INDIA-BANGLADESH TIES: A NEW SPRING – ANALYSIS
India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj returned home on June 27 after her maiden stand-alone visit abroad to Bangladesh. By making Dhaka her first stop, Minister Sushma Swaraj began the task of fine-tuning of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ground breaking foreign policy gambit that saw the leaders of SAARC countries and Mauritius attend the swearing-in ceremony of the prime minister and his cabinet colleagues.
Billed as a “goodwill” visit, the Indian minister met the top leadership of Bangladesh, including President Abdul Hamid and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Sushma Swaraj also met Begum Khaleda Zia, leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), and Begum Raushan Ershad, leader of the Jatiya Party, to send out a message that India will reach out to all mainstream political parties in Bangladesh.
The renewed emphasis on reaching out to neighbours is an adroit move by India’s new government. It also signals the growing bipartisan nature of the conduct of foreign policy, cutting across party lines, by India’s political leadership. The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is badly in need of rejuvenation.
Cultivating good relations with neighbouring countries helps in providing a secure and stable environment for economic growth for all countries. A fundamental objective of India’s foreign policy is to create an external environment that helps the transformation of India. In pursuing this objective, India will have to work with all neighbours to ensure greater integration among SAARC countries. While intra-SAARC trade is increasing, it is still anaemic when compared to trade within other groupings like the European Union, North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Latin American and Caribbean (LAC) countries, Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) or Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA).
Bangladesh is India’s largest trading partner in SAARC. It shares the longest border with India, of almost 4,096 km. There is a common history and heritage, as well as a modern one, of a shared struggle for freedom and liberation sealed in blood in the war of 1971. During Prime Minister Hasina’s six years in office, India-Bangladesh relations have improved dramatically.
Arguably, Prime Minister Hasina deserves much credit for this transformation. Her sagacity and statesmanship in dealing with issues of security has led to a win-win situation for both countries, and has contributed hugely to mutual trust and confidence. India has also reciprocated by opening up its markets for Bangladesh’s exports by permitting zero tariff entry of all Bangladeshi products, except 25 banned items in a negative list.
This has boosted Bangladesh exports into India and reduced the trade imbalance. India’s financial assistance has gone up manifold, totalling over $1 billion. The grant element exceeds $200 million and the bulk of it will be used to finance the Padma bridge project. The work of connecting the electricity grids of the two countries was completed last year, and India is exporting over 500 MW of much-needed electricity to Bangladesh. Other infrastructure connectivity projects include reviving and upgrading old railway links, dredging the waterways, building border infrastructure for trade facilitation and legal movement of travellers via a more relaxed visa regime.
Relations between neighbouring countries are rarely frictionless. The long-shared border is a source of many irritants. Its length and porosity lends itself to cross-border activity, much of it illegal. Migration of Bangladeshis into India has gone on for quite some time. The more egregious cross-border activities include trafficking in women and children, smuggling of banned items and movement of criminals. Hence border management has emerged as an issue of high priority.
Sushma Swaraj spoke about bringing cross-border movement of people into a mutually discussed and agreed legal paradigm. This is shorthand for ensuring that illegal migration is controlled and people enter India from Bangladesh legally.
Time is now ripe for Bangladesh to shed its attitude of denial on the issue of migration and join India in discussing ways and means to make movement of people legal. This will require India to make a matching commitment to deliver on the Teesta Water sharing treaty, the Land Boundary Agreement and to ease visa regulation to facilitate legal travel by Bangladeshis to India.
The two agreements will require expending political capital by the Indian government and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). India could also revisit the issue of work permits for Bangladeshi nationals in specific sectors where they are already working illegally in India. To begin with, frequent and legitimate travellers from Bangladesh should be given at least five-year multiple entry visa, whether for business, medical treatment, education and even tourism. This will decrease the workload of visa issuing offices, enabling them to give better service.
The Indian minister’s visit has put India-Bangladesh relations on a fast track. Sustained attention is required and frequent visits for consultation should become the norm. India and Bangladesh must now pursue a new agenda for cooperation in which connectivity, border infrastructure, waterways regeneration, a more liberal visa regime, closer cooperation between the two border forces, intelligence sharing on cross-border illegal activities, modernization of railways, special economic zones, river water management, coastal shipping services, power generation and oil and gas exploration must get priority.
Bangladesh and India must implement connectivity projects on a war footing and also concentrate on creating energy corridors. The power generating potential of India’s northeastern states can be utilized for mutual benefit, if Bangladesh agrees to allow electricity transmission lines through its territory, thereby reducing distances.
Bangladesh can draw power from the transmission lines as per mutual agreement. Oil and gas pipelines connecting Myanmar, Bangladesh and India should be planned as part of the energy corridor. Bhutan and Nepal can be brought in as stakeholders in such regional projects.
The roadmap for taking India-Bangladesh relations into a higher trajectory is ready. The political will to support this trajectory has been on display during the visit of Sushma Swaraj to Bangladesh. The key to success will be measured by implementation, and that is where both sides must concentrate their energies.
Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty is a former Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs.
JUNE 30, 2014