I came, I saw, I conquered. This seems to be the theme of Narendra Modi’s record-breaking travels around the world and in the neighbourhood. Was it any different in the case of Bangladesh? He certainly seems to have won the hearts of a lot of people, including, it would appear, Begum Khaleda Zia and the Jamaat. For the time being, the sceptics have been silenced or mesmerised by Modi’s rhetoric, his masterly handling of the media, in particular, the social media. In the midst of all the hoopla, razzmatazz and cut-outs of Modi around Dhaka and the hype surrounding the visit, most people were reluctant to ask some of the hard questions that have plagued India-Bangladesh relations over the past four decades. Now that the visit is over, both sides need to sit down and take stock of it and the multiple follow-up measures required.
On the plus side, Modi has certainly succeeded in igniting a sense of optimism in Bangladesh about bilateral relations. There is clearly a willingness to see the glass as half full through the rose-tinted glasses he left behind as a gift for the 160 million people of Bangladesh. The Bangladeshi side pledged zero tolerance for terrorism and has shown itself to be extremely proactive in this area for the last six and a half years. This is a huge plus for the Indian side. However, the Indian side has yet to deliver on its pledge for zero deaths on the India-Bangladesh border.
The signing of the MoU between the coast guards of the two countries will strengthen joint efforts in curtailing the illegal movement of goods, human trafficking and piracy in the Bay of Bengal. MoUs on the prevention of human trafficking and on the prevention of smuggling and circulation of fake currency notes will further strengthen the existing security cooperation.
The Reliance group’s $3 billion 3,000 MW power plant with an LNG terminal will be the single largest FDI project in Bangladesh, while the Adani group will set up a 1,600 MW coal-fired power plant on the island of Maheshkhali at an investment of $2bn. The Dhaka-Guwahati bus link, extending the Kolkata-Dhaka bus service to Agartala and the decision to set up new Indian and Bangladeshi consulates in Khulna, Sylhet and Guwahati should help the private sector to boost and strengthen economic, cultural and tourism cooperation. Bangladesh will set up two exclusive economic zones, Mongla and Bheramara, for Indian investments.
Both sides also renewed the bilateral trade agreement and signed another one on coastal shipping that will allow direct and regular movement of Indian ships to Bangladeshi ports. In return, India will allow Bangladesh surface access to Nepal and Bhutan for trade. To improve connectivity, an MoU was signed on blue economy and maritime cooperation in the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean. A separate MoU was also signed on the use of the Chittagong and Mongla ports by Indian ships to ensure better movement of goods.
From the Bangladeshi private sector’s point of view, the agreement signed between the Bangladesh Standards and Testing Institution (BSTI) and the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) on cooperation in the field of standardisation, will remove a key bottleneck faced by Bangladeshi exporters in entering the Indian market.
However, the optimism was diluted by the strong sense of disappointment at the failure to make any breakthrough on the proposed Teesta water-sharing agreement.
The presence of Mamata Banerjee alongside Modi had encouraged people to believe that, following what many saw as a very successful visit by her to Dhaka earlier in the year, the heart of the West Bengal chief minister had melted. But Banerjee remained uncharacteristically quiet on the matter, taciturn and brooding, during the entire visit. So, instead of the much-needed Teesta waters, we have got another bucket full of promises and assurances with which we will have to irrigate the water-hungry Teesta basin on our side.
I had earlier stressed the importance of building trust and confidence (‘41 years in the making’, IE, May 12). Modi’s visit has certainly contributed significantly to removing some of the mistrust and misgivings that had hindered progress in the past. But this is the first step in a long journey. In three to six month’s time, PM Sheikh Hasina should visit New Delhi to sign the Teesta water-sharing agreement. During the next six months, there should be no shooting of any Bangladeshi by the BSF on the border. A task force should be set up by both sides, which should meet every month to review the progress of implementation of the various agreements. The $2bn fresh line of credit should be operational on a fast-track basis. Unless there is tangible progress on the development of Bangladesh’s road, rail and riverine transport, the agreement on connectivity will not be implementable.
People-to-people contact must be further expanded at all levels. Despite all the explanations and initiatives, obtaining an Indian visa remains hugely problematic, particularly for those who need to visit India for trade, tourism and education. It was disappointing that no statement regarding the introduction of e-visas for tourists, for their easy and hassle-free entry into India, was made. India has already launched the e-visa facility for 76 countries, including for Chinese tourists. Let this also be on the agenda for the Bangladesh PM’s visit to Delhi in December.
Both countries need to work together to find practical and humane solutions to labour mobility, human trafficking and the movement of illegal goods across the border. Instead of blaming each other for illegal immigration, the two sides can benefit by framing a mutually agreed system of citizenship identification and temporary movement of labour in the border regions.
Shortly before Modi’s departure from Dhaka, the Dhaka University organised a well-attended event at the Bangobondhu Conference centre where Modi, in his hour-long speech, stressed the multiple ties as well as opportunities that bind Bangladesh and India together. But he also outlined some of the critical challenges these two great neighbours face. Modi said: “I assure you, we will find a resolution to [the] Teesta water issue on humane principles.” The essence of Modi’s speech at the packed Chinese-built conference centre was “we will work together as partners”. This is a message Bangladeshis can relate to.
The writer, president of Bangladesh Enterprise Institute, is a former foreign secretary of Bangladesh