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Agenda for Modi’s Visit to Bangladesh

Smruti S. Pattanaik is Research Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • May 29, 2015

    Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scheduled to visit Bangladesh on 6 -7 June 2015. This is his first visit to Bangladesh. Last year, after assuming office, Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj had made her first foreign visit to Dhaka. India’s relationship with Bangladesh has been one of its best success stories in the neighbourhood. Since 2007, there has been a positive engagement between the two countries. And after the Awami League assumed power in January 2009, the relationship has scaled a new height. Both countries have witnessed high level visits in the past six years. The previous NDA government led by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee had tried to forge close ties with Dhaka, going beyond India’s preference for particular regimes in the neighbourhood to establish a broad-based relationship. But the BNP regime, which was in power during 2001-06, spurned the offer due to ideological reasons.

    Given this background, Prime Minister Modi’s visit is a continuation of India’s existing policy towards Bangladesh. Yet, there is a lot of expectation from the forthcoming Modi visit. Modi has already made his mark by not just pronouncing the ‘neighbour first’ policy but also taking it to its logical conclusion by visiting most of the neighbouring countries and placing the relationships with them high on his government’s foreign policy agenda.

    After the successful passing of the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) in Parliament, when all members voted in its favour and none against, expectations have risen in Bangladesh about Modi’s ability to generate domestic consensus on contentious issues and deliver on his commitments. In spite of initial apprehensions expressed in certain quarters in Bangladesh, all political parties in that country have welcomed Modi’s rise to power and have expressed their hope for a robust bilateral relationship.

    Several initiatives have fructified between the two countries. Under India’s USD 800 million credit line and USD 200 million grant, Bangladesh has sought to upgrade its railway infrastructure and purchased wagons apart from building the Bhairab and Titas railway bridges. Both countries have established grid connectivity and Bangladesh-India Friendship Power Company (Pvt.) Ltd, a joint venture between the two governments, is now in the process of setting up a 1320-MW coal based power project. There is a MoU on renewable energy and the two countries have established social sector cooperation in health, environment and fisheries. India is also funding small development projects.

    To improve border management and address border related incidents the two countries have revived interaction between the district magistrates or collectors of the border-districts who are now meeting regularly. In May 2015, a meeting took place between the Commerce Secretaries of the two countries to improve the quality of border infrastructure. India has already established a Land Customs Station (LCS) at Akhaura in Tripura, and similar initiatives are underway in Dawki and Petrapole. Several steps have also been taken under the BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal) framework to develop connectivity and facilitate electricity trade.

    However, keeping in mind the high expectations in Bangladesh from Modi’s visit, the following measures may be taken into consideration:

    1. The government needs to move ahead on the Teesta river water sharing agreement. Discussions are already underway between the Centre and the Trinamool Congress (TMC) government in Paschim Banga. In February 2015, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee visited Bangladesh and held talks with Prime Minister Hasina. Banerjee asked Hasina to have faith on her and said as the Chief Minister of Paschim Banga she will act as “a bridge” and will take steps to resolve the water sharing issue. The two countries are exchanging river flow data on Teesta at Gazaldoba. The conclusion of the long pending water sharing treaty will take the relationship to further heights.
    2. Advancing an additional line of credit may be contemplated to help Bangladesh develop and expand its road network keeping both bilateral and regional transit in mind. In April 2015, Bangladesh signed an agreement on modalities for transit with Nepal. BBIN countries are seeking to intensify sub-regional cooperation by expanding the cross country regional transit network and have already agreed on a draft motor vehicle agreement which is expected to be signed in June 2015. Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) have been agreed upon by these countries to facilitate road and rail traffic. BBIN countries are also participating in the Asian Highway and Asian Railway networks. Any soft credit line extended from India to strengthen the connecting road and rail infrastructure will go a long way in boosting regional and bilateral commerce, and generate a lot of goodwill in Bangladesh.
    3. Bangladesh contributed significantly to Indian security by taking due action against Indian insurgent groups taking shelter in its soil. To take security cooperation forward, institutionalising cooperation on intelligence sharing needs to be considered. This should also include access to criminals and terrorists arrested by the two countries and who are involved in incidents across the border. The Burdwan incident necessitates such joint terror cooperation given the fact that terrorists are likely to exploit the porous border not only to take shelter but also expand cross border terror networks.
    4. In the past, Bangladesh authorities have arrested people transporting fake Indian currency. Such cooperation needs to be institutionalised through regular meetings of the Inspector Generals of Police posted in the border region.
    5. Labour migration is a major issue between the two countries. It is a fact that Bangladeshis are taking the risk to cross the border in search of better economic opportunities in India. In the process, they become victims of human traffic networks and are exploited by unscrupulous employers who pay them low wages and subject them to long hours of work in poor working conditions without any legal remedy. This problem has received a lot of attention recently in the wake of the recent boat crisis where traffickers abandoned illegal migrants from Bangladesh and Myanmar in the sea. Similarly, the discovery of several graves of migrants in Malaysia and Thailand points to this inhuman practice in the region. Bangladesh needs to accept the reality of illegal migration and India must find a way of dealing with it in a rational manner. The two countries need to think seriously about introducing a work permit system to those who want to work in either country. Sectors in which migrant labour can be utilised need to be identified and short-term renewable work permits issued. Such a step will remove a major irritant in bilateral relations and simultaneously it will address an important humanitarian issue concerning the illegal trafficking of labour.
    6. After delineation of the maritime boundary, the two countries need to explore the possibility of effective cooperation on maritime issues. Regular joint exercises between the navies of the two countries can be envisaged. Such exercises should focus on issues like piracy and disaster relief. They can jointly patrol the maritime boundary especially to address the likelihood of terrorist threats and arms smuggling.
    7. So far, India and Bangladesh have had two joint anti-terrorism exercises, in Jorhat (Assam) and Sylhet. Given the threat terrorists pose, such exercises and interactions need to be institutionalised.
    8. Inter-Bank facility for opening letters of credit and trade can be facilitated.
    9. The two countries need to take measures to improve border infrastructure including road network and establishing modern Integrated Check Posts on the border. As per a bilateral commitment made in 2010, there should be accelerated efforts to upgrade all the 27 Land Custom Stations in Assam, Tripura, Meghalaya and Mizoram along the border with Bangladesh.
    10. Localised border passes can be issued for people living in villages near the border to access the local labour market. Already such permits are in use along the India-Myanmar border to enable local tribes to visit each other. Such measures can be replicated along the India-Bangladesh border in places where border villages are proximate to each other.
    11. Joint river basin management is another area which will help build trust between the two countries on the sensitive issue of water sharing.
    12. The list of commodities traded in the three border haats needs to be expanded and all the 70 proposed border haats must be operationalised on a priority basis.

    While it is important to strengthen India’s relationship with Bangladesh and take the relationship to a higher level, the Prime Minister need not be encumbered by the existing ideological and political divide in Bangladesh and should meet leaders of all the main political parties including the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). It is true that the Awami League government has played an active role in transforming the nature of the bilateral relationship. However, in the true spirit of a democracy, Modi should reach out to leaders of all major political parties and convince them of India’s intention to work as a partner in progress and development. This would generate popular goodwill and establish an across-the-board political relationship with a country that is vital to India both in bilateral and regional contexts.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India