Foreign Affairs

Why The Outcomes Of Sheikh Hasina’s Visit To New Delhi Translate Into Geo-Strategic Gains For India

Jaideep Mazumdar

Jun 23, 2024, 01:40 PM | Updated 01:40 PM IST

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Sheikh Hasina in the forecourt of Rashtrapati Bhawan.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Sheikh Hasina in the forecourt of Rashtrapati Bhawan.
  • India reaped substantial geo-strategic benefits from Sheikh Hasina’s visit to New Delhi, underscoring pivotal gains for regional diplomacy.
  • India and Bangladesh have signed a slew of agreements spanning connectivity, health, trade, energy, defence, maritime cooperation and aid during Bangladesh Premier Sheikh Hasina’s just-concluded visit to India. 

    Among the most important of these agreements is Bangladesh’s acceptance of New Delhi’s proposal to get involved in the $1 billion Teesta River Comprehensive Management and Restoration Project. 

    India will send a technical team to Dhaka for talks on how India can help Bangladesh in the ambitious project that involves extensive dredging of the river that flows into Bangladesh from Bengal, setting up reservoirs along the river to store excess water during the monsoons and building modern townships along the river. 

    The project is important because Bangladesh had earlier sought China’s involvement in the mega project. Dhaka had sought a $938.27 million loan from China sometime ago to finance the project. 

    China had communicated its willingness to finance and also execute the project which, it evaluated, would cost $1 billion. 

    This sent alarm bells ringing in New Delhi. China’s involvement in the project would allow that country, which is inimical to India, to establish a strong presence in the northern part of Bangladesh that adjoins the sensitive and vulnerable Siliguri corridor. 

    India moved swiftly to dissuade Dhaka from accepting China’s offer. Foreign secretary Vinay Mohan Kwatra, during his visit to Dhaka on 9 May this year, communicated New Delhi’s desire to finance and execute the project. 

    The bilateral agreement inked on Saturday (22 June) that will pave the way for India’s involvement in the project will help Sheikh Hasina stave off pressure from China during her visit to Beijing from 9 to 12 July. 

    “The Bangladesh Prime Minister will be able to tell the Chinese side that since India has showed interest in the project, Dhaka will wait for the outcome of India’s technical evaluation of the project before taking a final call,” a senior officer of Bangladesh-Myanmar (BM) division of India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) told Swarajya

    A senior officer of the South Asia Wing of Bangladesh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs told Swarajya that of all the agreements and MoUs signed during Sheikh Hasina’s two-day visit to New Delhi, the one on the Teesta project is the most significant. 

    Bangladesh has said it will “consider geopolitical issues” before going ahead with the Teesta project. This means, said the Bangladeshi diplomat, that Dhaka is sensitive to India’s concerns and would be favourably inclined to award the project to India. 

    Bangladesh has, since 2011, been frustrated and angry by India’s failure to ink an agreement on sharing of waters of the Teesta river which originates in Sikkim and flows through North Bengal before entering Bangladesh. 

    Most of the waters of the river are diverted to irrigation canals branching off from the Teesta Barrage in North Bengal. As a result, the river runs dry in Bangladesh during the winter months, affecting the livelihood of lakhs of farmers and fishermen in that country.

    Bangladesh has, for many decades, been demanding an equitable sharing of the river waters. An agreement on this was drafted during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s tenure and was supposed to be signed during the latter’s visit to Dhaka in September 2011. 

    But Mamata Banerjee, who had just assumed power in Bengal a few months ago and was part of the UPA II dispensation, sabotaged the agreement by refusing to be part of it. She refused to share adequate water of the river (Teesta) with Bangladesh, arguing that it would deprive farmers of North Bengal. 

    Dhaka has, since then, requested New Delhi many times to get Mamata Banerjee on board and sign the water-sharing agreement. But Banerjee has refused to budge. 

    Realising that India will not be able to share the Teesta’s waters in the manner it desires, Bangladesh decided to go in for rejuvenating the river to increase its carrying capacity and also build reservoirs along its banks to store the excess water during the monsoons. 

    “Extensive dredging of the river will increase its carrying capacity and will prevent floods. Excess water from the river during the monsoons will be diverted to the reservoirs along its banks, and that will also prevent the river overflowing its banks and flooding farmlands and habitations,” Bangladesh’s Minister of State for Water Resources, Zaheed Farooque Shamim, told Swarajya

    Bangladesh also wants to develop modern smart towns and cities along the banks of the rejuvenated Teesta. These urban centres will act as special or exclusive economic zones and will attract foreign investments. 

    “Apart from this being an ambitious project, it is also crucial for India’s interests. If China bags the project, it will collect a lot of hydrological data of the Himalayan river and also the region. That data will be of immense strategic value to China,” the MEA officer explained. 

    Also, the presence of a large number of Chinese next to the India-Bangladesh border in the strategic and vulnerable Siliguri Corridor will pose a grave security threat to India. 

    There are genuine fears that under the guise of working on the project, China will set up infrastructure and posts to mount surveillance on the Siliguri corridor which houses a number of Indian defence establishments. 

    It is, thus, important for New Delhi to convince Dhaka to allow India to execute the project. The first step towards that was taken on Saturday (June 22). The MEA officer told Swarajya that the technical team that will visit Dhaka shortly will be asked to fast-track its evaluation of the whole project. 

    “Once the final agreement on executing the project is signed, work will progress on mission mode and it will be completed in record time,” the officer added. 

    Another important agreement signed by the two sides on Saturday was to commence negotiations at the technical level for renewal of the 1996 Ganges Water Treaty that expires in 2026. 

    The other agreements and MoUs between the two sides are:

    • Bangladesh has also agreed to join India’s Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI) that aims to facilitate and expand cooperation between India’s maritime neighbours, and promote free trade and sustainable use of maritime resources.

    • India and Bangladesh will jointly develop a small satellite for Bangladesh; the satellite will be launched through an Indian space launch vehicle. 

    • India will allow export of 40 MW of power from Nepal to Bangladesh through its own power grid.

    • The two sides have agreed to a joint document to guide relations titled ‘India-Bangladesh Shared Vision for The Future: Enhanced Connectivity, Commerce & Collaboration for Shared Prosperity’. 

    • Commercial agreement between National Payments Corporation of India and Bangladesh Bank for launching United Payments Interface (UPI) in Bangladesh.

    • India will finance the construction of an inland container depot at Sirajganj in Bangladesh.

    • A new passenger train between Kolkata and Rajshahi, and a new bus service between Kolkata and Chittagong, will be launched.

    • Trial run of goods train from Gede-Darshana rail interchange on the India-Bangladesh border in south Bengal to the  Haldibari-Chilahati interchange on the international border in North Bengal will start next month; this will facilitate easy movement of cargo on rails from south to north Bengal through Bangladesh.

    • E-visa facility for Bangladeshi citizens seeking medical treatment in India will be launched.

    • India will open a new mission at Rangpur, its fifth in Bangladesh.

    • MoUs have been signed to step up cooperation in maritime issues, blue economy, cooperation on oceanographic research, health, disaster management, etc.

    • India and Bangladesh have also decided to strengthen engagement in counter-terrorism, de-radicalisation (of Islamists) and peaceful management of borders. 

    The issue of granting India access to Bangladesh’s rail network to transport goods to the North East also came up for discussions between the two sides. Bangladesh is learnt to have requested India for detailed project proposals. 

    “We (India) will have to help Bangladesh upgrade its tracks and rail infrastructure along the routes we wish to use to run goods trains from Bengal to Assam and Tripura. Bangladesh has asked us to frame and submit detailed project reports. Using Bangladesh’s rail network to transport goods will ease pressure on the Siliguri Corridor and will also reduce the cost of transporting goods to the North East,” the MEA officer said. 

    India has agreed to consider Bangladesh’s request for importing power from Bhutan through India’s grid, and also smooth and uninterrupted supply of essentials like sugar, wheat and onions from India to Bangladesh. 

    Bangladesh has also agreed to consider India’s request to purchase Indian-manufactured defence equipment by using the $500 million line of credit (LoC) extended by New Delhi to Dhaka.

    New Delhi will also favourably consider Bangladesh’s request for fresh loans on easier terms from India. 

    Sheikh Hasina’s visit has been the first by a foreign head of government to India in the Modi 3.0 government. This was also her third visit to India in nine months. 

    “We are very happy with the outcome of the Bangladesh Prime Minister’s visit. Apart from the tangible agreements between the two sides, the visit was also very high on symbolism. It served as a reaffirmation of India’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy and a furtherance of our ‘Act East’ policy. We will now see far greater cooperation in various fields, including connectivity and security, between the two sides,” the MEA officer said. 

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