Eastern promiseshttps://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/eastern-promises-8/

Eastern promises

India-Bangladesh relations hinge on West Bengal and its chief minister

India-Bangladesh relations hinge on West Bengal and its chief minister

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Myanmar has been billed as a concerted follow-up of India’s Look East policy. Realising the geostrategic importance of Myanmar,it is acknowledged that India yielded critical space in that country. Constituting the t hreshold of the vast East and sharing genetic ties with India’s own Northeast,Myanmar,as much as Bangladesh,is pivotal for any meaningful realisation of the Look East policy. West Bengal,and Kolkata in particular,maintained deep social,educational and commercial relations with Myanmar,while in case of Bangladesh,the bonds with Pashchim Banga were deeper.

In spite of the criticality of Bangladesh,India-Bangladesh relations appear marked by a dithering approach. The West Bengal chief minister’s sudden withdrawal from the PM’s entourage to Dhaka in September 2011,and reservations on the Teesta water-sharing treaty,retarded the momentum built up towards a paradigm shift in bilateral relations. The Teesta fiasco dealt a serious blow to India’s image and the crucial transit facilities for Northeast India,including its access to the Chittagong and Mongla ports. Post-Partition,severe market disruption,total isolation and loss of traditional transport and communication facilities have adversely impacted the economies of the sub-region.

The distance between Agartala and Kolkata increased from 350 km to 1,645 km. Assam’s tea travels 1,400 km to the Kolkata port while it could have curtailed 60 per cent of the distance with access to the Chittagong port. Closer economic integration with Bangladesh is seen as critical to reduce the economic and political isolation of India’s north-eastern states. Didi’s “dadagiri” blinkered a broad picture she must learn to see. No doubt,Bangladesh and India share a complex water regime. With more than 50 river systems in the region,most of them flowing into the Bay of Bengal,the Ganga,Brahmaputra and Meghna,along with their tributaries,drain an area of 1.75 million sq km,directly impacting around 620 million people. A policy of give-and-take has to be in place — even if one sometimes gives more than one takes.

Momentous developments are reshaping the region’s politico-economic geography. Although China had opposed the creation of Bangladesh,following the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on August 15,1975,Bangladesh forged diplomatic relations with it in 1976. On Bangla invitation,China was admitted as a SAARC observer,and has emerged as its steady source of weaponry. The two signed a defence cooperation agreement in 2002. China is contracting to construct nuclear power plants,laying road links between Kunming and Chittagong through Myanmar and building a friendship bridge over the Buriganga river,true to its “string of pearls” strategy.

India-Bangladesh relations hinge on West Bengal for the Indian side. The bulk of India’s exports to Bangladesh take place through the land border routes. The access to the border from India has been abysmal: the road from Bongaon to the border is narrow,blocked by trucks parked alongside. The entire stretch of the highway along this corridor needs to be upgraded to four-lanes. A bypass needs to be built at Bongaon to divert traffic from the town,and the Naobhasan bridge reconstructed with two-lane facility. The seven integrated checkposts being developed by India at a cost of over Rs 500 crore have taken far too long. The two countries need to cater to end-to-end road and rail transport,as well as multi-modal land and water transit of containers. Bangladesh has been an active supporter of the two flagship regional transport projects,namely,Asian Highway and Trans-Asian Railway. An eventual materialisation of these networks through Bangladesh,along with the transit of hydro-electric power from Nepal and Bhutan through India,would pave the way for transformation in the flow of traffic conducive to optimal region-wide transport links and energy security.

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has taken the first big step towards India’s topmost concern,security,following her state visit to India in January 2010. It is critical for India to take an even bigger step and convert a détente into an entente cordiale. The Manmohan-Hasina accord of 2011 in Dhaka was billed to complete the Indira-Mujib protocol signed in New Delhi on May 16,1974. Bangladesh and India need to rediscover the 40-year-old synergy and confluence of minds leading to a congruence of interests and policies.

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If Pakistan has seen it fit to consider a “look east” option,India has to look east and win the confidence of Bangladesh and Myanmar.

The writer was MD,Container Corporation of India Ltd