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From onions to vaccines — India promises to be a ‘true friend’ to Bangladesh

With Dhaka set to shed its ‘Least Developed Country’ tag, New Delhi promises a tighter economic embrace as Beijing watches.

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New Delhi: In their bilateral summit meeting for this year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi Thursday promised his Bangladesh counterpart Sheikh Hasina vowed cooperation on several fronts — from export of onions to Covid-19 vaccine distribution and enhancement of trade and economic ties — in an unprecedented manner.

As Bangladesh continues its rapid progress towards a double-digit growth, it is looking at India for enhanced economic cooperation ably supported by a strong connectivity network.

During the summit, Bangladesh expressed interest in launching talks for a bilateral Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) encompassing trade in goods, services and investment with India.

“Bangladesh side requested that as India’s export of essential commodities to Bangladesh are an important factor influencing their domestic market, any amendments in export-import policy of the Government of India may be conveyed in advance. The Indian side took note of this request,” a joint statement issued after the summit said.

Earlier this year, as well as last year, Bangladesh faced uncertainty due to India’s decision to stop the export of onions.

According to the World Bank, Bangladesh registered a GDP growth of 8.2 per cent in 2019. However, in 2020, it has slowed down to about 5 per cent amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Expected to shed its ‘Least Developed Country’ tag to become a ‘Developing Country’ by 2024, Dhaka boasts of a foreign exchange reserve of over $42 billion at present.

In terms of connectivity, India announced far-reaching steps for a robust connectivity network between both neighbours.

Both leaders jointly inaugurated the historic Haldibari (India)-Chilahati (Bangladesh) rail link, which was recently upgraded, decades after it got defunct during the 1965 India-Pakistan War.

Hasina also asked Modi to let Bangladesh access the India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway, which has been under works for over a decade now.

New Delhi, on its part, urged Dhaka to allow connectivity from West Bengal to Meghalaya and other Northeastern states via Bangladesh.

These connectivity projects are aimed at countering China’s growing influence in Bangladesh, which is also part of President Xi Jinping’s mega Belt and Road Initiative. China is already implementing $10 billion worth of infrastructure projects in Bangladesh, which includes economic zones and power plants.

Also read: After HCQ, India pushes vaccine diplomacy in S. Asia as China rushes in with its Covid shots

Other projects

Some of the projects that were discussed at the meeting today hold critical strategic importance for India as far as China is concerned.

India and Bangladesh also announced the setting up of a joint CEOs forum to increase investment in each other’s country. Both Modi and Hasina highlighted the need to make progress in terms of greater trade and business ties under the framework of SAARC and BIMSTEC.

The summit also witnessed a decisive push towards enhanced inland water transit and trade protocols for transhipment of goods.

India once again urged Bangladesh to have at least one land port with minimal negative list between the neighbouring states of India and Bangladesh, beginning with Agartala-Akhaura so that maximum amount of goods can be traded through the border.

Bangladesh also proposed that its trucks can use the Feni Bridge, which is under construction at present, connecting India and Bangladesh for transportation of goods from Chattogram port to the India’s Northeast. 

PM Modi also assured that Covid vaccines would be made available to Bangladesh “as and when produced in India”. 

The two sides also agreed to have collaboration between their private sectors in the area of vaccine development.

Also read: India-US ties have got stronger, Modi & Biden eager to carry forward momentum — envoy Sandhu

Dhaka raises Teesta, Rohingya issues

In line with expectations, Hasina raised the issue of the Teesta river water sharing as well as repatriation of the Rohingya refugees in Myanmar with India.

“Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina highlighted the need for early signing of an interim agreement for sharing of the Teesta waters, as agreed upon by both the governments in 2011. Prime Minister Narendra Modi reiterated India’s sincere commitment and continued efforts of the Government of India in that regard,” the joint statement said.

ThePrint had reported earlier that Bangladesh will raise the issue of Teesta river water sharing with India this time as it has become a contentious matter in Dhaka’s domestic politics.

New Delhi had committed to Dhaka that the matter would be settled when PM Modi made his maiden visit to the neighbouring country in June 2015.

Dhaka wants 50 per cent share of the Teesta’s water for the December-March period as the flow of the river to Bangladesh becomes lean in this period.

Bangladesh also urged India for an early conclusion of the Framework of Interim Agreement on sharing of waters of six other joint rivers — Manu, Muhuri, Khowai, Gumti, Dharla and Dudhkumar.

Hasina also urged Modi to discuss and resolve the issue of repatriation of Rohingya refugees in its consultations with Myanmar.

At present, Bangladesh has given refuge to almost 1.1 million Rohingya refugees who fled from the Rakhine state of Myanmar following genocide there.

“Both Prime Ministers reiterated the importance of their safe, speedy and sustainable return. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina congratulated India on its election as a member of the United Nations Security Council. She expressed Bangladesh’s expectation to see India assist in the repatriation of the forcibly displaced Rohingyas back to Myanmar,” the statement added.

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India a ‘true friend’

Emphasising that India is a “true friend” of Bangladesh, Hasina invited Modi to visit her country early next year.

The move came at a time when ties between India and Bangladesh have come under considerable strain over the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC), as well as Dhaka’s recent proximity to Beijing. Dhaka is now also looking at reviving ties with Islamabad.

According to PM Modi, Bangladesh continues to be a “pillar” of India’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy.

“As prime minister, it has always been one of my priorities to strengthen the bilateral relationship with Bangladesh and make it deeper,” he said.

However, Hasina said the horrors of the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War “cannot be forgotten” and that the “pain will remain forever” on how the country achieved independence from Pakistan. 

During the summit, Hasina also recalled how the 1971 war broke out in March that year when Pakistani troops went for a sudden midnight crackdown. It went on for nine months and finally on 16 December, celebrated as Victory Day in Dhaka, the erstwhile East Pakistan became a separate country.

Bangladesh had planned to celebrate this whole year as ‘Mujib Barsha’ to commemorate the birth centenary of ‘Father of the Nation’ Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. However, due to the Covid-19 outbreak, the celebrations could not be held. Bangladesh has now decided to extend the celebrations through the next year.

Also read: India welcomes UK’s ‘Indo-Pacific tilt’ as Foreign Secretary Raab visits New Delhi


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