Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Bangladesh after India’s settlement of the LBA dispute is a step with far-reaching strategic implications. How each one of them responds to various issues during the forthcoming talks will decide the course of bilateral ties between the two nations
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s two-day maiden visit to Bangladesh is of significant strategic importance. Security, economic cooperation, and connectivity will be the focal points of talks during his visit. Ties between the two nations have been on an upswing ever since the Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League came to power in Bangladesh in 2009. India on its part has every reason to be optimistic, the age-old dispute hinging on its position on the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) having come to an end ahead of the PM’s visit.
The Indian Parliament’s unanimous endorsement of the bill followed by the Presidential assent to the LBA is being viewed as a landmark in the history of bilateral relations with Bangladesh. Its operationalisation providing for the exchange of land in each other’s territories hadn’t been ratified by India after the 1974 LBA pact signed by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and Bangladesh President Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. After India’s reversal in its position 41 years later, the talks will be held in an atmosphere of warmth and cordiality.
India’s ratification of the LBA will result in the transfer of more than 160 enclaves between the two nations. India has 111 such enclaves, all of them situated in West Bengal. The exchange of territories will lead to the influx of population not only through eastern India but also through West Bengal, Tripura and Assam. Although steps to prevent illegal migration have been taken, the government is running behind schedule because of impeding factors such as land acquisition problem, environmental clearances, protests etc.
The need to strengthen security cooperation is a priority for both nations, especially after the 2014 blasts in Burdwan that allegedly involved the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen, a fundamentalist organisation that has been trying to undermine Dhaka’s efforts to improve the relations with New Delhi. After India’s endorsement of the LBA, the need to step up security cooperation between the two nations has acquired immense importance. Smuggling of arms, currency and drugs, trafficking of women and children through the porous borders must be controlled, thus heightening the need for foolproof security measures.
The four prime areas of economic cooperation and investment are infrastructure, connectivity, trade and energy. The bus service between Kolkata and Agartala via Dhaka has been already flagged off, and besides, the two countries are also keen on reviving rail connectivity for better engagement. Both the countries will sign the coastal shipping agreements to facilitate direct movement of goods, which presently go through Singapore. Modi is also likely to initiate talks with Sheikh Hasina on the Motor Vehicle Agreement between Bhutan, Bangladesh, Nepal and India which is to be signed soon. If the deals are signed, the north eastern part of India will be better-connected with South East Asia. The steady progress in connectivity will go a long way in improving historical links between the north eastern states and Bangladesh.
Enhancing economic cooperation will be a significant component of the talks. Indo-Bangladesh trade has doubled in the last five years. Indian exports have increased from $2.7 billion to $6.1 billion in 2013-2014. The two neighbours are expected to sign MoUs to set up Special Economic Zones that will facilitate Indian investment in Bangladesh. India and Bangladesh are likely to set up seven more border huts in addition to the three such facilities available presently to expedite border trade. Bangladesh is also seeking a prompt response from India for the removal of tariff and non-tariff barriers from its products.
In the energy sector, the two countries have signed an electricity transmission deal according to which India is exporting 500 MW of power from the grid in West Bengal to Bangladesh. This will be doubled very soon, while another 100 MW will be supplied from Tripura. Apart from the supply of power, there is a proposal to build a product pipeline into Bangladesh from Siliguri. India is also encouraging investment in power generation to promote energy security in Bangladesh.
The long-pending issue of the Teesta water-sharing agreement will have its own distinct significance during the talks. Although External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj has ruled out the signing of the agreement during the Prime Minister’s visit, the inclusion of West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee along with other Chief Ministers from states bordering Bangladesh signals a positive movement in the direction. In September 2011, Banerjee had cancelled her visit to Bangladesh with then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh over her opposition to the agreement. Since the water of the Teesta river is of paramount importance for agricultural production in north-western Bangladesh, India’s response to this issue will be closely watched.
The relevance of the forthcoming talks can be appropriately assessed when seen in the context of the role China plays in Bangladesh. Sheikh Hasina has described China as the “most dependable and consistent friend” ever since the two countries have adopted diplomatic ties. China is the largest trading partner and military equipment supplier to Bangladesh. It plays a major role in developing infrastructure in Asia. During Sheikh Hasina’s 2014 visit to China, the two countries signed five major agreements including setting up of 1320 MW power plant in Patuakhali as well as sharing the technology of super hybrid rice with Bangladesh which China does not usually do. If the talks don’t deliver the desired results, Bangladesh’s relations with China will improve. This will nullify India’s efforts to further its strategic interests, the antithesis of what the visit is expected to achieve.
The two nations have a long shared history. If they cohabit an environment of increasing cooperation and understanding, they can write a fresh chapter in the narrative of progress and prosperity. India’s settlement of the LBA dispute has been the first step in the right direction. A favourable report of the talks will be the next.
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