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China, not India, builds a bridge in Bangladesh, but Modi govt believes all is not lost yet

Sheikh Hasina will join Modi in a summit to mark Bangladesh's 50th independence anniversary, just when Dhaka has told Beijing to get lost or pay up for Chinese Covid vaccine trials.

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One week before Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina join a virtual summit on 17 December to commemorate the beginning of the 50th anniversary of the independence of Bangladesh, engineers and workers of the China Railway Major Bridge Engineering Group Co, along with their Bangladeshi counterparts, laid the final span of the 6.15-km-long Padma bridge.

It was a huge day for Bangladesh. The media witnessed the historic occasion. Mahfuz Anam, editor of Bangladesh’s biggest English-language newspaper The Daily Star and a ‘muktijoddha’, a freedom-fighter himself, who has often been critical of Hasina’s government, put it succinctly:

“It was Bangabandhu’s “political will” that contributed so much to Bangladesh’s birth. Similarly, it is Sheikh Hasina’s political will that lies at the core of the Padma Bridge becoming a reality. It was her single-minded determination to build it and the courage to overcome many of the vicissitudes that befell it…” Anam said.

Also read: Don’t go by IMF prediction, Bangladesh hasn’t beaten India as South Asia’s economic champion

The bridge on the river Padma

In many ways, it is the story of this two-level steel truss Padma bridge — which will carry a four-lane highway on the upper level and a single railway track on the lower level — that defines how China has pushed its way into South Asia and replaced India’s overweening influence in the region. And nowhere is this more evident – or ironical – than in Bangladesh, where India is finally stepping up its game, after years of lassitude, because it was so over-confident of its deep ties with a neighbour it helped achieve independence.

As long back as 2011, then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had announced a $1 billion line of credit to help build the bridge over the Padma river, which begins where the Hooghly ends and whose fertile alluvium sustains millions of people; this would be added to Bangladesh’s own $3 billion, which it would borrow from international aid agencies.

But the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank (ADB), Japan’s loan arm JICA had other ideas. By 2013, they pulled out on charges of corruption. Mad as hell at their “arrogance” and “high-handedness”, Hasina withdrew her own application. The “deep wound to our self-respect” would push Hasina to say, according to Anam, that “We will have to shrug off our begging mentality.” It wasn’t quite “atmanirbhar.” Hasina was really looking for friends with deep pockets.

By June 2015, when Narendra Modi went to Dhaka, the India story hadn’t moved. So, Delhi disbursed a $200 million grant and offered another $2 billion credit to jumpstart the project. It wasn’t enough. China Railway Bridge, which had won the tender meanwhile, began work in December 2015. In October 2016, Xi Jinping landed in Dhaka, the first trip by a Chinese president in 30 years, and signed off on $24 billion worth of credit. In September 2017, the first of 42 spans was laid between pillars 37 and 38.

Also read: Here’s what China is doing in Bangladesh, Nepal, Afghanistan. It doesn’t look good for India

Time to build new bridges

It’s not, though, as if one bridge can make or break a relationship. The Modi government is now stepping up the charge, offering to revamp a dysfunctional railway line (as old as 1965, when Bangladesh was still part of Pakistan) from Chilahati-Haldibari, among other connectivity projects. Construction has finally begun on a petroleum pipeline, promised in 2018, from Siliguri to Dinajpur. As much as $10 billion credit is likely when Modi visits Dhaka to be part of Bangladesh’s 50th independence day celebrations.

But what is significant is the change of mood in Dhaka. PM Sheikh Hasina has shown herself to be the ultimate realist in South Asia, openly flirting with the Chinese, even though China sided with Pakistan in the 1971 war; in fact, China even vetoed Bangladesh’s application for UN membership in 1972.

So, on the one hand, Hasina will participate in a virtual summit with Modi on 17 December, and on the other is ready to expand Bangladesh’s participation in Xi Jinping’s Belt & Road Project.

Observers say she wants to send a message to Delhi that she won’t forget Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s description of Bangladeshis as “deemak (termites)” who should be thrown into the Bay of Bengal. Moreover, there is the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which promises to disbar Muslim “Bangladeshis” from becoming Indian citizens – a constant source of concern in Dhaka, even though Indian officials have repeatedly said that both NRC and CAA are domestic considerations.

Moreover, unlike India, China’s economy doesn’t seem to have been as badly hit by the coronavirus pandemic. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) data recently showed that Bangladesh had actually outstripped India in its per capita GDP income, although India had a 25 per cent lead only five years ago. This led Bangladeshi economist Ashikur Rehman to say that the “alleged termite factory is shining.”

Still, all is not lost. Bangladesh has recently told China to get lost or pay up for the trials of the Chinese Covid vaccine in Bangladesh, while signing an agreement with India’s Serum Institute to buy three crore doses.

The moral of the story is that the Modi government cannot allow the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s ideological agenda to ride roughshod over the national imperative. India’s foreign policy, especially in a hugely important and deeply sensitive neighbourhood, is far too important to be left to party considerations. Modi must insist that Bangladesh is a credible exception to any rule.

Views are personal.

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  1. India does not have the engineering prowess or the economic might to do what China does. India is a technology importer. We do not innovate, we do not promulgate reforms. We oppose reforms and curtain innovation and still want to compete with China… how is that ever possible?

    We still hold the party that was responsible for our current state after 70 years of permanent rule as the Secular party whose birth right it is to rule… Good Luck…

    • India is stranglehold by the cronyism of 1% rich brahmin like Ambani with thoroughly corrupted gov.

      They will suppress all competition for easy monopoly business by importing technology like most did in China also.

      But China gov plan carefully to promote innovation and self sufficient industry complete supply chain due to West sanction threat. India don’t since it can buy freely including Russia & NASA space exploration rockets & weapons, limited by $ only.

      India broken education system based on English without a common indigenous language has further jeopardize a equal platform for all to develop. All science researches and R&D are conducted in English, literally excluded 40% illiterate + 55% poorly educated population.

      Whereas China 100% are educated in Chinese, with 98% literacy of 10yrs mandatory good quality education. All researches and development are done in native language Chinese. So everyone can study and develop according to their ability not constraint by language.

  2. Just take back all Bangladeshi & Rohingya back and then calculate GDP.
    Our GDP goes low because we poor Indian have to take care of 10% illegal immigrants pushed inside India in the name of Religion.

    • What do you mean by “take care”.Are you housing any Bangladeshi or Rohingya? How much did you donate? Did you pay for a meal? What makes you think they are eating away India’s GDP? Govt of India is not able to provide it’s own poor citizens what makes you think immigrants are getting anything.
      Just like Bangladeshi immigrants in India, there are Indian immigrants in Bangladesh but no one is pushing them out and that’s because India and Bangladesh are neighbours and there will be migration of people between the countries unless you build a high wall.
      And speaking of Rohingyas, they are refugees because of a genocide.Show some support, sympathy and take a possible action instead of complaining.

  3. Poor India with its own 1947 broken infrastructures and unsustainable rising 90% debts to GDP ratio, while facing 30% plunging economy with no end in COVID epidemic, is still trying to compete with wealthy China for its influence in all its neighbors with loans and grants.

    Pragmatic Chinese is investing heavily in all developing countries under BRI grand plan so that these nations economy potential can be liberated by good infrastructures, hence providing a growing market to its export for a sustainable China’s growth.

    China flushed with over US$4T foreign reserves that it must hedge against USD depreciation risk, Infrastructure investment is natural choice for secured long term returns.

    These many grand infrastructure projects also provide numerous good paying jobs and huge demand for its excess building and industry capacity to further help sustain its growth.

    Most of the loans will be serviceable by their growing economy in a positive cycle leading to Asia fast growing prosperity, hence bigger cake for everyone.

    Whereas poor India with zero sum mind, is bleeding itself of few resources that it needs more than anyone, out of sheer Hindutva nationalism and jealousy to China growing influence befitting its economy.

    China and Asia will accelerate their rise in win win game, while India has continue to hinder its own domestic development with zero sum mentality in self inflicted bleeding.

  4. Illegal immigrants from Bangla Desh cannot be wished away; whether they are called termites or otherwise. But it is not a charge against the present government tat they have encouraged this or are responsible for this.. The problem is due to history. No one refers to Bangla Desh citizens living there as termites. So Dhaka should not feel unnecessarily traumatized. Besides, even if somebody is identified as non Indian citizen, it is not clear if Bangla Desh will accept such persons. Therefore, we will end up with identifying the illegal immigrants but not able to send them back. If they feel so bad about this, it should announce every such illegal immigrant is welcome back!

    This apart, relations between two countries are strong and getting stronger. wit or without China.

    • I am sure you are not from any neighbouring state of Bangladesh. Bangladeshi will never go to India to live illegally. Afterall India is already poorer than Banglades.

  5. The larger moral story, which helps both Bangladeshis and Indians, is that we should not allow a 25% lead in per capita income melt away in five years. A developing country, with the world’s largest HDI deficit, cannot afford to lose five percentage points of growth each year. The same turbocharged Chinese economy – they are recording barely a dozen new Covid cases daily, from abroad – which has seduced our South Asian neighbours is also something attractive to the US and EU as they struggle to restore growth after the pandemic. If push comes to shove, although not an isolationist, one would say, Forget the neighbourhood. Make India great again …

  6. All this competition from China is good for India. It will force India to be more efficient. Competition always aids efficiency.

  7. BUilding a 6.1 km bridge in just 3years is an amazing feat – not replicable by US, EU or Indian engineers.
    No wonder the contract went to CHina.

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