Gowher Rizvi, international relations adviser to Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina, is a scholar who has taught at several universities, including Oxford and Harvard Kennedy School. Ahead of External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s visit to Bangaldesh, he spoke to Shubhajit Roy at his Dhaka home on what’s on the platter from Bangladesh’s perspective.
How do you see Sushma Swaraj’s visit?
We are very pleased that Sushma Swaraj has made her first visit as external affairs minister to Bangladesh. We are even more pleased that Prime Minister Narendra Modi called leaders from SAARC countries for his swearing-in. This is a splendid signal of his vision and direction of his future foreign policy. We would have been happier if Modi had come, but we do understand the domestic priorities…. This [Sushma’s] is a very important visit in a symbolic manner. It will give us a chance to lay out the roadmap for months ahead.
Issues are pending with the Teesta water sharing treaty and the land boundary agreement.
The Indian government is more aware of Teesta, LBA… Nevertheless, we will raise it.
What else is on the agenda?
The real agenda is to clean the table of contentious issues, and work on the future. Duty-free access to Bangladesh products has made the Bangladesh business sector very happy. Power connectivity from India is something that is beyond imagination. It means 500 MW from the Indian grid, we can buy another 100 MW from Tripura.
Are you also interested in funding from India on connectivity?
We want to focus on road and rail connectivity. The framework agreement talks about how to improve physical transport infrastructure. We would like to see private investment from India, or jointly get institutional financing. We have changed the lexicon from “transit” to “connectivity”… Now how do we make it a reality? Bangladesh cannot do it alone. Roads are congested, rail is underdeveloped… it would require $10 billion to $ 15 billion… Indian companies can come and work on a build-operate-transfer basis, we can look at PPP, we can look at government-private joint ventures..
What about the idea of sub-regional connectivity?
Some time back, we started two trilaterals, India-Bangladesh-Bhutan and India-Bangladesh-Nepal. We are focusing on three things: transport communication… with Bhutan, it involves river and road, with Nepal, it’s road; second is joint harnessing of power; third is water — basin-wide management across 54 rivers.
Does northeastern India get a share of the cooperation pie?
Yes, the Northeast is home of the reservoir of hydro-power. India has no way of transferring power bypassing Bangladesh… Bangladesh is suffering from a power deficit… we want to have a common power grid. We are already connected to the Indian grid… We are investing in a big vision for the future.
How do you see Narendra Modi in all of this?
Prime Minister Modi can do much more, because he is a much stronger PM.
How is the battle against terrorism going in Bangladesh?
We have been tough on terrorism in our own interests. This means we care for our neighbour. There are no terror camps in Bangladesh. Northeast India has been peaceful… Security cooperation is at the highest level. We took the risk… went after groups like HuJI…
What is the status of border management?
Border management is one of the big successes. In 2006, 350 people were killed on the Indo-Bangladesh border. Last two years, it has come down to less than 20… our target is zero.
Do things change while dealing with the BJP-led government after a Congress-led coalition?
We are ideologically committed to good relations. We have 2,400 miles of a shared border, a market of 1.3 billion people which is next door and our geo-strategic location. It’s a no-brainer that we would want to have good relations.