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Last Updated: Monday, 13 October, 2003, 09:55 GMT 10:55 UK
Passengers shun Dhaka-India bus

Alastair Lawson
BBC correspondent in Dhaka

Cut off geographically and culturally from the rest of India, the seven north-east Indian states may be coming in from the cold.

Dhaka-Agartala bus
The bus is luxuriously fitted for the two-hour journey

A new bus service launched recently is the first overland connection between the so-called seven sisters and Bangladesh.

It runs a twice-daily service from Dhaka to Agartala - capital of the Indian state of Tripura - enabling Indians living in the inaccessible far east to go overland via Bangladesh when travelling to Calcutta or Delhi.

But so far, only a handful of passengers have bothered to use the service.

Early in the morning most of the buses at any of Dhaka's main terminals are so full that people jostle for space on the roofs.

Yet the Dhaka to Agartala service - with 40 seats - has only four passengers, and two of them are journalists.

Danger and fascination

It is not immediately obvious why so few should want to travel on the service.

It has in-coach entertainment, luxurious reclining seats and numerous snacks handed out by immaculately dressed attendants.

View from the front
On either side of the road are fields and waterways

The roads to the Indian border may be potholed and busy but as one of my fellow passengers, Vladimir Lozinski from Australia, pointed out, there is no shortage of interesting sights.

"It's quite dangerous - like most roads in the subcontinent - but the fascinating thing is the journey through Bangladesh," he says.

"On either side of the road, all you can see is water. There's just this very thin strip of road that we're bouncing along and there's water on both sides with a few villages dotted here and there, so in one way it feels more like you're on a boat being tossed on an angry sea."

Mr Lozinski says the service is also hugely significant for bilateral relations.

Up until now the only way Indians living in Tripura could travel directly to Delhi and Calcutta was by air

If they wanted to go overland they would have to bypass Bangladesh on a circuitous route via the north-east Indian state of Assam.

That journey entails going through the famous "chicken neck" - a narrow strip of land that connects India with the north-east.

Close-up of bus
The bus has failed to attract large numbers of passengers

It is often targeted by militants, cutting off the seven sisters from the rest of India.

The journey time has now been halved, although driver Kamal Hassein says the jams can still be a nightmare.

"The distance from Dhaka to Agartala is only 150 kilometres," he says, "and we should be able to do it in around two hours.

"But the traffic is so bad the journey often takes five hours or longer. This is a brand new bus and I'm proud to be driving it, but competition for space on the roads is so intense it's very difficult not to dent it."

Visa wrangle

As the bus arrives in Tripura, Indian businessman Nitai Chandroshaha watches the few passengers go through immigration and customs.

He is one of the most successful businessmen in the state and has commercial interests in Bangladesh too.

Mr Chandroshaha argues it is not the roads or traffic that explain the failure of the new service.

"It's a $10 tax imposed by Bangladesh on every passenger who uses it," he says.

Indian border post welcome
A sign from India's paramilitary troops, welcoming visitors

"That, combined with the refusal of Dhaka to issue transit visas for Indians wanting to make a return journey to Calcutta, has put thousands of people off."

He urged Dhaka to cut the red tape and not force Indians to get expensive and time-consuming double-entry visas.

"It's a shame because both sides would benefit if there was an open border."

But Bangladeshi officials argue the travel tax is necessary to cover administration costs.

They say it is fair because everyone, including Bangladeshis, have to pay.

And Tripura's chief secretary, Vasudevan Thulasidas, says India and Bangladesh are still determined the new service will be successful.

He talks expansively of plans for a trans-Asia highway and railway that would "connect the entire region of south-east Asia as a whole".

Indian border post
Tripura businessman, Nitai Chandroshaha, says the border should be more open

Along the border between Bangladesh and Tripura, it is possible to find villages split in half by the international boundary, demarcated by the British more than 50 years ago.

It is possible to stand with one foot in India and the other in Bangladesh.

In some cases, the border goes through houses - the kitchen may be in Bangladesh and the bedroom in India.

It is a porous border and every day thousands of day labourers flood across it both ways.

They do not need a new coach service and do not worry about visas or filling in forms in triplicate at immigration.

They believe it is a lot less complicated to travel on foot.

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