New Delhi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Bangladesh last week, his first abroad since the outbreak of Covid-19, is New Delhi’s attempt to reboot bilateral ties, with the promise of a major overhaul of connectivity, infrastructure and enhancement of two-way trade.
During the visit, PM Modi and his Bangladesh counterpart Sheikh Hasina vowed to take connectivity between the countries to the next level, calling it ‘Connectivity for Prosperity’. Under this initiative, not only will New Delhi and Dhaka revitalise the connectivity links that existed pre-1965, but will also ensure that the region prospers with large trade and investment initiatives, according to the joint statement issued by the respective foreign ministries.
India and Bangladesh had many road, rail and river linkages which were abandoned after the 1965 war with Pakistan, which Bangladesh was part of till 1971.
Hasina also told Modi that Bangladesh was eager “to partner in the ongoing initiative of the India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway project”.
To facilitate better connectivity and simplify movement of passengers and goods between the countries, both leaders agreed to early operationalisation of the BBIN (Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal) Motor Vehicles Agreement that will make the movement of goods and passengers easier.
According to the joint statement, Bangladesh has also requested India for favourable consideration in the new connectivity routes proposed by Dhaka, such as allowing additional land ports of Bhadrapur-Bairagi Galgalia, Biratnagar-Jogmani and Birganj-Raxaul to be connected with Banglabandha-Fulbari and Birol-Radhikapur by road as alternative routes.
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Why connectivity is key
Veena Sikri, former Indian high commissioner to Dhaka, told ThePrint that the most significant outcome of Modi’s visit was the prime ministers’ push for connectivity and a direct linkage between India’s Northeast with that of Bangladesh, thereby creating a financial and trade zone.
“In terms of connectivity, we saw both symbolism as well as substance. Both sides are now going to upgrade the infrastructure that existed since before 1965. There will also be rail connectivity between Dhaka and India as well as with Bhutan and Nepal. Thus, this will have a sub-regional impact. All these put together will help India and Bangladesh play a key role in the Bay of Bengal area,” she said.
Harsh V. Pant, director (studies) and head of the strategic studies programme at Observer Research Foundation wrote in a paper, titled ‘A Transformative Moment, that from ‘Neighbourhood First’ to ‘Act East’, from connectivity to trade, and from security to development, Bangladesh’s centrality to India’s regional outlook is key not only for India realising its own interests but also for larger regional imperatives.
Pant wrote that Modi and Hasina “have managed to put the relationship on an orbit few would have envisioned a few years back”.
Both leaders have also decided to have an advanced form of free trade agreement between the two countries, in the form of a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) that will encompass trade in goods, services and investment.
The joint statement also said to enhance trade between the two countries, both prime ministers underscored the need for “removal of non-tariff barriers”.
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Teesta, Feni water remain outstanding issues
The issue of sharing of water from the Teesta river, which has been pending for over a decade now, also featured prominently in the bilateral talks. What was different this time was that India linked the Teesta issue with its demand for sharing water from the Feni river, an MoU for which was signed between the countries in 2019.
India’s Foreign Secretary Harsh V. Shringla said in a media briefing after the PMs’ talk Saturday: “… the Teesta issue was discussed, and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina did refer to the Teesta issue. Prime Minister Modi reiterated India’s sincere and continued efforts to conclude this agreement in consultation with the relevant stakeholders.”
Shringla added: “The Indian side also requested for an early finalisation of the draft of the interim agreement for sharing of river waters of the Feni river appending to the Bangladesh side, which had been agreed by both sides in 2011. And so, river waters cooperation is something in which we have extensive cooperation.”
The Teesta flows through Sikkim and then enters West Bengal before finally merging with the Brahmaputra in Bangladesh. Under the agreement, 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.
A pact was almost signed during the visit of former PM Manmohan Singh to Bangladesh in 2011, three years after Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League came to power with the river water sharing having been part of its election manifesto. But West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee walked out of the deal at the last moment, and since then, it has been pending.
Under the agreement, India would get 42.5 per cent and Bangladesh 37.5 per cent of the Teesta’s water during the lean season from December to March. The rest of the water is considered unutilised.
India, meanwhile, has sought 1.82 cusecs (cubic feet per second) of water from the Feni river for the drinking water supply scheme for Sabroom, Tripura. The town is located on the banks of the Feni river, which runs along the India-Bangladesh border. Sabroom has inadequate drinking water because the ground water in the area has high iron content. Water from the Feni river will benefit over 7,000 people living in the town. The MoU on the Feni river was signed in 2019, and was subsequently approved by the Modi cabinet in November that year.
Former ambassador Sikri said: “The Teesta pact is an important issue as water is a sensitive subject for both, especially Bangladesh. The agreement is ready and waiting to be signed but due to India’s internal politics concerning West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, this is on hold. Hopefully, post the Bengal elections, this issue will be resolved.”
She added: “However, till such time… both countries can look at setting up mechanisms for better water management, since a lot of water gets wasted during floods in the rainy season.”
Imtiaz Ahmed, professor of international relations and director, Centre for Genocide Studies, University of Dhaka, said: “Water is our lifeline. Not resolving the Teesta issue can impact the ties in the future. It is pending for more than a decade now. For India, the issue is not just about convincing the chief minister of West Bengal, but also bringing Sikkim to the table, which is challenging.”
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‘Bangladeshis upset with termite remark’
According to Prof. Ahmed, while relations at the government-to-government level have been improving, people-to-people ties between India and Bangladesh have been plummeting, especially after the National Register of Citizens issue in Assam and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act.
When PM Modi arrived in Bangladesh for a two-day visit to be part of the 50th anniversary of Bangladesh’s independence and the centenary of the father of that nation, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, large-scale protests erupted across Dhaka and Chittagong.
Four people were killed in Chittagong on the first day of Modi’s visit as clashes broke out between the local police and Islamist fundamentalists belonging to Hefazat-e-Islam.
The protests continued even after Modi’s departure, and so far, a total of 11 people have been reported killed as Hefazat activists attacked Hindu temples and a train.
Students belonging to Left-wing parties also carried out widespread protests in Dhaka.
Explaining these protests, Prof. Ahmed said: “People in Bangladesh are upset with the BJP. They have not forgotten that India had called Bangladeshis as ‘termites’. They are upset with laws like the CAA and NRC. Besides, people expected that Congress leader Sonia Gandhi will also attend the ‘Mujib Borsho’ event but that did not happen, which did not go down well with many.”
(Edited by Shreyas Sharma)
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