friendly ties between both states. Not just India but Bangladesh also believes that this inauguration is of huge significance as the Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina described this event as historic and helpful in improving Bangladesh’s trade with Bhutan and Nepal as well. Moreover, during the virtual inauguration of the bridge, Prime Minister Modi said that this connectivity had not only strengthened India-Bangladesh friendship but had also proven to be a strong business link and the entire region between northeast India and Bangladesh was being developed as a trade corridor. He later added that Agartala, the capital of Tripura, would become the state’s closest city to an international seaport. Furthermore, according to a study generated by the World Bank, the transport connectivity between the two South Asian neighbours could boost Bangladesh’s and India’s national income by as much as 17 per cent and 8 per cent, respectively. Improved connectivity could increase exports from Bangladesh to India by 297 per cent and exports from India to Bangladesh are said to increase by 172 per cent. These statistics clearly show that Maitri Setu holds great significance for both states.
Besides, laying the foundation stone for an integrated check-post at Sabroom and other projects improving the connectivity and infrastructure within Tripura were also on the agenda. Efforts are also underway to make an alternative river route to connect the Chattogram port with north-eastern India. Sabroom’s check-post will act as a full-fledge logistic centre with warehouses and container trans-shipment capabilities while easing the movement of goods and passengers between the two states.
The inauguration of Maitri Setu is arguably an important step in strengthening bilateral relations between India and Bangladesh alongside benefitting regional connectivity. It could also aid in India’s dream to become the hegemon of the region. It is one of a slew of infrastructure projects announced by the BJP government since it took power in 2014 and is in line with Modi’s Look East Policy, which aims to improve commerce and trade with East and Southeast Asian states. However, in recent years, the growing influence of China in Bangladesh has become an issue of concern for India. The inauguration of the bridge alongside Modi’s visit to Bangladesh on 26 March is aimed at balancing out China’s influence in Bangladesh. Despite having strained relations with almost all its neighbours, India has always found a way to turn the tables around in its favour while focusing on its gains.