India Bangladesh: Possibilities of cooperation
Indian policy towards Bangladesh, at least in the short term, is viewed by Indian political elites as consistent with Indian national interests. There is hardly any reason for disagreeing with it. If the BJP leadership is of the opinion that the current policy has long term implications which will be injurious to India, it will be incumbent on them to make changes. As for the second factor, the BJP hasn't expressed any reservations in the past years about the INC-led government's Bangladesh policy. Unless the party wanted to remain silent until it had the power to change the policy, there is no reason to expect a change.
Actually the assassination of Sheikh Mujib in 1975 created a tremendous trust deficit between Delhi and Dhaka that took its toll on resolving bilateral problems. Though relations between Dhaka and Delhi were marked by periodic ups and down, Bangladesh had never shown any apathy in resolving these disputes. Today India and Bangladesh are partners of progress and development, and our destinies are, in a sense, becoming increasingly intertwined. This is also a manifestation of India's 'Neighbours First' policy that stems from the realisation that for India's continued growth and development, the entire region needs to prosper.
The visit of our honourable Prime Minister to Bangladesh could easily be counted among one of his very successful visits abroad. As many as 77 decisions were listed in the joint declaration - Notun Projonmo-Nayi Disha - which laid down the road map of future cooperation, and 22 bilateral agreements were signed in areas as diverse as blue economy, energy, connectivity, security cooperation, economy and trade, infrastructure and transportation, people to people contact, etc. In many ways, the year 2015 was a watershed year in our bilateral relations, where not only did we solve the issue of Land Boundary Agreement but also the maritime boundary issue.
In the area of trade and investment, there has been imbalance but you will recall that India has provided Bangladesh full access to its market of 1.3 billion people, while extending duty free facilities on its export items. As a result, Bangladesh's exports to India have increased in the recent years, around 30 percent more in the last financial year, whereas the Indian exports have decreased in the last two years. Indo-Bangladesh dialogue, as much as Indo-Bangladesh relations, must be a multi-party, multi-stakeholder affair. Because at the end of the day, a consensual vision of this particular tie has to be created for a relationship with such a principal neighbour. This means that one must always remember that the opposition of today may become the government of tomorrow. Therefore, it is always necessary to ensure that when the opposition is not in office, they are brought in whatever discussion is going on with the incumbent government. Beyond this, we have to bring in members of different cross-sections of stakeholders and civil society.
The political context in which these dialogues are held is also very important. If governments are not actively interacting with each other, the productivity is reduced. In contrast to Indo-Pakistan dialogues, we always premise our dialogue process on the belief that whatever problem existed and were carried over from one regime to another between India and Bangladesh, including the water sharing problem, were inherently soluble problems.
Today, money is being invested to promote regional connectivity but the process is moving very slowly. Connectivity, at least on the part of Indo-Bangladesh, is now going through Ashuganj. Most of the carriage - the river transport and the transport from Ashuganj to North East - is being carried by Bangladeshi carriers. One of the main goals of promoting transit was that they should become an opportunity for the transport sector of Bangladesh, and they should become the principal carriers of whatever goods come from India or go across Bangladesh to other parts of India. But to do so, investment is needed. Unfortunately, the Ashuganj Port is still somewhat in the primitive stage. Similarly, the road connection between Ashuganj and the Tripura border is still in an unfit condition to carry the intense traffic.
Energy and power are very important sectors of cooperation. There is an argument that asks if we should be dependent on Indian supply for power. I believe that this is a useless argument. We are short of primary resources. If we want to import gas or fossil fuel from another country, you need to build up a transport pipeline. This is not viable unless there is high demand. If Bangladesh joins India in building a pipeline from Myanmar or elsewhere, both will benefit from the project.
The Rampal coal power plant initiative is stuck on the question of interest rate. If the tariff can absorb the cost, then the interest rate is not a major problem. Instead of looking at whether the energy price has been rightly fixed, we are looking at whether the subsidy should be determined at a certain level. It is a wrong approach to determining a policy. Items sold in border haats are limited. Thus, we push these traders to impoverishment. My suggestion is that India should consider revising the eligible list of products sold at border haats; anything that India can import should be available at this market. This would encourage a more open trade regime.
Ajit Ray writes from India and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org