Indo-Bangladesh relations: Now and in future
AN entente between India and Bangladesh on transit will encourage further cooperation on trade and transport, energy, environmental protection, development of infrastructure, and regional security and strategic issues. Sub-regional integration of the economies of Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and India will contribute to poverty alleviation, economic development, and improvement in transport and communications of the region.
This arrangement may be extremely beneficial for landlocked Nepal, Bhutan and the "Seven Sisters."
Negotiations on the terms and conditions for transit shall have to include tariff and fees for use of the infrastructure and facilities, operations-management and maintenance, policy and regulations for the movement of goods across the border, a council for the settlement of disputes, enforcement mechanisms, and a programme for deepening economic cooperation.
Any transit arrangement with India must give due consideration to the needs of Nepal and Bhutan to make it more feasible. Transit facility will be sustainable only if the relations between the neighbours are cooperative. Therefore, any outstanding issues and problems that may negatively impact on the smooth operation of the transit facility may need to be resolved bilaterally.
Governmental programmes may be implemented to encourage the private sector to invest in the "Seven Sisters" for realising the potential for growth of intra-regional trade and commerce. Public-private partnerships may be setup for development of regional connectivity, infrastructure and facilities for improving regional communications and transportation, and environmental protection.
Regional security issues that need attention are prevention of cross-border terrorist activities, enforcement of laws against human trafficking, cooperation on exploitation and production of energy, collaboration for developing regional energy infrastructure -- electric grid, energy assets -- and protection of these installations.
Cooperation with Bangladesh will allow Indian national security forces to counter the threats posed by insurgent movements for the creation of an independent state of Assam by the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA); suppress the demand for independence of Nagaland and Mizoram; deal with the menace of the Maoists and the Naxalites in Orissa, Jharkhand, and Paschimbangla.
Both Bangladesh and India stand to gain by working together to ward off the dangers of radical Islamic terrorist activities spreading throughout the region. Since 1956, Indian security forces have suppressed the rebel movements for independence in the Northeast parts of India.
Transit agreement will have to cover cross-border security aspects of dealing with the problem caused by the clandestine use of the inland and river routes through Bangladesh territory for smuggling of arms and ammunitions for supply to the insurgents, rebels and terrorists.
Arunachal-Pradesh on the Northeast corner of India is a potential area of conflict between the rising powers of Asia, namely China and India. Therefore, any transit corridor connecting NE India may be advantageous to the Indian army for maintaining a forward posture. Indian security forces will be in a better position to counter any potential threats from the insurgents in any unstable area across the border from Bangladesh by deployment of troops to and from the East, West, Northeast and Northwest using the designated transit routes.
Energy security ranks high on the agenda for both sides. Although cooperation on energy may yield significant payoffs for both sides there may be some uneasiness on both sides since neither party is sure of the other's intentions. Indian companies like Tata and Mittal have shown keen interest in the high quality bituminous coal reserve in Northern Bangladesh for their steel industry, but have not been successful in securing access to the resource.
However, India may be more optimistic in negotiating with the Hasina government since the recent deal for the supply of 250 MW electricity may be viewed as a door opener on energy interdependence. Further cooperation on energy security may be realised with an understanding for joint development of the disputed blocks in the Bay of Bengal. It would ensure a means of renewing the supply of natural gas for the energy-hungry neighbours.
Although optimism is expected to prevail during the discussions "on the huge potential for economic development and growth of the region," the downside risk of Bangladesh's vulnerability to the threat from the separatist movements of NE India, the destabilising effect of a growing domestic anti-Indian sentiment due to an unequal treaty symbolising greater dominance by the regional power, and cross-border terrorism, have to be carefully weighed against any such upside potential.
Finally, as a party in an asymmetric relationship against a rising Asian power, it may be well for Bangladeshis to remember the wisdom proffered by President John F. Kennedy during the Inaugural Address of January 20, 1961: "Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate."