Failed Wheat – The Statesman

Irony in India-Bangladesh relations can sometimes be bizarre and lead to bitterness. As the Mitali Express to Dhaka Cantonment made its first trip from New Jalpaiguri Station on Wednesday, it became the third passenger train service between the two countries. Connectivity has improved and operationalization means that the Mitali Express augments the services offered by the Maitree Express (Kolkata to Dhaka) and the Bandhan Express (Kolkata to Khulna). A long-standing request from the people of North Bengal has been met. And yet, the romantic euphoria generated on either side of the (porous) border has dissipated somewhat with reports that hundreds of trucks, loaded with four lakh tonnes of wheat and destined for export to Bangladesh, are stuck at the Changrabandha border in West Bengal. Cooch district Béhar. For three weeks, these trucks have been immobile while the customs authorities refuse authorization to continue their journey. The delay in transport may well result in a huge loss for exporters; it could amount to millions of rupees as the grain will start to rot as the monsoon sets in this month. According to reports, the water has already started seeping into the bags and damaging the wheat. If the monsoon sets in, much of the shipment will be wasted. On May 13, the General Directorate of Foreign Trade (DGFT) issued a notification banning the export of wheat “with immediate effect”. The ban was contextualized with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a conflict that affected the world’s wheat supply and even the former Soviet satellite. Days later, government sources said the ban would not affect orders finalized earlier and shipments to neighbors would be cleared on a case-by-case basis. Neither happened. At Mahadipur land port in Malda district, about one lakh metric tons of wheat is stuck. These are shipments for which importers in Bangladesh had made payments. And yet, for the past few weeks, trucks carrying these shipments have not been allowed to enter Bangladesh. The DGFT, it should be noted, had stated that there were no restrictions on shipments of wheat for which the formalities had been completed before the entry into force of the ban. With each passing day, the cross-border confusion worsens. The West Bengal Exporters Coordinating Committee had sent a letter to Union Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal on May 28 asking him to intervene so that trucks loaded with wheat can enter Bangladesh. According to an estimate by exporters in Malda, a contiguous district, several hundred thousand tonnes of wheat have been stuck at the border since May 13. The neighboring country is one of India’s main buyers. Importers save about 30% by buying Indian wheat instead of sourcing the product from other countries. A prescription to overcome the crisis is imperative, in particular because of the resumption of bilateral relations.