India's minister in charge of trade Joyram Ramesh, while visiting Bangladesh in July, appeared to be as exuberant and vigorous as one ever could be in boosting bilateral relations with Bangladesh. In some quarters, some of his statements became controversial.
For a moment we can set aside the manifestation of exuberance of his youthful personality and pick up his serious statements regarding Indo-Bangladesh relations.
He raised certain important issues that go to the heart of improving Indo-Bangladesh cooperative relations.
Both countries are hugging neighbours and furthermore, Bangladesh is “India-locked” except in the southeast. Given the geopolitics of the region, it is imperative that the pace of Indo-Bangladesh relation should be put into a high gear.
Many political observers suggest that Indo-Bangladesh relations suffer largely from myopic vision or warped view of “national interests”. National interest is a generic term and varies from time to time.
What was considered national interests in the 70s may not be treated as national interests now? The world has moved on and globalization has influenced the content of international, regional and bilateral relations among nations.
Almost all economists in the research field of both countries suggest economic integration of northeast India, Bhutan, Nepal and Bangladesh. The effect will be that investors have more opportunities to diversify their holdings; businesses have more markets to serve, and more locations for production. The idea was once mooted through the concept of the “Quadrangle” but it never took off.
Joyram Ramesh, among other things, raised important issues namely: (a) transit, (b) use of Chittagong port, (c) joint venture and (d) opening tariff post between Mizoram and Bangladesh.
Let us briefly deal with questions.
In Europe, transit right is no big deal. It is granted without fuss. Even during the Cold War, the Soviet Union was accorded transit rights in the Western Europe. Everyday transports are going through Switzerland to southern Europe from northern Europe. Austria is a country that provides transit routes to many countries.
The question of trans-shipment or transit in South Asia is not as easily dealt with. It becomes sensitive and political, to the extent as if sovereignty of a country is bartered away. For example, any concession given by India or Bangladesh toward each other is seen as “sell-out” by some people within the country and the political opposition.
Nothing good can be achieved for people in believing in negative thinking. In life as well as in state-to-state relations, dynamism together with pragmatic flexibility is the key element of moving forward, keeping pace with the time and change.
India shares borders with Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal and none of these countries do share border with each other. Accordingly, India is placed in an advantageous position to take initiative in the matter.
If India gives transit rights to Nepal and Bhutan through Bangladesh and transit rights to Bangladesh through Nepal and Bhutan, then the people in Bangladesh will tend to support Bangladesh's giving India transit rights.
There must be perception among people in the country that there is some onward movement in granting transit rights to all countries in the eastern part of South Asia for the benefit of the people. One positive action leads to another.
There must be a beginning somewhere and India is in a position to do that. I wish the visiting India's enthusiastic State Minister had declared a date for convening a meeting among the four countries to establish a legal arrangement for transit rights. This would have been a concrete step.
Once Nepal and Bhutan are entitled to use Bangladesh ports (now they use only Kolkata port), there would be a favourable momentum in Bangladesh for access to Chittagong port by northeastern states of India from Agartala. Conducive environment must be created first prior to such transit rights being provided.
With regard to joint venture, either at the level of public or private sector, there has to be a perception that both parties get benefits. The benefits are to be tangible. Furthermore tariff, para-tariff and non-tariff barriers between the two countries must be dismantled for easy movement of goods for consumers.
In Bangladesh there are certain people who do not view any concession to be given first to India without resolving pending important issues between Bangladesh and India. They could be right in thinking in that way. However, there is the other view that let one issue be sorted out at a time. If transit facility to India is beneficial for Bangladesh, there should not be any hesitation.
Bangladesh has developed a good reputation for its goods in the markets of India's northeastern states. However, tariff and non-barriers have put a stop to further developing that trade. Moreover, India has not given attention to opening more border tariff posts in the areas bordering Bangladesh.
If Pakistan allows Iranian oil pipeline to pass through its territory to India, and if Japan's trade with China excluding Hong Kong surged 11.5% per cent in 2006 to $211 billion making mainland China Japan's top trading partner, why is it that Bangladesh and India can't sort out the transit right among themselves? Transport inter-connectivity is imperative for foreign investment and trade.
Two questions need to be asked, (a) is bilateral relations between Bangladesh and India adapted to an economic world that has been transformed in the last 30 years by growth and globalization? (b) What steps can be expected from leaders of the two countries to engage in an intense discussion to resolve the lack of transport connectivity?
Reciprocal transit right was asserted by Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh at the Dhaka SAARC Summit. People in both countries do not want pledges to descend into just aspirations and then wishful thinking. The challenge seems to be the lack of India's political will in addressing this issue.
The author is former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva.