Author: Syed Munir Khasru

Area of Work: Regional Cooperation Integration

With Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina visiting India from April 7, 17 agreements and bilateral MoUs have been finalised. Almost two years into Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s historic visit to Dhaka, it is time to reflect on the progress made and issues yet to be resolved.

In the last five years, trade between the two countries has grown by more than 17% with two way trade at $6.8 billion in the fiscal year 2015-16. The trade is heavily in favour of India and Bangladesh imported goods worth $5.45 billion and exported $690 million. Concerted efforts are needed to narrow the gap.

For facilitation of trade and investment Bangladesh has dedicated two SEZs in its northwest, bordering India. Trade ties are troubled by poor road and rail connectivity. The four operational ‘border haats’ along the India-Bangladesh border have been successful, with trade worth $2,60,000 having taken place. However, there have been delays in the operationalisation of four more ‘border haats’ in Meghalaya, agreed upon during Modi’s visit.

Launch of trans-shipment operations combining riverine and land routes last year have enabled India to deliver goods through Bangladesh to Nepal and Bhutan in a third of previous time and reduced transport cost by almost half. After turning power surplus last year, India has been working with Bangladesh to double the capacity of existing transmission interconnects. There are plans to set up a third link for increasing cross-border electricity trade for widening the regional market as new generation capacities come up.

Currently, India provides Bangladesh with 2,600 MW of power. The new line is expected to wheel power from hydel projects proposed to be built in the northeast which can be shared with Bangladesh as well. India’s ONGC and Bangladesh Petroleum Corporation are in negotiation to build a 6,900 km long gas pipeline linking Bangladesh, Myanmar and northeastern states. There are ongoing talks of expanding energy cooperation to BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal) framework.

Cattle smuggling across the border has decreased, with seizure of cattle by BSF decreasing from 1.5 lakh in 2015 to 1.2 lakh in 2016 in south Bengal frontier, known as the cattle corridor of India. However, border killings of Bangladeshi civilians by BSF have not ceased, with four killed in February alone. Since 2015, a total of 77 people have been killed and 108 injured by BSF. Cattle, even if smuggled, can’t be worse than drugs, and fatal shooting of offenders is not justifiable when there are options for imprisonment, fines and confiscation.

Bangladesh has extended full cooperation to India for fighting insurgent groups along the border. During 2009-14 Bangladesh arrested at least 17 top leaders of various insurgent groups, with the surrender of eight more suspects. Some of the insurgents were also sent back to India.

Bangladesh and India are set to sign a five-year MoU for bilateral defence cooperation for joint initiatives in defence technology, research and maritime infrastructure development. Also on the cards is a $500 million line of credit by India to Bangladesh for purchase of military equipment. Some have questioned whether this deal is a response to the recent purchase of two submarines by Bangladesh from China. Given that India has a defence budget of around $50 billion and shops around the world, Bangladesh with a meagre defence budget of around $2.8 billion, with reliance mostly on Chinese built military hardware, should not be a concern for India.

While defence cooperation may be one of the major outcomes of the visit, bigger issues from the Bangladeshi point of view, such as the Teesta water treaty, are still at bay. Despite Modi’s pledge and assurances by mercurial Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee of a Teesta deal the water-sharing agreement is being stalled.

This is the last official visit to India by Hasina before Bangladesh elections, therefore stakes are high for both sides. After all the positive steps Hasina has taken for improving Indo-Bangla ties, if the Teesta issue continues to be unresolved, it will hurt her credibility with her own people.

Mr. Syed Munir Khasru is chairman of the international think tank, The Institute for Policy, Advocacy, and Governance (IPAG). munir.khasru@ipag.org

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