Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Bangladesh is expected to be momentous, both in optics and substance. Though the contexts are vastly different, the mood is being compared with the Mujibur Rahman–Indira Gandhi days. Undeniably, the trust quotient between the two countries has risen during the tenures of Modi and Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. The chemistry between the two leaders is palpable. This arises primarily from India’s unflinching support to the Sheikh Hasina government in the face of domestic opposition and meddling by external actors. In turn, Dhaka has earned the confidence of Delhi by demonstrating low tolerance for radicalism and greater sensitivity to India’s security concern.
It is little surprise, therefore, that the Indian Prime Minister is at the centre of the celebrations of Bangladesh’s 50 years of independence, which will also be attended by leaders of other SAARC countries. It is no mean honour that Narendra Modi will be addressing the people of Bangladesh from the historic National Parade Ground in Dhaka on the occasion of Bangladesh’s National Day. An elegant way of signalling to the world that the special bond between the two countries remains strong even after five decades.
As per standard protocol for high-profile State visits, there will be a series of agreements and pious declarations about the friendship between the people and shared cultural heritage. More serious discussions on security and border issues will, of course, happen in camera. The perennial subjects of river water sharing and land transit corridors will grab headlines. On this trip, for good measure — with an eye on the Bengal and Assam elections — a couple of temple visits have also been thrown in. However, one is not sure how high will trade and commerce be on the agenda, besides some routine agreements and statements of intent on tariff concessions, market access and joint initiatives in few areas like energy, gas and ports.
The best way to step up the bilateral relationship would be through a quantum shift in the trade and economic architecture of the two countries. The impact of collaborative strategy will not only maximise synergies but have a positive fall out on other strategic areas as well.
Two elementary data points bring home the huge potential that is waiting to be unlocked.
Formalise the informal trade
First, the value of ‘informal’ trade between India and Bangladesh is equal to, and by some estimates even greater than, formal trade. Interestingly, studies reveal that the goods and commodities engaged are not products of the bordering areas. In the case of ‘informal exports’ from India, a bulk of the material comes from far away states in the western and northern parts of the country. A large proportion of goods coming in via Bangladesh are products of third countries. Of course, these statistics do not include trade in contraband items and illegal exports such as livestock.
Second is the huge trade imbalance. Although India features at the top of Bangladesh’s import list, in terms of exports, it ranks way down at number ten or eleven – even below countries like Belgium and the Netherlands. There are also some glaring anomalies. For example, even though Bangladesh exports small quantities of rice seeds (mostly speciality breeds), the bulk of its own imports of rice seeds are from China. This is counterintuitive if not unreal.
Be it geography, climate, economy or culture, Bangladesh, West Bengal and North-East India form a natural sub-region. Without dissolving the artificial boundaries created in the non-sovereign domains, the area will remain forever trapped in a suboptimal equilibrium. Time and circumstances are conducive for breaking that status-quo and both countries must seize the moment.
New phase of collaboration
India’s Look East Policy has gained momentum with the Modi government grasping the geo-strategic importance of the region. This is evident in the development work undertaken, particularly in creating vital infrastructure that was languishing for a long period. Bangladesh on its part too – riding on the back of a stable polity – has leap-frogged on both economic and human indices. It is clearly a star of South Asia.
Therefore, the two countries are now well placed to give shape to a new phase of collaboration based on mutual trust and self-confidence. However, this would be possible only by integrating supply and value chains – leveraging natural and human potential with a borderless economy to make both countries Atmanirbhar.
India’s potential for being a large market for Bangladesh will not be realised just by tariff adjustment. For export of value added goods into India, Bangladesh needs a marketing infrastructure. Why can’t, for example, India’s Khadi and Village Industries Commission partner with Bangladesh to market each other’s products, instead of competing in the international market? Possibilities like this abounds.
Some initiatives being undertaken by the Modi government in eastern and north Eastern India can be easily extended to Bangladesh with reciprocal advantage. A couple of programmes come to mind at once. The Blue Revolution India is looking at developing inland fisheries, fish landing harbours on rivers and fish processing units, which have equal relevance for Bangladesh. The two countries can develop an international tourism circuit starting from the Sunderbans in the south to Bhutan, Sikkim, Arunachal in the north. There can be lateral extensions to Myanmar in the east and Bengal and Odisha coasts to the west.
Healthcare, education and labour mobility
Two other areas that offer great opportunity are education and healthcare. Prior to 1947, Dhaka and Kolkata were the twin centres of education in the east. Some of the intellectual stalwarts of post-Independence India (Satyen Bose, R.C. Majumdar, Leela Roy, Buddhdev Bose, Meghnad Saha, among others) came from the erstwhile East Bengal. Not only can this exchange re-start, but with the emphasis of education in local languages in the New Education Policy, there is scope for developing common curriculum in Bengali for higher studies.
There is a large inflow of medical tourists into India from Bangladesh, belonging to different economic strata. Majority of them come through informal channels routed through agents and touts. The affluent Bangladeshis now travel to countries like Thailand, Singapore and to the West for treatment. There is scope for both investment by private players from India to set up hospitals in Bangladesh as well as regularise all medical tourism into India. Why can’t AIIMS look at a Dhaka facility in collaboration with the Bangladesh government?
Finally, coming to the controversial area of labour mobility.
In this day and age of digital identity, if there is will, both countries can find a way to facilitate legitimate movement of people across borders for employment against proper contracts and work-permits. There will, of course, be a certain percentage of leakages and people slipping through the net as it happens with other countries that share land borders. But, the situation will be in far better control than today’s rampant illegal immigration.
Unless there is growth in bona-fide earning and employment in the economically deprived border areas, they will forever remain under the clutches of nefarious operators. This menace will only grow because the border is porous (and hence, fertile) ground for breeding criminality and insurgency.
In shaping any partnership, the meeting of minds is a pre-condition. But matching of wavelengths is also critical. Narendra Modi and Sheikh Hasina are endowed with the vision to forge a holistic strategy to make the region an economic powerhouse.
Sandip Ghose is a marketing executive and popular blogger on current affairs. He tweets @SandipGhose. Views are personal.
Edited by Anurag Chaubey