More autonomy to border states

India has of late, been reaching out to its neighbours via ‘power diplomacy’. New Delhi is exploring ways of selling power to Pakistan and Bangladesh.The usual road blocs of course persist in the case of Pakistan. On the other side, the likes of Hafiz Saeed and other hardliners have virulently attacked the Nawaz Sharif regime, using Anti-India rhetoric, accusing it of agreeing to buy power from India. Meanwhile, skeptics in India also feel that this is not a pragmatic decision, arguing that the country rather than showing its magnanimity towards Pakistan, should cope with its own power crises.  It remains to be seen how and when power trade actually kicks off, since this idea has been discussed for long without much success. What is encouraging however is that two states which share borders with Pakistan and Bangladesh respectively, Punjab and Tripura have evinced greater enthusiasm, than the central government.  

While the Deputy Chief Minister of Punjab, Sukhbir Singh Badal, had discussed the idea of Indian Punjab selling power to Pakistani Punjab, during his visit to Pakistan in November 2012, last month, an Indian delegation headed by Union Power Ministry Joint Secretary Reeta Acharya put forward the proposal of selling 500 megawatts of power to Pakistan. The neighbouring state which faces a serious power crisis, was quick to respond to this proposal in the affirmative. The Punjab Government (India) has already established a power trading company for this purpose and the state is likely to begin producing surplus power by 2014.

In the context of Bangladesh, Tripura Chief Minister Manik Sarkar has also been urging the central government for giving the green signal for supplying power to Bangladesh – which is also in the midst of a power crisis. Interestingly, both Manik Sarkar and Dhaka are on the same page. The latter believes that India should sell power generated from the ONGC Tripura Power Company (OTPC) at Palatana, since it had previously allowed the transportation of heavy power gears, through its territory, to Tripura. Also, Manik Sarkar is keen to repay back Dhaka’s favor. It should be mentioned, that for transportation of the power gears, people were displaced and the Bangladesh government had promised that they would obtain power from the OTPC in lieu of their favor to India. New Delhi in the meanwhile has been supplying power from West Bengal and this cannot meet the demands of the North-Eastern region.

One significant question which arises is whether it is time to make economic diplomacy with neighbours more smooth and delegate certain responsibilities to state governments themselves. India has missed the bus in the neighbourhood due to excessive red taping and lack of imaginative thinking. Poor connectivity of border provinces with neighbouring countries, and the lack of coordination between the centre and state governments of bordering states has also been responsible for the above.

While it is true, that foreign policy is a central subject, it is time that we infuse pragmatism and took a leaf out of the Chinese model of economic diplomacy, where states -- especially those with international borders  -- are given substantial lee way when it comes to trade and commerce. Results of the past few years clearly reveal that since these states realize the benefits arising out of closer economic relationships with neighbouring countries and are more enthusiastic and quick to implement decisions in the realm of trade and commerce.

The first step, which needs to be taken is greater autonomy not just to the ministry in charge, but to the concerned department in the state itself. The advantage of doing so would be, that rather than getting embroiled in semantics as foreign ministries often do, the concerned department is in a better position to deal with the critical issues. The bilateral economic engagement, between India and Pakistan, which commenced in April 2011 was a strong reiteration of this point. Commerce Secretaries on both sides avoided getting entangled in complex issues, and explored commonalities.
While it may not be possible for India to impart the same amount of decentralization, as in China one way could employ branch secretariats in states with the same responsibilities as the provincial Foreign Affairs Office (FAO’s) in China. This way rather than the MEA being involved in each and every aspect of ties with neighbours, these branch secretariats can at least handle basic logistical issues and preliminary negotiation in the economic sphere. The Branch Secretariats can thus be a sort of intermediary between state and central governments.

The second step which is imperative is that state governments of border states should themselves be given greater autonomy when it comes to economic investment and infrastructural projects. In India, there could be a specific wing in the Ministry of Commerce which works closely with state governments – especially border states – so that trade and infrastructural cooperation with neighbouring countries is not hampered by excessive bureaucracy. It is time, that border-states are given substantial ‘power’ to improve economic ties with neighbours. The challenge is to find a middle ground where states do not feel constrained, and the centre does not feel threatened.

The author is a New Delhi-based columnist
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