By Dr. Rupak Bhattacharjee
The multi-faceted ties between India and Bangladesh received tremendous boost from Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s April 7-10, 2017 visit to New Delhi.
The focus of the trip -- her first bilateral visit after seven years -- was to further strengthen cooperation in areas like infrastructure development, power and energy, defence, security, trade and commerce and connectivity. It assumes significance against the backdrop of China’s growing footprint in India’s immediate neighbourhood and spread of dreaded international jihadi group Islamic State (IS) in Bangladesh.
Hasina held extensive talks with her Indian counterpart Narendra Modi and both sides inked as many as 22 agreements and memoranda of understanding (MoUs) on April 8.
India extended a fresh line of credit (LoC) worth $5 billion for the development of waterways, railways and roadways in Bangladesh. The new LoC was the biggest soft loan that India has provided to any foreign country in the last six years. It comes after Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Dhaka in October 2016 when China offered a LoC of $24 billion to Bangladesh.
Under the new LoC, India and Bangladesh have already identified 17 infrastructure projects to utilise the fund on a fast-track basis. These projects include upgradation of the sea ports of Payra, Chittagong and Mongla, making more roads four-lane, airport renovation and increasing railway lines. India has been assisting Bangladesh in the improvement of its transport system and the fresh loan will complement the Awami League (AL) government’s development programmes.
The signing of three accords on the cooperation of civil nuclear energy during Hasina’s visit added a new dimension to the growing India-Bangladesh ties. A framework agreement on peaceful uses of nuclear energy will provide broad cooperation in the sector, including setting up of nuclear reactors in Bangladesh by India.
Besides, both sides agreed on an arrangement between the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, India, and the Bangladesh Atomic Energy Regulatory Authority for exchange of technical information and cooperation in the regulation of nuclear safety and radiation protection.
Furthermore, an inter-agency agreement was inked between the Global Centre for Nuclear Energy Partnership, India, and Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission on cooperation in nuclear power plant projects in Bangladesh. Russia is building Bangladesh’s first nuclear power plant at Rooppur, for which India has been training Bangladeshi nuclear scientists for the last two years.
Another positive outcome of the visit was the expansion of cooperation in power and energy sectors. Considering Bangladesh’s acute shortage of electricity, India is transmitting more power to the neighbouring country. During Hasina’s visit, India started supplying an additional 60 MW of power from Tripura. This will help Bangladesh to solve its power crisis in the eastern region of the country.
Both sides also agreed on a power evacuation scheme between Assam and Bihar, from which Bangladesh can draw 1,000 MW through tapping points at Parbatipur. Moreover, both sides have initiated discussions for additional supply of 340 MW to Bangladesh from National Thermal Power Corporation stations. Prime Minister Modi announced that India would fully support Bangladesh’s endeavours to provide electricity to all by 2021.
India has been cooperating with Bangladesh to meet its ever-increasing demand for fuel as well. India is currently constructing an India-Bangladesh Friendship Pipeline from Siliguri to Parbatipur to supply high speed diesel as a grant-in-aid. The Indian Oil Corporation Limited and Bangladesh Petroleum Corporation are also building a liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) terminal and pipeline in Bangladesh.
During Hasina’s landmark visit, both sides finalised an agreement on long-term supply of diesel to Bangladesh from India and held preliminary talks on linking India’s gas grid with that of Bangladesh. Till the work on the pipeline is completed, India will supply diesel by a rail link. The two Prime Ministers flagged off, via video conferencing, the inaugural consignment of 2,200 tonnes of diesel from Assam’s Numaligarh Refinery Limited. Modi observed that several deals for investment in the energy sector of Bangladesh are likely to be signed by Indian companies in the coming days.
The highlight of Hasina’s visit was the strengthening of defence ties between India and Bangladesh. The two sides signed three defence-related agreements on April 8. An MoU on defence cooperation framework was inked under which India will provide $4.5 billion LoC to Bangladesh for purchasing Indian military hardware. Through this Loc, India seeks to broaden defence cooperation with Bangladesh, which has been mostly dependent on China for procuring military equipment.
The bilateral cooperation on training of Bangladesh’s security personnel in India has expanded in the recent years. An agreement between National Defence College in Tamil Nadu and Defence Services Command and Staff College in Dhaka was signed for enhancing cooperation in the field of strategic and operational studies.
Another accord between National Defence College in New Delhi and National Defence College in Dhaka was inked for boosting cooperation in the arena of national security, development and strategic studies. India is making concerted efforts to build an enduring defence partnership with its eastern neighbour to ward off China’s influence over Bangladesh’s defence establishment.
The two sides also agreed to deepen security and counter-terrorism cooperation during bilateral talks in New Delhi. The two Prime Ministers reaffirmed their commitment to taking concrete measures to further strengthen cooperation and coordination among law enforcement, intelligence and security organisations of both countries. India’s Computer Emergency Response Team and Bangladesh Government Computer Incident Response Team have agreed to cooperate in cyber security.
The two sides made considerable progress on the conductivity front, especially waterways. An agreement on the development of Ashuganj-Zakiganj segment of Kushiara river and Sirajganj-Daikhawa stretch of Jamuna river was inked to upgrade connectivity. This accord is aimed at reducing logistics cost of cargo movement to India’s North-East and also easing traffic congestion through the narrow Siliguri Corridor. Under the agreement, both the sides will undertake necessary dredging to make the rivers navigable.
Another MoU was signed to facilitate passenger and cruise services between the two nations on the coastal and protocol routes. To boost trade and people-to-people contacts, a bus service and a train service from Kolkata to Khulna, and rail link from Radhikapur to Birol were launched during Hasina’s visit.
To enhance trade, the two sides signed a deal on opening of another set of border haats along the frontiers in the North-East.
India-Bangladesh trade has been growing steadily over the years. According to the Ministry of External Affairs, India’s exports to Bangladesh in 2015-16 (July-June) stood at $5,452.90 million, while imports from the neighbouring country during the same period were $689.62 million.
However, some trade-related issues are yet to be sorted out by the two sides. The Bangladesh government is complaining about the trade deficit of over $6 billion, which is in favour of India, and imposition of duties on jute and electricity trade from Nepal and Bhutan. The countries could address trade imbalance through greater investment and reducing non-tariff barriers. On April 10, a dozen investment deals worth $9 billion were signed between the two countries.
Both sides also discussed issues of water resource management such as sharing of common rivers, including Teesta, the Padma-Ganga Barrage Project and basin management of common rivers. But the Modi government could not clinch the Teesta deal as Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has been firmly resisting the Centre’s efforts insisting that the treaty would be detrimental to the interests of the people of north Bengal.
Bangladesh badly needs the Teesta waters particularly during the lean season from December to March when the water flow drops below 1,000 cusecs from 5,000 cusecs. Modi assured Bangladesh of finding an early solution to the contentious Teesta issue.
India should end the stalemate over the Teesta question. Stakes are high for Hasina’s AL government as an unresolved Teesta water sharing issue will not go down well with Bangladesh’s electorate.
The four-day visit was very important for Hasina, who faces parliamentary elections next year. Bangladesh’s rightist and reactionary forces have repeatedly questioned her India policy and emphasised that the country has not benefited much from India even after addressing its vital security concerns and connectivity needs.
The major opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) has criticised Hasina’s visit for failing to conclude the Teesta deal, bridge the trade deficit and stop border killings, besides the signing of defence deals.
However, the BNP leaders, who are largely dissociated from Bangladesh’s voters, are missing the point that Hasina is a staunch nationalist and will never take a step that undermines Bangladesh’s interest.
Meanwhile, the Modi government has also attached importance to Hasina’s visit. The support of the Bangladesh government is crucial for ensuring peace and development in India’s isolated Northeast. Bangladesh, which serves as a land bridge between South and Southeast Asia, is also important to India’s regional economic cooperation schemes.
During the last seven years, both countries have broadened and deepened their ties encompassing almost all the sectors. The trust and confidence between the political leadership of the two nations have increased manifold ever since Hasina assumed office in 2009 and her momentous visit is expected to take the bilateral ties to a new height.
(The author is an independent analyst on India’s Northeast and Southeast Asia. Comments and suggestions on this article can be sent to email@example.com)