Friday, July 23, 2010

Have Bangladesh-India relations hit a snag?

Published in The Daily Star, July 25th., 2010
M. Serajul Islam

RECENTLY in a seminar arranged by the Policy Research Institute (PRI), the Minister for Commerce made a statement that poured cold water on the spin of optimism that the foreign minister had succeeded in giving in the media to the Prime Minister's state visit to India in January. The foreign minister had given the visit a perfect score. She also spoke in a number of seminars arranged to evaluate the visit. In these seminars, she articulated herself brilliantly, based on the agreements and the Joint Communiqué of the visit, to convince everybody that Bangladesh-India relations were poised for a paradigm shift for the better to the mutual benefit of the two countries. She had then said that India's sincerity was amply manifested in its positive response to Bangladesh's power needs in giving Bangladesh a US $1 billion credit and a host of other offers that spoke of India's goodwill in improving Bangladesh-India relations.

The commerce minister regretted that even after six months of the visit, specific decisions on the agreement on removal of tariff and non-tariff barriers have not been implemented. In speaking to the media after the PRI seminar, he criticized the bureaucrats on either side for things not moving the way they should have following the Prime Minister's successful visit. The foreign minister did not appear before the media for clarification on her colleague's statement. Her silence and that of her Ministry on the commerce minister's statement has surprised many who are following Bangladesh-India relations and left them guessing about what is exactly happening.

A few other developments have added to the confusion. The foreign minister seems to have lost her enthusiasm in the visit rather abruptly. Meanwhile, the task of coordinating follow up action on the agreements and the Joint Communiqué to move relations forward has been entrusted to the Economic Adviser of the Prime Minister who led a delegation to India some months ago for the purpose. No news has come out from his office or from him about his visit. In fact, if anyone would know about the current state of affairs of Bangladesh-India relations in the context of the Prime Minister's visit, it is the Economic Adviser and not the commerce minister who has spoken on it and the foreign minister, who has not spoken on the visit lately.

The government has not presented the agreements reached during the visit in Parliament nor made these public, which has added to public confusion. A few important decisions that had encouraged the public to hope that the Prime Minister had indeed succeeded in achieving a major breakthrough have not gone the expected way. The 250MW of electricity that India had agreed to give will require a 100 KM transmission line to join the power grids of the two countries. This transmission line will take two years to build after the award of the contract, for which a decision is yet to be reached. Agreement on sharing of water of Teesta seems to be getting perpetually delayed although in the meantime the Bangladesh water minister had given hope some months ago that an agreement was just round the corner. India has recently expressed its determination to build the Tippaimukh dam although during the visit Sheikh Hasina was assured that India would pay heed to interests and sentiments of the people of Bangladesh.

There is news which suggests that things may be moving in the right direction in some areas. An inter ministerial committee was formed in July last year with the Prime Minister in the Chair and with her Economic Adviser as the prime mover for economic integration of Bangladesh with the economies in the region, including India's northeast states. The foreign minister is a member of the committee. This development is positive but curiously it has not been given publicity. The development appears even better when seen in the context of what former Union Minister Mani Sankar Aiyar had to say on a recent visit to Bangladesh. He said that the Indian government has a plan to spend Rs 20 lakh crore for development of India Northeastern provinces that lacks managerial, technical and technological support, by the year 2020. He felt that Bangladesh could, by extending its hand of cooperation, get a good share of that cake. In the case of such an integration, where politics must play second fiddle to the dictates of economics, Bangladesh will surely benefit as it has what India's northeast provinces lack. Bangladesh, in addition to its managerial, technical and technological abilities, has the ports that could figure in a major way in the success of the proposed integration and also the success of the Indian investment.

Historically and economically, such integration makes great sense. I remember sitting in a meeting that Sheikh Hasina had during her 1996-2001 tenure with the chief minister on one of the Northeast Provinces of India. To convince the Prime Minister that Bangladesh should allow border trade, the chief minister said that the trouser and the shirt he was wearing were manufactured in Bangladesh as was his belt and shoes. He said that most of the people in his province were using a lot of Bangladeshi manufactured goods that were being smuggled and wondered why the two governments could not formalize the illegal exchange of goods that would drive the smugglers and the middlemen away and allow legality to come into the economic reality to the mutual benefit of the two countries.

Of course, things were then as it is now, not easy to do as the chief minister had then wanted. India has been seeking land transit through Bangladesh to its Northeast so that the economic benefits of the Taka 20 lakh crore go to investors and businessmen in India and not Bangladesh. Therefore, although one would like to believe with Mani Sankhar Aiyar that Bangladeshi businessmen would be allowed to play a significant role in the development of India's Northeast, India's past in dealing with Bangladesh does not encourage analysts of Bangladesh-India relations to hope too much into the prospects of Bangladesh's integration in that development and benefit from it.

There is reason to look seriously into what the commerce minister really intended to say. Indian bureaucracy is powerful and capable of working independently of its political masters. In 1985, Rajiv Gandhi as the new Prime Minister of India made gestures to give Bangladesh its water needs. The then Bangladesh High Commissioner in New Delhi was AK Khandker who was about to send a very optimistic message to Dhaka. On second thought, he sent his officer dealing with water issues to the Indian Joint River Commission to check if what the Prime Minister was hinting was really true. The Member of the Indian JRC told the Bangladesh High Commission official bluntly that there was no likelihood of any change in India's position, the Prime Minister's hints notwithstanding.

Bangladesh-India relations can change positively when the political leaders in New Delhi and Indian bureaucrats dealing with Bangladesh are in agreement. That does not appear to be the case on trade and water issues, where the core of discord rests on Bangladesh's side. Bangladesh has, meanwhile, handed in more ULFA insurgents, a key Indian concern. Bangladesh has also followed up on areas where it needs to act on the Joint Communiqué and the agreements despite its weak bureaucracy and serious problems in coordinating functions involving many ministries. It is time for India to show its hands on the concerns of the commerce minister and on water where an immediate agreement on Teesta is crucial. More importantly, the return visit of the Indian Prime Minister has to take place soon to motivate the Indian side to positive action.

The author is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt and Director in the Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies.

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