It is quite natural for two countries that share as many attributes as we do- shared history, boundaries, language, culture, ties of family and kinship and above all, civilizational linkages, to have a special relationship that is sui generis. One can say that this is quite true in the context of India-Bangladesh relations today. It is now widely and truly said that our bilateral relations today are the best ever, which Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi has characterised as ‘Sonali Adhyaya’ or a ‘golden era’.
The relationship between countries, in particular neighbours, can never be excellent if there is lack of political will on either or both sides. In our case, we have been fortunate to have political leaders on both sides who are willing to go the extra mile to take the relationship to newer heights for the benefit of our people, our countries and the region. Hon’ble Prime Minister of Bangladesh H.E. Sheikh Hasina has publicly stated that “India is our most important neighbour and a key development partner”. External Affairs Minister of India Sushma Swaraj put it very aptly during her visit to Bangladesh last year by saying – “Neighbours first, and among neighbours, Bangladesh first of all”.
What more clear, unequivocal and unambiguous political intentions can we seek from our political leadership for the betterment of our bilateral relations?
If we look back to take stock of where we were in our bilateral relations just a decade ago and where we stand today, we can discern the extraordinary progress made.A conventional barometer would be the number of agreements signed between both countries. Since 2010, more than 100 agreements have been signed, including 68 agreements in the last 3 years alone that were mostly signed during visits of the Prime Ministers of our two countries in 2015 and 2017. Most of these agreements were not merely renewal of previous agreements but the initiation of cooperation in new, high-technology areas such as space, civil nuclear energy, IT and electronics, cyber-security, blue economy, etc. The very act of venturing into newer and unconventional areas of cooperation is symbolic of our mature partnership. Today, we have signed another 6 documents, including the implementation of MoU on the friendship pipeline between Numaligarh and Parbatipur, MoU on cooperation between Prasar Bharati and Bangladesh BETAR, MoU for setting up an ICCR Urdu Chair in Dhaka University and an Addendum to the GCNEP-BAEC Interagency Agreement.
From a substantive and qualitative perspective, there can be no better example of the progress in our ties than the long over-due implementation of the Land Boundary agreement. In 2015, India and Bangladesh amicably settled the Land Boundary issue which had been pending for more than six decades. The Indian Parliament was unanimous in passing the Constitutional amendment bill in May 2015 to allow implementation of the India-Bangladesh Land Boundary Agreement, 1974 and its Protocol of 2011. For the first time, people who were living in enclaves on either side of the border got rights of citizenship. The fact that the LBA was passed unanimously in the Indian Parliament is reflective of the all party consensus in India regarding the nature of our relations with Bangladesh. This came in the backdrop of the settlement of our maritime boundary through arbitration in 2014, the outcome of which has been hailed by both the Bangladeshi and Indian leadership as a win-win outcome. The settlement of both our land and maritime boundaries has imparted momentum to the strengthening of our partnership in other areas.
While we have made tremendous progress in many areas of our bilateral cooperation, some challenges remain to be faced together. One such challenge is that of terrorism, extremism and radicalization, which both countries are committed to fight. We are both determined to protect our societies from the ideologies of hate, violence and terror by adopting a ‘zero tolerance’ policy towards terrorism and a comprehensive approach to fighting violent terrorism and extremism at all levels.
Cooperation on all matters related to security has been excellent in the last few years. This is a remarkable achievement considering that we share a long land boundary of more than 4000 kms, the longest that India shares with any neighbour. The Coordinated Border Management Plan is being successfully implemented to synergize the efforts of our border guarding forces to check cross border illegal activities and crimes as well as for maintenance of peace and tranquillity along the India-Bangladesh border. The number of deaths at the border has reduced significantly over the years due to the pro-active efforts of our border-guarding forces. The recent initiative of the BSF and BGB to declare a stretch of border as a “crime-free zone” is a welcome confidence building measure that will go a long way in achieving our shared objective of a ‘de-criminalized border’.
Nowadays, it is widely believed that relations between countries must be seen from an economic and commercial perspective rather than merely political. We can say with satisfaction today that we enjoy an equally enviable record on this front too, notwithstanding the fact that there is still a lot of untapped potential. Our bilateral trade has almost tripled in the last 10 years from USD 2.75 billion in 2008-09 to 7.52 billion in 2016-17. Today, Bangladesh is India’s biggest trade partner in South Asia. Since 2011, India has provided full access to its market by extending Duty Free access to Bangladeshi exports, barring only a select list of 25 items. Similarly, many leading Indian public and private sector companies have invested in Bangladesh and many more significant investment proposals are on the table. Internationally acclaimed Indian companies have invested in Bangladesh. A few Bangladeshi companies have a presence in India and we encourage much greater investment by your companies to take advantage of the huge domestic market in India under our ‘Make in India’ flagship programme.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s mantra of “Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas” or ‘Development for all’ has great resonance for India-Bangladesh relations. India has been, and continues to be, a committed development partner of Bangladesh. Over the past few years, we have extended over USD 8 billion to Bangladesh on the softest possible terms to assist in your development. This is the largest amount of credit that India has ever committed to a single country. Progress in implementation of the Line of Credit (LOC) projects has been satisfactory with most projects under the 1st LOC having been completed and projects under the 2nd and 3rd LOCs progressing at a rapid pace. While the first LOC was mainly focused on infrastructure development, in particular the railways sector, projects under 2nd LOC cover sectors ranging from IT, health, education, public transport, Economic Zones, etc. The 3rd LOC has identified infrastructure projects in the areas of ports, airports, railways, telecommunication, shipping, power and energy. I would like to stress that as a guiding principle under Indian LOCs, projects are chosen and decided by Bangladesh as per its developmental needs and priorities. Our aim is that these projects be completed on time so that their benefits can be passed on to the people at the earliest. Last November, our Prime Ministers jointly inaugurated two major infrastructure projects in Bangladesh under the Line of Credit – the second Bhairab railway bridge and the second Titas railway bridge. More such projects are likely to be inaugurated shortly. We are also undertaking many projects in Bangladesh in various socio-economic sectors, including education, culture, health, community welfare, road infrastructure etc. for which we are providing over 1600 crore taka under grant financing. We have today signed 2 more MoUs for grant projects whereby we will set up language labs in 500 schools in Bangladesh and upgrade different roads in Rangpur city.
A significant aspect of our development partnership entails capacity building programmes and initiatives tailored to meet the requirements of Bangladesh. We have been offering more than 1500 training slots/scholarships to Bangladesh nationals every year in various disciplines and have received positive feedback especially for the programmes conducted for civil servants, police officials, judicial officers, scientists, teachers, etc. I am told that scholarships under the Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation programme and the Indian Council for Cultural Relations are considered very useful. We intend to continue these programmes and scholarships and will be happy to organise more based on the requirements of Bangladesh. Our most recent initiative is in the area of skill development under which we are setting up new tool making and dairy processing vocational centres in Khulna and Jessore.
Very closely linked with trade and investment is the issue of connectivity. Promoting economic integration and fostering linkages and connectivity between our two countries through cross-border trade, transport, telecom, cyber, energy links etc. is a policy priority for both countries. This will lead to greater economic growth and development for India and Bangladesh as well as the sub-region. We have been able to increase connectivity by road, rail, air, water and coastal shipping links. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s vision of restoring pre-1965 links encompassing road, rail, water and coastal shipping has been a guiding factor.
Last November, the two Prime Ministers jointly flagged off a new passenger train service between Kolkata and Khulna – the Bandhan Express – and announced end-to-end immigration and customs facilities for passengers of the Maitri Express on the Kolkata Dhaka route. With the restoration of the rail link between Radhikapur (India) and Birol (Bangladesh), we have now revived four of the six rail links that existed between the two countries prior to 1965. The 7th new rail-link between Agartala and Akhaura is being undertaken with Indian grant assistance. The announcement of 24x7 operationalization of Petrapole-Benapole land port in August last year by both Prime Ministers, the second biggest land port in South Asia, has had a positive impact on bilateral trade. There are regular bus services between Kolkata-Dhaka, Shillong-Dhaka and Agartala-Kolkata via Dhaka. A new bus service (Dhaka-Khulna-Kolkata) was launched during PM Sheikh Hasina’s visit in April 2017. The Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal – Motor Vehicle Agreement (BBIN-MVA) is expected to significantly boost connectivity by road. The proposed bridge on the Feni river will be a vital link between Tripura and the eastern part of Bangladesh. Air connectivity has also increased in recent years with more than 100 flights operating weekly between India and Bangladesh.
Cooperation in the power sector has become one of the hallmarks of India Bangladesh relations. Bangladesh is currently importing about 660 MW of power from India. Supply of another 500 MW is expected to begin in 2018. In March 2016, the two Prime Ministers inaugurated the export of power from Tripura to Bangladesh as well as export of Internet bandwidth to Tripura from Bangladesh. The 1320 MW coal-fired Maitree thermal power plant, a 50:50 Joint Venture between National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) of India and Bangladesh Power Development Board (BPDB), is being developed at Rampal. During the Prime Minister of Bangladesh’s visit in April 2017, agreements for generation/ supply/ financing of more than 3600 MW electricity were signed between Indian public /private companies and Bangladesh side. Proposals for supply of additional power from India are also under consideration of both sides.
Energy sector cooperation between India and Bangladesh has also seen considerable progress in the last two years. Leading Indian companies are working with their Bangladeshi counterparts in the oil and gas sector of Bangladesh. Today, we have signed the MoU for construction of the India-Bangladesh Friendship Pipeline under Indian grant-financing from Siliguri to Parbatipur. This will allow uninterrupted supply of diesel to northern Bangladesh from Numaligarh Refinery.
People-to-people contacts are what make the relationship between India and Bangladesh so special. This can be said to be the driving force of this relationship. Given the shared linguistic and cultural bonds, people of both countries are more culturally united. We have taken a number of initiatives to facilitate and augment this aspect of the relationship. You would be happy to know that Bangladesh nationals today constitute the largest number of visitors to India – our High Commission in Bangladesh issued 14 lakh visas in 2017, doubling the number issued since 2015. We have a special place in our hearts for the Muktijoddhas and their heirs. A number of initiatives were announced by Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi last year for the Muktijoddhas including 5 year multiple entry visa and free treatment of 100 Muktijoddhas in indian hospitals. Senior citizens over the age of 65 are already eligible for 5 year multiple entry visa.
An issue that has attracted international attention for the last few months has been the influx of a large number of displaced persons from the Rakhine region of Myanmar since August last year. Bangladesh’s humanitarian gesture in supporting lakhs of these displaced persons has been truly commendable. India has been fully supportive of the ongoing efforts being made to resolve the crisis, including early repatriation of the displaced persons. For our part, we had sent relief materials for 300,000 people in September last year under ‘Operation Insaniyat’ to support Government of Bangladesh in its humanitarian efforts. We are planning a second tranche of assistance in keeping with the needs projected by the Government of Bangladesh. On the Myanmar side, we are providing socio-economic support under our Rakhine State Development Programme including construction of pre-fabricated housing in order to meet the needs of the returning people.
Our bilateral cooperation is based on a ‘win-win’ formula for both countries based on mutuality of interests. Both our countries, therefore, attach the highest priority to continuing the strong momentum in our bilateral relations. India and Bangladesh today host a record number of bilateral institutional mechanisms that monitor and facilitate progress in all areas of cooperation. We need to sustain and enhance the current levels of cooperation to serve our common interests. In each of the areas that I just touched upon we would like to further strengthen and deepen the cooperation for the benefit of our people and the region. While I have dwelt extensively on the positives of the relationship and probably you will agree that it was rightly so, we are aware of a few outstanding issues which both sides are committed to resolving at the earliest opportunity.
The writer is the Foreign Secretary of India