Bangladesh and India were drawn into a close strategic embrace yesterday with the two neighbours expanding their cooperation to new areas of defence and civil nuclear sectors.
While New Delhi rolled out for Dhaka a $5 billion line of credit (LoC), including $500 million to procure military hardware, the long pending issue of Bangladesh getting its due share of the Teesta water still remains unresolved.
After “very productive and comprehensive” talks between Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her Indian counterpart Narendra Modi at the Hyderabad House in New Delhi yesterday, the two countries signed six agreements and 16 memorandums of understanding (MoU) that encompass a wide range of areas excluding the Teesta issue.
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, whose insistence on protecting her state's stake on the Teesta held back a nearly-reached deal in 2011, was present during the talks between the two sides.
Hasina and Modi held a one-to-one meeting, and then the two leaders were joined by full delegations comprising cabinet colleagues and senior officials.
Later, appearing before the media jointly with Hasina in Mamata's presence, Modi acknowledged that "the one that has attracted the greatest attention is the Teesta."
"I firmly believe that it is only my government and Excellency Sheikh Hasina, your government, that can and will find an early solution to Teesta water sharing," he insisted.
In her statement to the media, Hasina made just one reference to the Teesta treaty, saying, "We discussed the issues of water resources management, including the sharing of water of common rivers like the Teesta, the Padma-Ganges Barrage Project and basin-wide management of common rivers. I sincerely believe we shall be able to get India's support in resolving these issues expeditiously."
Hasina had face-to-face talks with Mamata at the Hyderabad House but failed to persuade the West Bengal CM to give up her opposition to the Teesta deal. Mamata conveyed her stand to Hasina, diplomatic sources told The Daily Star.
At home, the Bangladesh PM has a vocal opposition that thinks her India visit without the Teesta deal is futile. Moreover, many of her political opponents are sceptic about the defence deal.
The Indian PM said he has had “very productive and comprehensive talks” with Hasina, and the Bangladesh premier described the meeting with her Indian counterpart as “fruitful and productive.”
Modi commended Bangladesh government's determination to tackle terrorism and termed Hasina's India visit another Sonali Adhyay (golden era) in the friendship between the people of the two nations.
Recognising that the Teesta pact cannot be done without West Bengal's support, Modi tried to woo Mamata, saying, “I am very happy that the Chief Minister of West Bengal is my honoured guest today. I know that her feelings for Bangladesh are as warm as my own. I assure you and the people of Bangladesh of our commitment and continuing efforts.”
Amidst the warmth of honour given to her by the Indian leadership, the Bangladesh PM seized the opportunity to pick up with them the issues of Bangladesh's huge trade deficit with India and the latter's recent slapping of anti-dumping duty on import of jute goods from Bangladesh.
The Indo-Bangla bilateral trade amounts to $6.5 billion, of which India's exports account for $5.3 billion.
Hasina said that in order to bring a balance in trade between the two countries, “We have decided to set up Special Economic Zones (SEZs) for India in Bangladesh on identified locations.”
The 22 deals, sealed on the second day of Hasina's four-day state visit, cover a wide range of areas, including defence, civil nuclear cooperation, cyber security, information technology, connectivity, energy and human resource development.
With China and its burgeoning defence supplies to Bangladesh on mind, the Indian PM announced the $500 million credit line “to support Bangladesh's defence-related procurement” under a MoU, said diplomatic sources.
This is the first such deal between the two countries for purchase of military hardware by Dhaka. The development came hard on the heels of media reports on India's unease over Bangladesh-China defence ties, particularly the recent supply of two Chinese submarines to Bangladesh.
Modi said, “Today, we have also taken a long overdue step by signing an agreement on close cooperation between our armed forces. I am also happy to announce a Line of Credit of US dollars 500 million to support Bangladesh's defence-related procurement. In implementing this line of credit, we will be guided by Bangladesh's needs and priorities.”
The two countries signed a deal for cooperation in civil nuclear area that will allow India to help install nuclear reactors in Bangladesh and provide expertise for safety of nuclear power plants. Significantly, this is likely to diversify Bangladesh's dependence on Russia for civil nuclear facilities and create three-way cooperation in the field, according to diplomatic sources.
The Indian PM said Hasina's decision to honour Indian soldiers who laid down their lives in the 1971 Liberation War “has deeply touched the people of India. Every Indian takes pride in the knowledge that Indian soldiers and valiant Muktijoddhas fought together to liberate Bangladesh from the reign of terror”.
Hasina thanked Modi for his “dynamism and innovative ideas” to direct the bilateral ties. They agreed on the need for greater connectivity between the two countries for the benefit of the people, she said.
Through video conferencing, the two premiers jointly inaugurated a new passenger train and bus service between Khulna and Kolkata, and a cargo train service between Radhikapur in West Bengal and Birol in Bangladesh.
A cargo train carried the first consignment of high-speed diesel from Numaligarh refinery in Assam to Bangladesh.
The Kolkata-Khulna train service will resume in July nearly 70 years after the partition of the Indian sub-continent in 1947.
Referring to bilateral cooperation in energy security, the Indian PM said, “This is an important dimension of our development partnership.” An additional 60MW of electricity would start flowing from India to Bangladesh today, adding to the 600MW already supplied to the latter.
The supply of another 500MW from the existing interconnection had already been committed by India, he said.
“Several agreements for investments in the energy sector in Bangladesh are expected to be signed by Indian companies in the coming days.
“India will continue to be a willing partner in meeting the energy needs of Bangladesh and its goal of achieving power for all by 2021,” Modi added.
Later at night, Dhaka and New Delhi issued a 62-point joint statement.
BRIEFINGS BY TWO FOREIGN SECRETARIES
Indian Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar said India has had defence cooperation with Bangladesh in the past but they were never properly institutionalised in a framework for some reasons.
“It is this lacuna which has been corrected” by yesterday's deal. It was an opportune time to go for it, he said at a media briefing.
Asked what type of military hardwire would be supplied to Bangladesh, he said, “I don't think we have come to that point as yet. But we will be guided by their [Bangladesh's] necessity and what they need."
Jaishankar said Bangladesh is seeking Russia's help to build nuclear power plants and the deal with India on civil nuclear cooperation involves training of Bangladeshi personnel and cooperation between the two countries in transfer of technology, supply of components for nuclear power plants in Bangladesh and maintenance of their safety.
The deal between the atomic energy regulatory bodies of the two countries mainly pertains to training of personnel, safety and designing of nuclear reactors and plants. Under it, India will also help Bangladesh strengthen its nuclear power capacity.
At a separate press briefing, Bangladesh Foreign Secretary M Shahidul Haque said Dhaka requested New Delhi for conclusion of an interim agreement on Teesta water sharing.
He further said the Indian PM assured of solving the problem arising from his country's slapping anti-dumping tax on imports of jute goods from Bangladesh.
Modi also pledged India's support to Bangladesh's willingness to join a tri-nation road connectivity between India, Myanmar and Thailand, added Shahidul.
The Bangladesh premier arrived in Delhi on Friday. In a special gesture, Modi drove to the Palam Air Force Station to receive her.
Yesterday, Hasina was accorded a ceremonial reception by the Indian Army, Navy and Air Force in Modi's presence on the forecourt of the Rashtrapati Bhavan.
She also paid floral tributes at the memorial of Mahatma Gandhi, the Father of the Indian Nation, at Rajghat.
Hasina will visit Ajmer today and offer prayers at the shrine of Sufi saint Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti.
She will meet Indian business leaders tomorrow before returning home.