Relations improving fast
Economic collaboration between India, B’desh plays key role, writes Ashis Biswas.
India's efforts to achieve greater connectivity with its Eastern neighbours like Bangladesh and Myanmar have made progress, as specific linkages between cities and ports get worked out. However, to sustain and maintain the present positive momentum, Delhi must address Dhaka's growing concerns about the sharing of Teesta river waters.
The issue is expected to figure prominently in bilateral talks when Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina visits India a few weeks from now. A section of diplomats feels that she had earlier postponed her scheduled Indian visit only because no progress had been made on the matter.
It is widely known that the biggest hurdle to an agreement between the two countries on Teesta is the steadfast refusal of Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee to endorse it. Her fear is that it would leave six North Bengal districts dry in the lean post-winter months if Bangladesh was allowed to draw water in large quantities.
There is no doubt that the volume of water flowing through North Bengal into lower riparian Bangladesh has lessened in recent years. It has been suggested that this has happened because of massive hydel power projects carried out in Sikkim. Despite repeated requests from West Bengal, the Centre has not yet arranged for a full meeting involving all concerned stakeholders, including Bangladesh and Sikkim.
Observers find a recent statement by a Bangladeshi Minister made in the country's National Assembly of considerable significance in the present context. He told the house that Dhaka had not allowed 'the right of transit to any country' through its territory yet.
Referring to recent movement of foodgrains, equipment and other cargo through Bangladesh rivers and along its roads, from Indian destinations to the Northeastern states, he clarified that the arrangement was worked out through 'a special protocol'. India pays Bangladesh fees for the use of its territory.
Analysts feel that implied in his observation is a subtle reminder that Delhi will do well to heed -- that the present arrangement is not exactly the equivalent of a right of transit and therefore subject to review. Under the existing protocol, Bangladesh also sends its goods in trucks not only to neighbouring West Bengal but to destinations as far as Delhi and other areas, by road.
India's ambitious Look-East initiative followed by its Act East second step is not intended just to increase road and rail connectivity with Bangladesh. Its objective is to offer an alternate basket of regional and sub-regional economic linkages and economic integration, reaching out to Bangladesh, Myanmar and Thailand, initially. Its contrast with and the challenge it poses to China's massive 'One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative is too obvious to be missed.
As things stand, China, despite some recent setbacks, still plays a dominant role in Myanmar's economy, its investments dwarfing that of other countries. In Bangladesh too, China has increased its footprint by sponsoring major infrastructure projects through a special $23 billion package. This comes as an add-on to substantial military purchases made by Bangladesh from China in recent times, including two submarines and other items.
Despite its financial and other limitations vis-à-vis China, India has also enlarged its presence in Bangladesh significantly in recent times. Results are being seen on the ground. In addition to the proposed rail link between Kolkata and Khulna towns, which is under way, bus services will be introduced.
India will also help develop planned urban development and other related work in Rajshahi and Sylhet towns, as part of the sustainable development programmes for these cities. The proposed investments to be made are Taka 120.8 million for Khulna, 219 million for Rajshahi and 242 million for Sylhet. In Khulna, according to Bangladesh press reports, a school for girls will be built by India, with everything from the building to computers, furniture and school bus.
A few days ago, the first Indian ship containing 65 containers for Bangladesh, left from Kolkata to reach the Pangaon river port. This follows a coastal shipping agreement signed between Dhaka and Delhi on 2015. Cargo ships will ply directly between two countries, using the river routes. Bangladesh proposes to introduce a 36 strong fleet of ships for the purpose. For the present, Dhaka-based reports suggest that at least one ship from India will reach Bangladesh every fortnight.
Indo-Bangla connectivity is not only a matter of greater contact between West Bengal and Bangladesh. Assam too is pressing for more linkages with Bangladesh and Myanmar. Guwahati wants to emerge as the major trading and business hub in the NE region. The Guwahati airport will have new terminal shortly.
Existing facilities there will be expanded/upgraded at the cost of Rs 1000 crore, enabling it to handle more international cargo and passenger traffic.
Authorities in both Assam and Bangladesh are considering ways to reduce existing levels of siltation in the Brahmaputra river. While Assam is seeking assistance from the Asian Development Bank, Bangladesh is in negotiations with a Singapore-based group. Tripura and Meghalaya, too, seek more inter-border trade.
In Myanmar too, despite the slow progress of work, India has been involved in a major way in the river Kaladan multi-nodal development project, not to mention in helping Nayputaw in the building of power plants, ports, IT and railways development.
From more power generation to high exports, technology transfer to increased manufacture, development of tourism to a flourishing of the small and SME sectors, India's Northeastern region as well as its East is poised on the road to development. The key to this major process of regional social change and improvement has been the good and growing diplomatic relations between India and Bangladesh.
Therefore, it is of the utmost importance for India to ensure that Bangladesh does not feel short-changed for its co-operation and that Prime Minister Hasina does not return red-faced and empty-handed from her Delhi visit.
(The views expressed are strictly personal.)