At the end of her four-day visit to India, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed said, “We decided to take our bilateral relations to a new high”. The 22 treaties signed between the two countries on April 8 testify to the Bangladesh premier’s optimism. The pacts pertain to a wide range of bilateral issues, including defence cooperation, energy and infrastructure. Sheikh Hasina and PM Narendra Modi inaugurated a bus service that will run between Kolkata, Khulna and Dhaka, a new passenger train service and a new rail link for running goods trains. India will also finance a diesel oil pipeline from Numaligarh to Parbatipur and Indian companies will enter into a long-term agreement for the supply of diesel. The gloss of these pacts, however, fades in view of India’s failure to address its eastern neighbour’s long-standing concern: Sharing of Teesta waters. The failure could mean that India will remain Bangladesh’s second best friend. Beijing today exercises far more influence on Dhaka in matters of commerce, developmental issues, and most importantly, strategic affairs.
Indo-Bangladesh relations have been on an upswing since Sheikh Hasina assumed office in 2009. In June last year, the two countries swapped tiny islands in the Bay of Bengal ending a border dispute that had kept thousands of people in stateless limbo for nearly 70 years. Trade between the two countries is today more than $7 billion. But India has a long way to go before it matches China’s economic clout. Beijing is currently Dhaka’s biggest trading partner with an annual turnover of more than $10 billion. According to PM Modi, the agreements signed during Sheikh Hasina’s visit “bring our resource allocation for Bangladesh to more than $8 billion over the past six years”. This pales in comparison to the $24 billion loan extended by China, last year, during President Xi Jinping’s visit to Bangladesh. Dhaka has consistently backed Beijing’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative despite New Delhi’s reservations.
What India cannot achieve economically vis-a-vis Bangladesh, it can try to by building trust with its eastern neighbour. The two countries are bound together by history and geography. But water sharing has remained the sticking point for more than four decades. At the end of his deliberations with Sheikh Hasina, PM Modi said, “I firmly believe that it is only my government and your excellency, Sheikh Hasina, your government, that can and will find an early solution to Teesta water sharing.” These words could bring little cheer in Bangladesh, where the alarmingly thin flow of the Teesta reminds people of the threats to their livelihoods due to barrages in upstream India.