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Cross-border retail trading zones can boost India-Bangladesh commercial ties: Expert

Eastern Times, Special Correspondent, Dhaka, 15 November: A more integrated approach towards cross-border commercial development on selected points in the India-Bangladesh border would address concerns relating to revenue leakage, smuggling and other illegal acts, according to an Asian Development Bank trade and logistics expert.

“Especially focusing on retail and personalised services can boost Indo-Bangladesh commercial ties,” said Pritam Banerjee, an independent trade and logistics specialist associated with the Asian Development Bank, The Economic Times reported.

He expressed his views while speaking at a webinar titled “India-Bangladesh Border Haats: Poised For a Growing Role”, organised by CUTS International and Unnayan Shamannay.

During the discussion, the possibilities of utilizing the cross-border trade were explored to elevate the India-Bangladesh border haats to wider institutional spaces for local area development.

Banerjee proposed establishing retail trading zones, which are currently border haats, at the Agartala Airport in Tripura and at Lakhimari-Sonahat border covering north-western Bangladesh, lower Assam and northern West Bengal.

Establishment of retail trading zones in these two locations could be viable both in terms of its immediate vicinity and extended region of population.

He also presented a list of operational guidelines for the proposed retail trading zones.

They include removal of buyers’ restrictions, a special pass with biometric facilitations for persons who would access the cross-border zones on a daily basis, facilitating a system of using a bonded warehouse facility, especially for small retailers, traders and service providers.

Banerjee explained that “Initial development cannot be market driven. Projects should be taken up with substantial government funding, and provincial governments should have a larger role to play in providing land at competitive rates.

Even multilateral agencies such as the World Bank, Asian Development Bank can be roped in for their support for infrastructural development.”

The webinar was based on a Discussion Paper titled “Reimaging Border Haats as International Retail Trade Zones” which has recently been published as part of a project on India-Bangladesh border haats supported by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office of the United Kingdom under its Asia Regional Trade and Connectivity Programme.

Discussing the macroeconomic aspects of developing border trade zones between Bangladesh and India, Mustafizur Rahman, distinguished fellow of Bangladesh Centre for Policy Dialogue, stressed on four distinct stages of gradually scaling-up institutional structures, based on market forces.

It includes border haats to retail trading zones to commercial border zones and finally cross-border special economic zones.

He mentioned that up-scaling of border haats from their present structure to special economic zones should be a gradual process with a specific focus on strengthening investment connectivity between the two countries.

According to him, “the approach should be about respecting the borders and taking advantage of socio-economic ties”.

Talking about border haats and women empowerment, Mahbuba Nasreen, Director, Institute of Disaster Management and Vulnerability Studies, Dhaka University, Bangladesh suggested undertaking an exploratory multi-stakeholder study with consultative dialogues.

According to her, “Border haats could be good avenues for enhancing women’s participation in the labour market, thereby empowering them.”

Speaking on the occasion, Sreeradha Datta, from the Vivekananda International Foundation, emphasised on the need for sensitising security personnel, who are operating on the grounds, about the benefits of cross-border movement of people, goods and services and how they in turn could lead to prosperous borders.

Moreover, a priority in addressing essential facilities of well-maintained restrooms, running water and sanitation will encourage women participation at the border haats, both as vendors and buyers.

According to Swapna Debnath, additional director of Tripura Department of Industries and Commerce, “Border haats have been instrumental in achieving its primary objective of promoting people-to-people connections over the years, right after its inception. Furthering the scope of border haats into border retail trade zones could be an economically profitable and commercially viable strategy that needs to be explored further and pursued by both the state and the central governments.”

She informed that Tripura could take up the concept of border retail trade zones forward with a greater number of relaxations in regulation and process.

Bipul Chatterjee, Executive Director, CUTS International, underlined that “there is a need to engage local governments, panchayats, local media and tribal communities to promote institutional initiatives like border haats and ensure their buy-ins for furthering and scaling up to larger initiatives such as border retail trading zones and cross-border special economic zones.”

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