A year since Mr. Modi’s visit to Dhaka, progress has been made on many fronts but greater issues remain at bay.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Dhaka last year raised hopes for the settlement of old issues between India and Bangladesh. “We are not just neighbours. We are two nations bound by the threads of history, religion, culture, language and kinship…,” Mr. Modi said. India-Bangladesh relations have become warm through closer economic and strategic ties — 22 agreements were signed, including the historic ratification of the Land Boundary Agreement. One year since, it is time to reflect on the progress.
One of the worst periods in India-Bangladesh relations was between 2001 and 2006. Only minor protocols or agreements were signed during that time and there was a surge in insurgency activities in the Northeast with the United Liberation Front of Assam and the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland, among other outfits, crossing the border for training. From 2009 onwards, as cross-border issues were addressed, bilateral relationship improved and progress was made in some key areas.
Bangladesh imported products worth $5.82 billion from India in the last fiscal year. India also exports goods estimated more than $5 billion through informal channels, making the volume of official and non-official trade approximately the same. Informal trade is mostly due to corruption and inadequate border infrastructure. Bangladesh’s exports to India were only at $527 million with almost 20 per cent being ready-made garments. Other items include jute products, agro processed and non-processed foods, and light engineering products.
Despite duty-free access, Bangladeshi exporters face high non-tariff barriers in the form of bureaucratic and customs bottlenecks, delays due to manual clearance, visa problems, lack of banking services and warehouse facilities at the border. The cost of cross-border trade is quite high. ‘Border Haats’, or markets across the India-Bangladesh border, were a successful solution to increase legal business on the borders. Recently, Bangladesh and India have agreed to set up six more haats along their borders.
Cattle trade and border killing
One bone of contention has been cattle trade. In India, the number of cows is three times more than what is needed to produce the volume of milk consumed nationally, and eating beef is a religious stigma in many places. These surplus cows are mostly donated to temples where they are tied to fences, die from dehydration and the remains sold to leather merchants. Exporting such cows to Bangladesh, which tantamount to making gains from sunk capital, is still prohibited, leading to cattle smuggling.
Border killing of Bangladeshis by the Indian Border Security Force is a continued concern. From 2010-2015, at least 236 Bangladeshis have been killed by BSF personnel. Compared to that, killings along the U.S.-Mexico border by U.S. Border Patrol since 2010 been only 48 whereas drugs worth billions are smuggled across the border. Cattle, even if smuggled, can’t be worse than drugs, and shooting the offenders is not the right solution when there are options for imprisonment, fines, and confiscation. In the most recent incident, the BSF killed two more Bangladeshi nationals on Charaldanga frontier in Chapainawabganj on June 20 for allegedly smuggling illegal goods. Similarly, the latest decision by the Indian Home Minister to completely seal off border with Assam by June 2017 is inconsistent with healthy neighbourly relations.
Power, connectivity and water
Government-to-government power trade is 1,300 MW from India to Bangladesh. India’s state-run Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited (BHEL) is building the Rampal coal-fired power plant in Bangladesh despite environmental concerns that the Sundarbans is situated only 14 km away from the proposed site. In the private sector, Reliance Power has won approval to set up a 750 MW LNG-based power plant and an LNG terminal in Bangladesh, paving the way for $1.3 billion investment, and Adani Group is set to sell 3,000 MW power to Bangladesh. On connectivity, the focus has been on road, rail, rivers, sea, transmission lines, petroleum pipelines, and digital links that would give Delhi access to the Northeast and to Southeast Asia through Bangladesh. Bangladesh-India coastal shipping began in March this year, and trains are set to run from Kolkata to Agartala, a project to be completed by 2017. Trucks carrying Indian goods reached Tripura from Ashuganj port on June 19, making the long-cherished idea of transhipment into reality.
The Teesta water-sharing agreement had been stalled due to the West Bengal elections. As Mamata Banerjee has swept back to power, it is time to deliver on the promise. India had also undertaken the Tipaimukh project on the Barak river without officially informing Bangladesh. If built, the dam will adversely affect nearly 40,000 people in Bangladesh. With resistance from Bangladesh and Manipur, the project has been temporarily deferred.
While progress has been made since Mr. Modi’s visit, greater issues are still at bay. The time is ripe to build on the successes and resolve the remaining issues. As the pragmatic new-generation Bangladeshis have shed the anti-India mindset of the 1970s, the challenge for India is to keep up the momentum and not to be perceived as being tied to any particular party or ideology but only to the people of Bangladesh. As Mr. Modi stated: “We stand at a moment of huge opportunity in our relationship… we will work together to harness the rich potential of our relationship.” He is walking but yet to match his talk, making room for cautious optimism.
The writer, Mr Syed Munir Khasru is Chairman of a Bangladesh based international think tank – the Institute for Policy, Advocacy, and Governance (IPAG).