Impressions from a Young Professionals’ Workshop on Future Direction of Indo-Bangladesh Relationship
Dr. Punam Pandey

The conclusion of Indian Prime Minister’s two day visit to Dhaka has offered an opportunity to scholars, analysts and academicians to debate and discuss about future direction of India-Bangladesh relationship. Success and failure of the visit is measured in terms of whether this has further widened and deepened bilateral ties after Mrs. Sheikh Hasina’s visit to Delhi in January 2010. The excitement and apprehensions were discussed at a forum where young Indian and Bangladesh professionals gathered for almost 10 days. The first of its kind, a special course on India and Bangladesh was organized by Jamia Millia Islamia, Central University of Sikkim and Dhaka University. There were 20 participants from both India and Bangladesh which took part in the course, stayed together and made joint presentations. The design of course included understanding history of the Indian sub-continent, foreign policy of both countries, scope for integration of north-eastern India with Bangladesh, further north-eastern connectivity with South-East Asia through Bangladesh, interaction and deepening of ties between the civil society groups, exploring potential and possibility of integrated water management, the effect of climate change, the present status of border haats and potential for widening the scope of border haats.

During discussion on Indian foreign policy on Bangladesh post Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit, the issue of Land boundary agreement was highlighted. Bangladeshi participants appreciated the fact that both countries have finally signed the agreement on the issue which have been hanging for more than 35 years since Indira-Mujib accord of 1974. The agreements signed are on un-demarcated land boundary in three sectors viz. Daikhata-56 (West Bengal), Muhuri River-Belonia (Tripura) and Dumabari (Assam); enclaves; and adverse possessions. The un-demarcated boundary in all three segments has now been demarcated. Also, the status of 111 Indian enclaves in Bangladesh with a population of 37,334 and 51 Bangladesh enclaves in India with a population of 14,215 has been addressed. The issue of adversely possessed pieces of land along the India-Bangladesh border in West Bengal, Tripura, Meghalaya and Assam has also been mutually finalised. Adverse-possession of land had become a humanitarian problem, people of these areas have not been able to enjoy basic facilities of health, education etc because of not demarcated citizenship. India has also agreed to give 24-hour unfettered access to Bangladesh nationals through the Tin Bigha Corridor for the movement of people of Angarpota-Dahagram fulfilling the long pending demand from Bangladesh.

Teesta was another important issue of discussion and debate during the programme. Unlike great expectations from Bangladesh that at least an interim agreement on Teesta would be signed during Indian Prime Minister’s visit, the participants expressed great disappointment on the issue. The Indian side explained to Bangladesh participants how Indian federal system works. It was described that under the federal system, the central government cannot afford to disrespect the opinions of the affected state and its people because the state understands local people’s needs better. In this case, West Bengal must have believed that the agreement would hurt people because of dependence on Teesta water for agriculture, drinking and hydropower. But the opinion prevailed that there was still a possibility for agreement to be signed after taking into account the interests of both sides. The consensus emerged that there should be a joint hydrological survey which would present the actual availability of water in the river.

Since India and Bangladesh share almost 54 rivers, river water issue constitute an important part of any discussion between the two neighbours. There was a discussion on potential of integrated river water management which would help in maintenance of ecology of river. Maintenance of environmental flow is important for maintenance of good health of river. River ecologists should be brought together with civil engineers to assess multidimensional aspect of river planning. River ecologists will look into river planning by taking into account the terrain, people dependent on river, density of population and climatic conditions of the area. In view of climate change phenomenon, customized understanding of the climate is very important. What emerged as a consensus that river ecologists and river engineers should be seen in conjunction.

Since Bangladesh receives lots of siltation because of geographical position, navigation becomes very difficult. Rivers are important means of transportation and communication. During Mrs. Sheikh Hasina’s visit to India, India had agreed to provide dredgers to Bangladesh. Dredging of Ichhamati River has already begun. The Hasina government has made dredging of rivers as priority concern by intending to cover 300 rivers by 2025 spending Taka 12,000 crores.

Another issue which got discussed extensively during the programme was energy. Energy cooperation between India and other South Asian countries in general and India and Bangladesh in particular has very great potential for future. Memorandum of Understanding has been signed on cooperation in power sector. In July 2010, Bangladesh has signed a landmark 35-year power transmission deal with India for import of 250 megawatt electricity. The state run Bangladesh Power Development Board (BPDB) has signed the deal with Power Grid Corporation of India Ltd (PGCIL). The agreement keeps the provision for Bangladesh to export power to India in the future while PGCIL has been entrusted to construct, own, operate and maintain a 400-kv double-circuit line to exchange 500-MW power between the two neighbouring countries soon after the system is launched. Further, the transmission tariff will be fixed later by the Energy Regulatory Commission of West Bengal while BPDB will pay the transmission tariff on a monthly basis. The Indian company will recover the construction cost under a fixed rate over 35 years. The import of power is expected to start by late 2012.

The Indian part of the infrastructure also includes a 400 KV switching station at Baharampur, loop-in and loop-out of Farakka-Jeerat 400 KV single circuit line at the same place, and a 400 KV double circuit line from Baharampur of India running up to Bheramara in Bangladesh. Bangladesh currently faces electricity deficit of 1,500 mw to 1,800 mw on an average against the de-rated capacity of 4,500 mw in 132 state-run and private units. The first meeting of Joint Steering Committee for Cooperation in the Power Sector agreed to a joint venture between India’s National Thermal Power Cooperation and Bangladesh power Development Board.

Presently, Bangladesh is suffering from power cuts even capital Dhaka has lots of electricity problem. To circumvent the problem, National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Bangladesh Power Development Board (BPDB) to set up thermal Power projects of 1,320 MW in Bangladesh in August 2010. The outlay on the coal-fired power plants to be set up at Chittagong and Khulna is estimated at rupees 13,200 crores. The plants are likely to be installed on 50:50 equity basis. NTPC is also going to provide training and development to human resources of BPDB and enhancement of productivity and efficiency of the latter’s existing power stations. India has already laid down underground electrical cables for Bangladesh to provide electricity to both Dahagram and Angarpota.

Ecologically both India and Bangladesh are intertwined. The signing of MOU on Sunderrbans and Bengal Tiger are very important for ecology of sunderbans. The Sunderbans (Mangrove forest) are lifeline for ecosystem of both India and Bangladesh. It provides a habitat for shrimp cultivation, acts as nursery for offshore fishery and further provides protection to coasts from storm surges and cyclones. Of the 9, 600 sq. km of Sundarbans, 40 % belongs to India and the rest belongs to Bangladesh. The MoU underlines cooperation in the areas of conservation of biodiversity, joint management of resources, livelihood generation for poverty alleviation and development, cataloguing of local flora and fauna and studying the impacts of climate change. It also specifies that a working group would be set up to implement the activities under the MoU. In connection with Bengal Tigers, the Protocol on Conservation of the Bengal Tiger of the Sundarban provides for bilateral cooperation in undertaking scientific research, knowledge sharing and patrolling of the Sundarban waterways on their respective sides to prevent poaching or smuggling of derivatives from wildlife and bilateral initiatives to ensure survival and conservation of the Bengal Tiger in the unique ecosystem of the Sundarbans. The protocol also provides for cooperation to promote understanding and knowledge of Bengal Tigers, exchange of personnel for training and promotion of education.

Another issue which generates more political debates inside Bangladesh than India is transit. Bangladesh can become the best transit service-providing country in the South Asia region. It could provide transit facilities to Bhutan, Nepal, Myanmar and China. India has agreed to give transit facility to Nepal and Bhutan for Chittagong and Mongla ports. The two governments have agreed to make Rohanpur-Singabad broad gauge railway link available for Bangladesh for transit to Nepal. Bangladesh has requested India’s help in upgrading the already existing Radhikapur-Birol railway link to broad gauge. It has also agreed to revive the land customs stations along the Tripura Mizoram border, build a bridge over the common river Feni at Sabroom-Ramgarh point and strengthen other border infrastructure. Dhaka and New Delhi in March 2010 signed a trans-shipment agreement to allow Indian goods to be transshipped to its landlocked northeastern Tripura state through Bangladesh territory. Further in continuation with this, Bangladesh Prime Minister expressed her appreciation to the Indian Prime Minister for amendment of the MoU between the Bangladesh and Indian Railways allowing Rohanpur-Singabad as an additional route for both bulk and container cargo for Nepalese rail transit traffic. Bangladesh side also appreciated the assistance from India for the movement of fertilizers from Bangladesh to Nepal by rail route. They also agreed to re-establish rail connections between Chilahati-Haldibari and Kulaura-Mahishashan in the spirit of encouraging revival of old linkages and transport routes between the two countries. It is important to mention that routes through Bangladesh are tried and tested; plus there is a compatibility of ecosystems and almost similar political set up, all these aspects bind people and culture together. Another issue associated with connectivity is integration of Indian north-east with Bangladesh.

The presentation on potential of integration of north-east Indian states with Bangladesh raised excitement and heated discussion among the participants. Though Bangladeshi participants expressed doubt about viability of north-eastern demands for integration because of low income. Another concern expressed was about lack of correct data on all aspects of economy in the north-east region. The presenter underlined that the questionnaire prepared for NSSO survey was developed outside north-east which could not be applied because of change in economic imperatives, family structure and culture in these regions. There is a need to develop questionnaire keeping in mind the north-eastern society and economic activities. North-east cannot be planned as uniform region because all seven states of north-east plus Sikkim have its own strength and weaknesses. Micro management and planning will be the best way to plan the region. Infrastructure is another concern in the region. One of the presenters showed the picture of National Highway 39 and 53 which were not all-weather roads and were full of mud. Trucks were plying on those roads. While making plan for integration, these hiccups should be taken into account.

A recommendation that emerged from the discussion was that for development of north-east and Bangladesh, businessmen from both sides should be allowed to set up Special Economic Zones (SEZ) in the border areas which will supply goods to north-eastern states, Bangladesh and beyond. Another suggestion was about setting up of Joint Ventures between India and Bangladesh in the north eastern states of India. Bangladeshi goods have advantage in north-eastern states in comparison to Indian goods because of physical proximity and connectivity. Indian government’s decision to remove duties on 46 items was appreciated.

The opening up of border haats was applauded but doubt was expressed because of restrictions on the number of items which can be sold here. The concept of ‘border haat plus’ need to be pushed ahead where border school, border hospital, border cinema hall and entertainment park should be established which enhanced the attraction of border haats. Interaction of people with different cultures leads to better understanding and appreciation of each other. Role of border community is underlined because of close interaction.

The concern was raised by the northeast participants that even though north-east is closely interconnected with South East Asia; local people did not get representation in New Delhi’s plan of dealing with this region. Local press persons should be taken along during the visit of central ministers to South Eastern countries. The local press can educate and disseminate the information about integration of north-east states with this region. Recently there was a strong protest in Assam against land boundary agreement. People can be sensitized about these activities if local press and stake holders are taken into confidence. One participant gave an example that when foreign minister visited South East Asia, he called all journalists from Delhi, and only one Manipur journalist was taken from north-east.

There has been a regular displeasure expressed by the Bangladeshis that Bangladesh news are not covered by the Indian news papers. On the other hand, Indian news is covered prominently by the Bangladeshi newspapers. In fact, Indian columnists contribute articles regularly to the Bangladeshi newspapers but columns by the Bangladeshis are conspicuous by absence. Indian print and electronic media cannot afford to ignore an important eastern neighbor.

On the issue of civil society, both countries have very vibrant civil society. The need is to provide a platform where civil society groups can learn about good practices from each other. Indian Non governmental organisations can learn good practices how Bangladesh has achieved low mortality rate. Some out of box solution is required to deal with cross border migration. Unlike general perception, it was argued that labour supply was required from Bangladesh in some parts of north east for execution of infrastructure projects. There was a suggestion that curriculum of security forces in both the countries should include human rights training.

Geography is what it is, it will be mutually beneficial for both India and Bangladesh to resolve the area of contentious issues and work towards achieving mutually beneficial economic cooperation. More flexibility, generosity and consistency are required by India. Overall this was a unique opportunity for participants to interact with each other, learn about each other’s culture, and understand each other’s governance process. Participants belonging to fields like journalism, civil society, university lecturers, development practitioners, chambers of industries would play an important role in shaping the public opinion in their respective fields.

Published Date : 21th September, 2011

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