New Delhi: Trade between India and Bangladesh has been “flourishing”, but it’s not as balanced as it could be, according to the country’s foreign minister, A.K. Abdul Momen, who concluded a three-day visit to India Monday.
While Bangladesh’s exports to India have reached $2 billion, Indian shipments to the neighbouring country amounted to $14 billion in 2021. In view of this, Dhaka wants Delhi to remove India’s anti-dumping duty on jute products from Bangladesh.
“Trade and business between Bangladesh and India have been flourishing … But it is becoming a one-sided trade so we need to balance it and we need India to give us more flexibility because India has put some anti-dumping [duty] on our jute goods,” Momen said, adding that he had been “assured” that a “committee” in India would “look into” the matter.
In a wide-ranging exclusive interview with ThePrint, Momen, a former economist and diplomat, also spoke about why he thinks Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s “zero tolerance policy” on terrorism had brought “stability” to all of South Asia, the Teesta water-sharing dispute, and how India might be able to “push Myanmar” into repatriating the Rohingyas.
Momen was on a three-day trip to India to attend the India-Bangladesh Joint Consultative Commission (JCC) with his Indian counterpart, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar. During the visit, Momen also met Vice President Venkaiah Naidu and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval.
According to a joint statement issued by the Ministry of External Affairs after the JCC, the Indian side had requested the completion of all pending border fencing at the international border, beginning from Tripura till the Bangladesh sector.
“On the issue of border fencing, both sides have decided to follow international rules,” the Bangladeshi foreign minister said, adding that he hoped India-Bangladesh bilateral ties would become “a solid relationship” within the next 50 years.
“In order to do better, we also appreciated that Bangladesh and India have a historical relationship. It’s a modern relationship. Of course, we have mutual trust, respect and confidence,” he said.
Last year, both President Ram Nath Kovind and Prime Minister Narendra Modi had visited Bangladesh. This year, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Hasina is expected to arrive on a reciprocal visit to India in early September.
Removing anti-dumping duty could restore ‘balance’
With enhanced connectivity between both countries via rail, road, ports, and air, India-Bangladesh two-way trade has been thriving despite the pandemic. However, this trade is heavily skewed in India’s favour, Momen emphasised.
One major bone of contention has been India’s anti-dumping duty on jute products from Bangladesh. Momen claimed that this duty should be lifted since Bangladeshi exports are not a threat to domestic producers. He also said that “incentives” given to exporters should not be mistaken for subsidies.
“Whenever we export something, we normally give our exporters some incentives on non-traditional items. We provide some incentives to jute companies because this sector is not doing very well. India thinks it is a subsidy. Even if the anti-dumping duty is withdrawn, I don’t think it will flood the Indian market — we don’t have that capacity at all,” he said.
In 2017 India had imposed anti-dumping duties ranging from $19 to $352 per tonne on jute products exported from Bangladesh due to pressure from the Indian Jute Mills Association. Removal of the duties from their jute shipments has been a long-standing demand by Bangladesh.
On the issue of the Indian government banning wheat exports, Momen said that New Delhi had been sending the foodgrain to Dhaka. Following the ban, India had despatched one lakh tonnes of wheat to Bangladesh, but earlier this month, Dhaka had made an additional request to India to export another 10 lakh tonnes.
Speaking further on trade, Momen said India and Bangladesh are now working towards streamlining the loading and unloading of goods at the border checkpoints by allowing trucks and containers from each side to have a quick turnaround time. Both countries, he added, are now focussing on being part of integrated supply chains.
‘Sheikh Hasina’s terrorism policy has helped India, South Asia’
Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s “policy of zero-tolerance” for terrorism has brought “stability” and “development” to India and all of South Asia, Momen claimed.
“The PM’s policy of zero tolerance to terrorism, and also her decision not to let Bangladesh become a hub for terrorist activities, have really helped develop stability within this (South Asian) region. As a result, there is growth and development,” Momen said.
He further claimed that on a recent visit to Guwahati, the Chief Minister of Assam had lauded Sheikh Hasina’s terrorism policy.
“Recently, I was in Guwahati and the Chief Minister of Assam told me that their development and growth is largely due to PM Hasina’s policy of zero tolerance to terrorism,” Momen said.
India should ‘push’ Myanmar on Rohingya repatriation
On the issue of Bangladesh seeking help from India in the repatriation of Rohingya refugees to Myanmar, Momen said that Dhaka expects New Delhi to do more.
“This is a very sad story. Of course, we allowed Rohingyas to come to Bangladesh because we have the experience of 1971 when we were being persecuted — it was India and the people of India who gave us shelter and accommodation and also helped us in gaining independence,” Momen said.
However, he said the case of the Rohingyas is “different” since the persecuted people had nowhere to go.
“Bangladesh opened up their borders out of humanitarian consideration and Myanmar is our neighbour. They agreed to take them back, they agreed to provide them safety and security, and they also agreed to provide a conducive environment for their safe and dignified return,” he said.
However, Momen said Myanmar had done nothing to repatriate the Rohingya refugees who are now living in Bangladesh, and that a nudge from India might help.
“Myanmar has a history — throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s they kicked out thousands of Rohingyas. In 1992, through dialogue and discussion, Myanmar repatriated 2,36,000 Rohingyas out of 2,53,000. So, we hope this time also they will do it. This time, the number is too large — 1.1 million — but they agreed to take them back after verification,” the Bangladesh foreign minister said.
The process, however, has “not been very smooth, so “we solicited India’s help” because of its “good relationship” with Myanmar, he said.
According to Momin, being a friend of both Bangladesh as well as Myanmar, gains could be made if India “pushes them a little bit” and “put[s] [a] little effort into it”.
‘Will talk to West Bengal about Teesta’
While two-way ties between India and Bangladesh are growing, the sharing of transboundary river waters, especially the Teesta, has become something of a sore point.
“We talked about water sharing (with India), the six rivers and there we requested even for Teesta. We will also talk to the West Bengal government for that,” Momen said.
Dhaka wants a 50 per cent share of Teesta’s water for the December-March period as the flow of the river to Bangladesh becomes lean during that time. The Indian government, both under Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his predecessor Manmohan Singh, had assured Dhaka of sharing river waters that crisscross both countries.
The issue has, however, become contentious as water is a state subject and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has consistently opposed the move to share Teesta water with Dhaka.
Bangladesh has also been pushing India for an early conclusion of the Framework of Interim Agreement on sharing of the waters of six other rivers — Manu, Muhuri, Khowai, Gumti, Dharla and Dudhkumar.
Momen said this is all the more important in the wake of the massive floods that have ravaged parts of Bangladesh and India’s northeast.
“We have had too much flooding, as a result of which several districts in Bangladesh are now under water. So, I suggested to the Indian government, if we can get the actual (flood) data of the weather forecast, we can discharge the water in a systematic way. Then we can take protective measures by putting an early warning system in Bangladesh. In this process, we can save lives and manage damages,” Momen said.
(Edited by Asavari Singh)