The ratification of the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) of 1974 was warmly welcomed across the political divide both in India and Bangladesh. The Lok Sabha showed rare unanimity in passing the Constitution (119th Amendment) Bill to settle its 41-year-old border dispute with Bangladesh. The implementation of the LBA will enable the two countries to exchange lands known as enclaves or chhitmahal in each other’s territory. The bill will also help in resolving the long-standing problem of land in adverse possession.
Bangladesh and India share a 4,096-km international border, the fifth-longest land border in the world. From 1947 till now, the unresolved problem of enclaves and adverse possession has been a source of constant friction. It was hoped that the Indira-Mujib LBA in 1974 would settle both these problems but, for a variety of reasons, it has taken four decades to resolve all the pending issues and for the Indian Parliament to finally ratify the agreement. There is certainly a sense of hope in Bangladesh that the ratification will open up a new era in Bangladesh-India relations. The people of Bangladesh are now looking forward not just to the visit of the Indian cricket team in June but also the visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
It is expected that the implementation of the LBA will help in improving the quality of life of 51,549 people, who have been living in misery in the enclaves, deprived of basic human rights. For all practical purposes, they have been stateless people, living a hand-to-mouth existence, denied access to schools and hospitals as well as other basic services. There are 111 Indian enclaves in Bangladesh and 51 Bangladeshi enclaves inside India. All the inhabitants can now look forward to a national identity and enjoying the same benefits and services as their neighbours living outside the enclaves.
One of the major irritants in the bilateral relations between the two countries has been the problem of border management. Notwithstanding the presence of a sizeable border security force on both sides, as well as over 3,000 km of barbed wire fencing on the Indian side, the number of persons killed on the border, for the most part Bangladeshis, is among the highest in the world. The Indo-Bangladesh border is also notorious for smuggling, apart from trafficking in arms, drugs and people.
People expect that one important outcome of the LBA will be improved border management based on cooperation, increased trade and the transformation of the border into a peaceful one, free of killings.
The ratification of the LBA and the likelihood of a visit by Modi in the near future provides both countries an opportunity to widen and strengthen their cooperation.
Security cooperation between the two countries during the past six years can be described as excellent. But there is room for further improvement. Equally impressive has been the wide-ranging cooperation in the energy sector. Trade has expanded, as have Indian investments in Bangladesh. Bangladesh today enjoys duty-free access to the Indian market. However, in order to see a meaningful expansion in its exports to India, some non-tariff barriers need to be removed. Both countries need to pay special attention to improving road, rail and river connectivity in the entire sub-region. In particular, there is a need to improve the physical infrastructure in Bangladesh and initiate action in the construction of a deep sea port, which could be of immense benefit to the Indian Northeast, Nepal, Bhutan and, of course, Bangladesh.
Perhaps the most difficult problem in the bilateral relationship is the issue of sharing the waters of the 54 rivers that the two countries share. It is important for Modi to implement the framework agreement signed in September 2011, during then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Dhaka, providing for cooperation between India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan. One key feature of this cooperation should be in the field of joint harnessing of the water resources shared by these four countries.
India and Bangladesh both suffer from a “perception problem”. In Bangladesh, India is viewed with suspicion because of its geostrategic interests, overwhelming economic and military strength, apparent reluctance to resolve longstanding problems like the LBA and the sharing of Teesta waters. Indians, on the other hand, tend to view Bangladesh as a country where extremist groups are gaining in strength and where there is widespread poverty, triggering illegal immigration into India. There is little awareness in India of the enormous progress and rapid growth that has taken place in the neighbouring country, of the excellent social indicators, or that Bangladesh has achieved self-sufficiency in food. There also isn’t awareness or recognition of the fact that today, Bangladesh directly and indirectly contributes well over $20 billion annually to the Indian economy. The implementation of the LBA is expected to reduce this gap in perception and remove some of the widespread scepticism that exists in the mind of the public about a durable long-term relationship.
Although it has taken a year, the ratification of the LBA can now be viewed as a testament to Modi’s “neighbourhood first” policy. But it is important to understand that the development of a meaningful relationship built on mutual trust and benefit will require serious and prolonged interaction at all levels between the two countries. There is a need for regular summit-level meetings to review the implementation of projects and agreements. There is a need for greater people-to-people contact — this would require removing the multiple headaches faced by Bangladeshis in obtaining an Indian visa. There is also a need for vastly expanded public diplomacy and cultural exchange programmes on both sides. An effective communication strategy is essential. Improving connectivity, expanding trade and investment can take Bangladesh from its current 6 per cent growth rate to 8-10 per cent in the next two to four years. The LBA provides an excellent opportunity to take India-Bangladesh relations to a new level.
The writer is president, Bangladesh Enterprise Institute, and former foreign secretary of Bangladesh.