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Unscientific Dams on Brahmaputra River Made by China Cause Low Water Level: Indo-Bangladesh International River Trade Halted

BANGLADESHI BOATS CARRYING STONES ARE STUCK IN INDIAN RIVER

Dams on Brahmaputra cause Bangladesh Boats waiting after loading stone chips at Dhubri International River Port. Photo: Shib Shankar Chatterjee.
Bangladesh Boats waiting after loading stone chips at Dhubri International River Port. Photo: Shib Shankar Chatterjee.

​At a time when the entire human race is crying out for protection of the environment and ecological balance, largely lost due to the actions of careless people, capitalists and anti-environmental organizations and their thoughtless activities, some developing countries are doing the same thing in the name of development of their nations. Dams on Brahmaputra River and other actions put the world in terrible danger. Indian neighbouring nation China in particular is one of them. China has joined hands with evil forces and as a result, the entire ecological balance of Northeast India close to the verge of ruin. For example, the Brahmaputra river, which is the 9th largest and the 15th longest river in the world and the biggest river in India experienced a sudden decrease in water level and navigability.

​Believe it or not, recently around 45 to 50 boats loaded with stone, and bearing the national flag of Bangladesh, were grounded at International River Port (IRP) at district head-quarter town Dhubri in Indian State of Assam, near the India-Bangladesh International Borderline. They were stuck for more than 40-days. When these boats tried to set sail towards Chilmari Ghat in Bangladesh sometime around the end of December, 2021, at that time they couldn’t further navigate due to sudden low water level in the International Border River (IBR), Brahmaputra and ultimately had got stuck.

​Since then, nearly 200 sailors manning those vessels are having a tough time stranded in the river. The crew members of the these vessels also experienced a food and monetary crisis. They urged the governments of India and Bangladesh to make river transport viable as soon as possible between the two nations, including by starting dredging of the IBR.

Bangladesh Boats waiting after loading stone chips at Dhubri International River Port. Photo: Shib Shankar Chatterjee.

Bangladeshi Boatmen

​” … Amra Bangladesherthone aisi aaj pray ekmash hoilo … eikhane aitkaya roisi … amader taka posiha furaya jaitachhe ga, phole sudhu khaowadawar somoshyi na, mobile phonero recharge korte partasina, phone barigharer loker sathe katha koite partasi na, kobe jaite parum tao janina. Sobthaiyka boro kathata hoilo keu amago khabor kortase na je amader ki samoshya, Allah jane ki hoibo amader” … (translated: “We have come here since first week of January, 2022, and seen that we are stuck. Now I see that all the money is running out, what should we do? We aren’t even able to contact our family members, because we are unable to recharge our mobile phones, so we don’t see so much, we will die without food. We have fallen into a deep trouble, when we will be able to go home we do not know. Most important thing is that both side governments are neither listening to us nor helping us. God knows what will happen with us) … ?,” said 52-year-old Muhammad Sabuj Bepari, who lives in the village Siripur under Mehediganj Police Station (PS) of Barishal district in Bangladesh.

“Look, you heard that whole thing from my previous friend that we are facing huge unnecessary problems. We are literally stuck into this particular Nodi (river). We have also heard that due to unnecessary dams constructed in this IBR in China and as a result of this suddenly it has happened. In earlier we have been coming since around end of the year 2019 to till November, 2021, but never ever face such a situation like this. This time we have been facing such acute shortage of water or you can say, due to low level of water. We are totally confused, we do not know what to do … ,” expressed 40-year-old boatman Muhammad Javed Ali, who resides at Bajitpur village under Kishoreganj district of Bangladesh.

​Supporting the facts, “Look we work in Dhaka, but we usually travel even from Dhubri port to Kuakata port, which is situated on the bank of the Bay of Bengal Sea, under Patuakhali district of Bangladesh (especially during the rainy season). But, this time too, we have entered into Indian territory through Saheber Alga and Daikhowa Char (‘River Island‘) or ‘Sand-bar’ or ‘Sandy-shore’ (locally called – Balur-char)s, which are also the International Border Out Post (IBOP)s that guarded by International Frontier Border Guard (IFBG) – Border Security Force of India (BSFI)’s 41 Battalion(BN) of South-Salama-Mankachar district of Indian State of Assam with a view to collect stone chips. Apart from this, there is another exact entry point, which is called Sishumara (that is also an IBOP and under surveillance of BSFI) in South-Salama-Mankachar district, but presently this water channel is closed due to low water level, which keeps open generally during rainy season.”

“Around 35 to 50 vessels entered into the Indian port since December last week. Though, at present 20 to 25 vessels harboured here and rest of boats reached their destination in Bangladesh, after Indian IWAI dredged this river channel,” revealed 58-plus-year-old Abdul Rahaman, another boatman of Patuakhali, who dwells at the hamlet Char Biswas, under Galachipa PS in Patuakhali district of Bangladesh.

​”I am the owner of my boat. I have two boats. We usually go 3 to 4 a month and one trip takes minimum 3-days to maximum 4-days for up and down. Here, I bring only one boat to carry the stone chips. Each and every boat has minimum 4 to maximum 5 men or staff and their salary around 10,000-Taka to 15,000-Taka (Bangladesh currency). We have obtained contract at the rate of 2,10,000-Taka per month to carry out this particular trade. Though, apart from stone chips we also carry coal from India and jute from Bangladesh. But this time we faced huge loss, due to sudden water recedes in this river. What I will do I can not figure out … ,” lamented 51-year-old Sahidul Islam, owner of Jakia Nur boat, who lives in the village Khamar-Andarigar under Bhurungamari PS of Kurigram district.

Bangladeshi boatman Sabuj Bepari (green hat), with colleagues. Photo: Shib Shankar Chatterjee

​”Yes, whatever boatman Abdul Rahaman said is correct, though; now everyday we are sending minimum 4 to 5 Bangladeshi boats to their country. Right now around 10 to 12 boats are standing near the bank of Dhubri port and we will send them soon.”

​”Indeed, Bhutan’s stone aggregates deriving from International Border Town (IBT) Phuentsholing (known as – Phuntsholling) under Chukha district of Bhutan are being transported from Dhubri Jahaj Ghat (River Port), at Dhubri, which is Indian National Waterway (INW) Number-2 (that is, the Brahmaputra River Waterway) to Narayanganj (Bangladesh) using the India Bangladesh Protocol (IBP) route since 11th July, 2019,” informed Dhramnath Prasad, Junior Hydrographic Surveyor of IWAI, Dhubri IRP.

​”This time also, these consignments are brought from Phuntsholling of Bhutan and are being transported through dumpers to the IRP Dhubri, which has been established during British period, and subsequently loaded into the aforesaid vessels using modern conveyer belt system. But, suddenly in the mid January, 2022, water has reduced drastically, and as a result of this, depth of navigation also decreased hugely. Perhaps unscientifically dams are made in the upper stretch of the said IBR at China could be one of the major causes of this awkward situation,” said an official (Technical Assistant) of the Dhubri IRP, Karma Dorjee Thongon.

Name of Bangladeshi boat and company name clearly visible, harboured at Dhubri International River Port. Photo: Shib Shankar Chatterjee.

Local Agents Affected

​The local agent-cum-middleman, who look after as well as help to manage all the papers and others related documents of the stone-chips and navigation for clearances of custom (under Department of Revenue, Ministry of Finance, Government of the Republic of India (GOTROI), Gadadhar Chaudhury told, “After completion of loading stone-chips from India, to reach Bangladesh, these stone-chips laden vessels will enter Bangladesh just opposite of aforementioned Indian river-islands channels and then subsequently to reach their destinations IRP, Chilmari under Kurigram district of Bangladesh and Barishal district of Bangladesh. Similarly, in Indian side, these Bangladeshi vessels firstly enter India through the river-islands channel and then reach Dhubri port to collect the Bhutanese stone chips. But, today they are facing unnecessary situation. Although, of course I feel so bad, but I can also say only that it will definitely affect not only our livelihood but our business as well.”

​”There are huge numbers of boats and launch transportation companies (like – Messrs Sakhafi & Affan Enterprises, M. B. Shaim Enterprise, Aziz Paribahan, M. B. J. R. B. Paribahan, M. B. Simul & Rupa, M. B. Jhilmiland Sahil Rana of Brother & Dhar International, et cetera, who have harboured at Dhubri IRP) plying this particular route, who have been engaged in carrying the stone from India through the IRP, Dhubri for many years and have been supplying stones to various construction companies for making of rail, roads, bridges, bunds, buildings and others various constructions works in Bangladesh,” disclosed 39-year-old boatman, Muhammad Juwel Mianh (Mianh means gentleman), who is the inhabitant of Radhanagar hamlet under Jamalganj PS in Sunamganj district of Bangladesh.

Name of a Bangladeshi boat and company name, harboured at Dhubri International River Port. Photo: Shib Shankar Chatterjee.

​” … More than 20 to 25 boat transportation companies operated in this particular waterway for various goods transportation purposes. Stone from India has high demand in Bangladesh and it has become one of the well profitable businesses between the two neighbouring states. We pay per trip per boat to carry stone from Indian to Bangladesh around minimum 20,000-Taka to 25,000-Taka and maximum 25,000-Taka to 35,000-Taka. We have generally run our boats to carry stone 3- to 5-times in a month, but it depends upon the situation of navigational depth totally. It is also true that due non-dredging of river channels on part of Bangladesh, they had already incurred a loss to the tune of crore Taka. But, thank god, in Indian side, GOTROI takes it seriously and dredging the abovementioned international river, as our boatmen not only have seen in their own eyes but also inform us over telephone … ,” revealed Muhammad Nur Islam of M. B. Jhilmil, one of the (boat) transportation companies of Bangladesh.

​”Beside this loss, transportation of stone-chips consignments from India has also been stopped. Though it has started, the important point is the Indian Central Government provides 80% (per cent) cost of dredging to Bangladesh, but our Bangladesh Government has not paid any proper attention to this particular crisis or difficulty, which is being faced by us of stone, even after our constant appeals to rescue his 5 boats, BIWTA didn’t extend any help or support. Though, stone-chips of 3 boats have already been shifted by engaging 02 large boats, while stones of the other 2 will be shifted early,” disclosed 40-year-old Muhammmad Habib Ahmed, who resides at Savar, Dhaka district of Bangladesh and the owner of the boat – Allah-r-Daan.

​”Each and every year of December-January to March-April, the water level in this particular Nodi (that is, river) becomes very low, which is quite normal, but this time it seems that the water level has decreased to an abnormal level, which is unnatural. And it is also true that this is what we saw on television news and in the newspapers and magazines and even social medias, we can say that it has happened because of the big dams that China has built on this mighty river to kill the river as well as us and nothing else. Therefore, international organizations should look into this matter seriously before it’s too late,” lamented 24-year-old young and energetic boatman Mijanur Rahaman, who resides at Bajitpur village in Kishoreganj district of Bangladesh.

Bangladeshi boatman Muhammad Masood with other boatmen of Bangladesh. Photo: Shib Shankar Chatterjee.

Trade

​In this context it can be mentioned here that hundreds of million tonnes of boulders are required to construct the multipurpose rail, roads, bridges, bunds, buildings and other various constructions in Bangladesh. The contract for supplying the boulders and its chips are given to the contractors. The contractors searching for the required quantity of rocks for aforementioned reasons ultimately selected a portion of foothills of Himalayas (including eastern Indian States, Bhutan and Nepal) mainly for three reasons – Firstly : high quality of rocks, Secondly : for easy transportation and Thirdly : economically viable for supply.

​In-a-word, rocks excavated from eastern part of India, Bhutan and Nepal’s hills can be easily and economically carried by the Roadways and (Inland) Waterways of India, which will be the easiest, cheapest way of transportation and available through this particular tri-junction (Assam, Meghalaya and West Bengal States of India) point or area – Dhubri, district headquarter town of Indian State, Assam.

Bangladeshi Boatmen stand on their harboured boats discussing the situation due to low water level in the Brahmaputra river. Photo: Shib Shankar Chatterjee.

Dams on Brahmaputra River

​According to the experts, after 1994, a few huge dams were built in the upper reaches of the IBR in China. As a result of this, from in and around the last week of December, 2021, suddenly the water level of the IBR – Brahmaputra was receding fast, which has never been seen earlier. It has adversely affected the International River Transport (IRT) as well as the Inter-Nation River Transport (INRT) and Inter-State River Transport (ISRT), commonly known as – Inland Water Transport System (IWTS) so much so that around 50 Bangladesh vessels had started returning to their nation after loading boulder and stone-chips from Dhubri port, but they got stuck in the river due to low level of water.

​” … It is true that Chinese dams do not directly affect the masses, but yes, it is one of the reasons and probably affects at least 10% (per cent) to 20% (per cent) certainly. However, in addition to this, the major factors are deforestation, shortage of rainfall, flowing in transverse direction and seasonal problems. Moreover, we need to keep in mind that the IBR, Brahmaputra is quite dependent on its tributaries … ,” stated Apruban Mukherjee, Hydrologist, based in Kolkata.

​One of the renowned environmentalists in the Indian State of Assam, who lives in the district-headquarters of Dhubri as well as the Dibrugarh of the Indian State of Assam, Soumyadeep Dutta warned, “As a resident on the bank of the aforementioned river, an environmentalist and as per my experience, I can say that the Brahmaputra, one of the world’s largest rivers has huge numbers of chars. And a char is the common phenomenon of nature that is found farming here and there in the lower course or lower stretches of the river. Most of the sandbars are transient in nature. Though, destruction and creation of chars go on in an unending way. This transformation of chars is not a new matter but eternal. The Brahmaputra and its tributaries create hundreds and hundreds of ‘fields’ (islands) and rivulets every year and destroy them in the same way.”

​”The chars begin to move as the flow of water increases. But, when the water flows recede, sediment gets deposited and new sandbars take shape. The sandbars do not exist throughout the year. They are submerged during monsoon and become visible during winter season, which not only destroy the channels of the water flow of the aforesaid river but also create huge problems for the navigational system as well.”

“​But, it is not the fact, which can usually happen traditionally, seasonally and ecologically but the sudden depletion of waters of this sacred river indicates is completely different, which no one including intellectuals really wants to talk, discuss and express, which is very unfortunate. The dams on the river Brahmaputra and other dams throughout the Tibet Regions made by China not only destroy the water flow of the rivers but also ruin the civilization as well as crippling the Indian states of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh spiritually, ecologically, economically, which is a matter of grave concern at the moment.” ​

​” … It is fact that a tripartite accord between India, Bangladesh and Bhutan resulted in launch of stone export from India (Dhubri IRP) to Bangladesh. Similarly, on the other, as per Inland Water Transit & Trade Protocol (IWTTP) between India & Bangladesh also, a large quantity of stone is being transported from India to Bangladesh every day. But, due to sudden receding water level in Brahmaputra, the vessels and mechanized boats are facing problems, which has never been seen before, like this year, 2022 … ,” informed Director C & P of Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority (BIWTA), Muhammad Shahjahan, over telephone from the capital of Bangladesh, Dhaka.

Bangladeshi boatman stands near his boat thinking about returning home. Photo: Shib Shankar Chatterjee.

Government​

In this context it can be noted here that the Bangladesh assistant high commissioner, Dr, Shah Muhammad Tanvir Mansur on 25th December, 2019, flagged off the commercial cargo service from IRP-Dhubri, in an effort to push for transportation of goods and others things through Indian waters to the neighbouring nation. At that time, he emphasized, “This cargo service scores a new milestone in the stable try as hard as to promote economically and eco-friendly modes of transport between the two neighbouring nations.”

​At that point in time, “The two Bangladeshi barges (that is, a long flat bottomed boat for carrying freight on canals and rivers) – MV Sagar Express and MV Alvahar – would carry 250-tonnes of crushed stone brought from Bhutan and would be unloaded at IRP, Chilmari,” informed Atawor Rahman, manager of Export Trade Associate.

​Earlier, the first cargo vessel from the IRP, Dhubri was launched on 11th July, 2019, as a pilot project and in this regard, the vessel, MV Aai of Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI), loaded around 01,000.50-metric ton with crushed stone, set sail for Narayanganj river port of Narayanganj district in Bangladesh from Dhubri river port.

​”It is also important that this service has put the then headquarters of Undivided Goalpara district, (presently, district) Dhubri, the eastern Indian State, Assam as well as entire North-East India in the international trade map and in future it will help further reinforce India Bangladesh International Trade ties so that both the nations can benefit from its waterways,” stated the then Chief Minister (CM) of the Indian State of Assam, Sarbananda Sonowal on 12th February, 2021, over telephone.

​”Both sides are positive that in near future the business between the two countries and their trade route can be turned into a passenger route as well. Not only that we wish that apart from Bhutan, other geological, agricultural and industrial substances from entire Northeast India can also be transported. And as a result of this, district headquarter, Dhubri can play a major role in international business by transforming itself into Asian trade hotspot,” said the senior journalist-cum-think tank, Rupam Baruah, based in Guwahati in Kamrup district of the Indian State of Assam.

​According to the Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI), under Ministry of Port, Shipping & Waterways, Government of India, established 27th October, 1986, declared the total 891-kilometres of IBR, Brahmaputra as Indian National Waterway (INW) Number-02, with two permanent and 11 floating terminals.

Bangladeshi boats returning to Bangladesh. Photo: Shib Shankar Chatterjee.

​As per IWAI records showed, “Pre-1947, the trade and commerce in the integrated region used to be significantly dependent on rivers. Traffic continued until the year – 1965 before suspension. In the year, 1972, the India Bangladesh Protocol on Inland Water Transit and Trade (PIWT&T) was first signed in 1972 to restore trade and transit through river. In April, 2015, the two neighbouring nations decided to renew the protocol automatically after every 05-year. Inaugural cruise services commenced from both the countries in March, 2019. Standard Operating Procedure (SoP) of Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on Passenger & Cruise Services on Coastal & Protocol routes signed in Oct, 2018. IBP route connects Indian rivers – Ganga (NW Number-01), Brahmaputra (NW Number-02) and Barak (NW Number-16) with Bangladesh’s rivers Jamuna, Padma, Gumti, Meghna and Kushianra and provides an integrated connectivity.”

“​It can be mentioned here that PIWT&T plays a key role to promote trade between India and Bangladesh. The existing IRPs of call on each side – India Ports -Haldia and Kolaghat (Purbo Medinipur district), Maia and Dhulian (Mrshidabad district) and Kolkata (Kolkata district) in Indian State of West Bengal, Dhubri (Dhubri district), Jogighopa (Bongaigaon district) Pandu (Kamrup district), Silghat (Nagaon district) and Karimganj (Karimaganj district) in Indian State, Assam, Sonamura (Sipahijala district) in Indian State of Tripura and Bangladesh Ports – in district head-quarters, Narayanganj, Khulna, Sirajganj and Rajshahi, Mongla (Bagerhat district), Ashuganj (Brahmanbaria district), Pangaon and Sultanganj (Dhaka district), Chilmari (Kurigram district), Daudkhandi (Comilla district), Bahadurabad (Jamalpur district).”

​”Also, extended IRPs of call – India river ports – Badarpur (Karimganj), Tribeni (Kolkata) and Bangladesh river ports – Ghorasal (Narayanganj), Muktarpur (Pangaon). Inland Waterways provide an alternate route for India-Bangladesh trade, which has been heavily dependent on congested road routes passing through International Land Customs Stations (ILCS).”

​It can also be noted here that, “IBP route and connectivity to NWs – the agreement on Trade, Commerce & Transit signed in July, 2017 between Government of the Republic of India and Royal Government of Bhutan, declares Dhubri on NWN-02 as an agreed exit/entry point in India for Export-Import (that is, EXIM) movement of Bhutan. SoP for the MoU on use of Inland waterways for transportation of bilateral trade and transit cargoes between Government of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh and the Royal Government of Bhutan signed in April, 2019.”

​Not only that in this connection, it is better to say one of the more important aspects here that as per various research papers, “The IBR, Brahmaputra (known as Yarlung Tsangpo in Tibet, the Siang or Dihang in Indian State of Arunachal Pradesh, Luit or Burha Luit or Brahmaputra in the Indian State of Assam and as Jamuna, which falls in another IBR Padma, popularly known as – Ganges in India and ultimately becomes as Meghna in Bangladesh and lastly merges into the Bay-of-Bengal Sea) by opening its streams like the roots of a large Banyan tree, is a trans (international) border river, which originates in the Chemayungdung mountain ranges that around 50-miles to 60-miles south-east of Mansarovar lake in the Mount Kailash range in southern Tibet, flows through Tibet, China, India and Bangladesh.”

“​China’s biggest dam construction companies built a controversial big (38-gigawatt hydropower plant, equivalent to three Gorges dams) dam, which had previously been halted due to ecological concerns, international and public opposition on the (middle reaches of) river Brahmaputra, which as a result, those living downstream, including India and Bangladesh would have been directly huge impacted.”

According to reports published in the various outlets of the world, in which one of the news items mentioned, ” … More than 28 dams on the river, which are either planned, completed or under discussion (for its country’s new Energy Development Plan) by the China’s State Council – the nation’s highest and ultimate decision-making body in their 11th Five year plan, claimed Tashi Tsering, a Tibetan scholar of environmental policy at the University of British Columbia. The most shocking point is that in the year – 1994, work had already been started on the three gorges dam, but plans for the river Brahmaputra and others were kept silent.”

Many Bangladeshi boats returning to Bangladesh. Photo: Shib Shankar Chatterjee.

Media Reports

In addition, the reports of – Asia environment correspondent of The Guardian, Jonathan Watts (published in 24th May, 2010), Chinese expert-cum-Writer, Claude Arpi (published in The New Indian Express dated 02nd June, 2010), B. Raman Writer-cum-former, Director, Institute for Topical Studies, Chennai & Additional Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, India (published in Indian Defence Review, dated 18th November, 2010), Thomas S. Bianchi (Published in his book, namely – Deltas and Humans: A Long Relationship Now Threatened by Global Change in 2016) and others also indicate similar things, which can not be denied at all.

​In the year, 2010, according to the deputy general secretary of the China Society for Hydropower Engineering, Zhang Boting, China would build a massive dam on the International Border River (IBR) with a view to save 200-m tonnes of carbon each year.

The Dams on Brahmaputra

​Therefore, before it’s too late, social, political, geographical, environmental and economic experts from India and its neighbouring South Asian nations, have called or urged on the whole world to raise the issue of ‘Dams on the international river Brahmaputra’ in a world forum the United Nations, in order to save the lives of human, marine and to maintain the ecological balance and certainly to take immediate steps to rescue the life of the economy (navigation-shipping, trade-commerce and tourism-spirituality).

​ (Source : Shib Shankar Chatterjee/www.academia.edu)

​(Author is former Contributor BBC, Asia Times & Correspondent of The Statesman, The Times of India, Hindustan Times, The Telegraph & Photographer of AP, AFP & PTI Contributor-cum-Photographer of​ Northeast India/The writer specialises in South Asia & Indian Northeastern States region Affairs)

Stranded Bangladesh Boats wait after loading stone chips at Dhubri International River Port. Photo: Shib Shankar Chatterjee.

References – Dams on Brahmaputra:

1. Environment – Stripping The Hills : The Sale of Rocks Found In Chandardinga and Rakshasini Hills In Assam May Cause Loss Rather Than Swelling The Government’s Treasury by Shib Shankar Chatterjee, Rashtriya Sahara, Dated June, 1996, (Page Number 131 to 133).

2. News – Reaping From Trade Ties With Bangladesh by Shib Shankar Chatterjee – The Telegraph (Northeast Page), Dated 19th January, 1997, Engine Chalito Naor Procholone Naior Gavirota Hrash Kore by Shib Shankar Chatterjee – Dainik Asam, The Assam Tribune Group, Dated 07th November, 1998.

3. Bhutbhuti On The Brahmaputra by Shib Shankar Chatterjee, Northeast Sun, Dated January 15-31, 1999, (Page Number – 17).

4. Economy – Border Trade : Pipe Dream Or Reality? by Shib Shankar Chatterjee – The North East Frontier Magazine, Dated June, 1999, (Page Number 36 to 37).

5. Analysis – What Waterways Can Do by Shib Shankar Chatterjee, The Statesman (North East Page) Dated 30th November, 2002.

6. Indifference of Indian Authorities Allows Boat Mishaps – by Shib Shankar Chatterjee, News Blaze, (Newswire Organisation of United States of America [USA]), Dated 28th December, 2009.

Shib Shankar Chatterjee is a former BBC, The Times of India, Hindustan Times, The Statesman & The Telegraph Contributor-cum-Correspondent from Northeast India, who specializes in investigations of important issues affecting the people of South Asia, specially, India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan & Myanmar.

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