Discussion on "Act East : India - South Korea Partnership - In the Making of Asian Century" on Wednesday, 6th November 2019, 5 PM, Seminar Room, Library Building, Nehru Memorial Museum & Library, Teen Murti Bhavan, New Delhi

The Future of India-Bangladesh Relationship

Sky is the limit for shared security and prosperity

Since the Liberation War of 1971, ending with the formation of Bangladesh – erstwhile East Pakistan – the relationship between two neighbouring countries sharing more than 4,000 kilometres of border – the fifth-longest land border in the world – has witnessed a number of ups and downs.

Over an almost five decades of this relationship, both parties have now realised that bilateral cooperation in diverse areas can result in win-win situation for them. As against playing a zero-sum (on occasions, negative-sum) game, there is now bipartisan support for ‘enhanced partnership’ on both sides as they realised the value that it can bring through incremental progress in specific areas. A positive-sum game is in play.

The question is: who will gain how much? The future of this relationship will hinge on this question. Being a large country, it is not necessary that India has to gain more always. India should follow the principle of ‘less-than-full-reciprocity’ for arriving at ‘zone of possible agreements’.

This relationship is marked by a number of landmark milestones. The 1996 agreement on sharing the water of the Ganga River, the 2014 agreement on maritime boundary line and the ratification of the land boundary agreement, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s zero tolerance policy on terrorism, which helped India to curb insurgencies in its North-East region, are some noteworthy ones.

The recent visit of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to New Delhi in the first week of October, 2019 is to be looked at in this overall context. As stated by Prime Minister Hasina, while accepting the Tagore Peace Prize which was conferred to her by the Asiatic Society of India: “I am always in favour of peace … Throughout his life Bangabandhu (Sheikh MujiburRahman, the liberator of Bangladesh) had always struggled on behalf of oppressed sections of the society … That was the reason why Bangabandu adopted ‘friendship to all and enmity to none’ as the main pillar of his foreign policy … This policy has made possible to make Bangladesh-India bilateral relationship a role model for others”.

Major Outcomes of Sheikh Hasina’s Visit

Along with a 53-point Joint Statement issued by Prime Minister Modi and Prime Minister Hasina on 5th October, 2019, covering areas of cooperation on border security and management, a win-win business partnership, boosting connectivity, harnessing defense cooperation, consolidation development cooperation, cross-border energy cooperation, education and youth exchanges, cultural cooperation, among others, seven Memorandum of Understanding were signed. They are as follows:

  • Standard Operating Procedure on the use of Chattogram and Mongla ports;
  • MoU on withdrawal of 1.82 cusec of water from the Feni River by India for drinking water supply scheme in Sabroom town, Tripura, India;
  • Agreement concerning implementation of GoI Line of Credits (LOC) extended to Bangladesh;
  • MoU between University of Hyderabad and University of Dhaka;
  • Cultural Exchange Programme – Renewal;
  • MoU on Co-operation in Youth Affairs; and
  • MoU on providing Coastal Surveillance System.

Besides these, the two leaders inaugurated three bilateral development cooperation projects, which are:

  • Import of bulk LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) from Bangladesh to North-East India;
  • Inauguration of Vivekananda Bhavan (students hostel) at Ramakrishna Mission, Dhaka; and
  • Inauguration of Bangladesh-India Professional Skill Development Institute (BIPSDI) at the Institution of Diploma Engineers, Bangladesh (IDEB), Khulna.

It is noteworthy to mention that both leaders agreed to expedite commissioning of the Joint Study on the prospects of entering into a bilateral Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) between India and Bangladesh. Other than helping Bangladesh to address its socio-economic developmental challenges while graduating out of least-developed country status in 2024, it will enhance trade and investment relations between the two neighbours.

In 2017-18, the value of their bilateral trade was US$ 9.5 billion, on which India’s surplus was US$ 7.73 billion. This proposed CEPA including India’s investment in designated Special Economic Zones in Bangladesh is expected make this relation more balanced. Interestingly, while India enjoys an overall trade surplus with Bangladesh, it is the opposite in case of Bangladesh’s trade with North-East India.

Similarly, they underlined the immense potential of movement of cargo using the inland water and coastal shipping trade. Towards this, they welcomed the decision to operationalise the Dhulian-Gadagari-Rajshahi-Daulatdia-Aricha Route (to and fro) and include Daudkandi-Sonamura Route (to and fro) under Protocol on Inland Water Transit and Trade.

Furthermore, in order to facilitate better connectivity and simplify movement of passengers and goods between both the countries, they agreed to early operationalisation of the BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal) Motor Vehicles Agreement for movement of goods and passengers between the member countries who are willing and ready; or to work towards a bilateral India-Bangladesh Motor Vehicles Agreement, as appropriate.

In regard to their cooperation on the management of trans-boundary rivers, both leaders directed the Technical Level Committee of the Joint Rivers Commission to expeditiously exchange updated data and information and prepare the draft framework of Interim Sharing Agreements for the six rivers, namely, Manu, Muhuri, Khowai, Gumti, Dharla and Dudhkumar and to firm up the draft framework of interim sharing agreement of Feni River.

What Next?

As rightly highlighted by Prime Minister Hasina, for furthering the Bangladesh-India relationship as a ‘role model’ for neighbouring countries, both countries should continuously make progress on all three broad areas of cooperation: peace and security, trade and connectivity, and people-to-people contacts.

For example, Indo-Bangla Border Haats are a prime example of grassroots realisation of their common vision on shared prosperity. The decision to establish twelve new Border Haats is a welcome step in that direction. This will enhance producer and consumer welfare on both sides, particularly in remote areas. Efforts should be made to elevate them to Border Economic Zones.

Similarly, India and Bangladesh should take lead in realising greater connectivity and trade in the Bay of Bengal region. Indo-Bangla Coastal Shipping Agreement should be taken as a template for a similar agreement among the BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) group of countries comprising Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand. This will enhance security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region.

In March, 2020, Prime Minister Modi is scheduled to visit Dhaka to commemorate the birth centenary of Bangabandhu Sheikh MujiburRahman. This occasion should further strengthen our bilateral relationship. It should be based on the Antyoday vision of Integral Humanism – inclusion of the poorest and a an empowered and meaningful role for the marginalised in all the processes – as espoused by PanditDeendayalUpadhyaya.

(Executive Director, CUTS International, a global public policy research and advocacy think-tank (bc@cuts.org) and an expert on connectivity issues)

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