MODI'S VISIT TO BANGLADESH: Hope for faster resolutions

Modi's Bangladesh visit

ON May 6 and 7, in both the houses of parliament, the Indian government passed the historic  constitution amendment bill (119th) paving the way to the implementation of the 1974 Indira-Mujib Land Boundary Agreement and its 2011 Protocol. After passage of the bill, Prime Minister Modi reportedly telephoned his counterpart Sheikh Hasina and they congratulated each other. Hopefully, other formalities for ratification will be completed soon so that both countries may take actions to put into operation the agreement on the ground.

One immediate effect is that it will facilitate the proposed first visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in June or July to Bangladesh despite the unresolved Teesta Water Sharing Agreement between the two countries.  Modi can show that he has not come to Bangladesh empty-handed and he has delivered the promised land-swap deal to Bangladesh. The Teesta deal will follow.

The visit will provide Bangladesh the opportunity to raise some other key issues with Prime Minister Modi to consolidate further bilateral relations. First is the reduction of the huge trade deficit of Bangladesh with India. During 2013-14, Bangladesh imported goods worth $6.2 billion in official channel, while Bangladesh could only export goods worth about $456.63 million (much less than previous years). In addition, unofficial imports from India are reportedly about 1.5 times more than official imports.

Researchers in both countries have found that Bangladesh has a potential export market of $2 billion in India. They have suggested, some steps, such as: (a) India should recognise the principle of asymmetry and non-reciprocity in trade with Bangladesh, (b) there should be guaranteed market access of Bangladeshi products to India (liberal rules of origin) (c) no tariff, non-tariff barriers and para-tariffs and (d) export quality Bangladeshi products should not be in India's negative list. These measures will hardly dent India's large $2.3 trillion economy or its import worth $450 billion as of 2013-14. 

Furthermore, joint ventures at the private sectors level for local, regional and global markets, trade complementariness can be developed by vertical specialisation through production sharing. For improvement of business cooperation, India-Bangladesh may sign an Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement and Double Taxation Avoidance Agreement. 

Unabated border killings of Bangladeshi nationals are a matter of grave concern. Since the flourishing of the illegal trade of cattle, involving $500 million annually for beneficiaries of both sides of the border, most of the dead are found to be the unarmed cattle traders from Bangladesh.  

Although a renewed thrust by Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is to ban cattle-trade from India, the New Delhi government may realise that if the border killings continue, India will be considered as insensitive to the loss of lives of Bangladesh people. It may be recalled that the Prime Ministers of Bangladesh and India in paragraph 18 of the Joint Communique of January 13, 2010 agreed that "respective border guarding forces exercise restraint…and prevent loss of lives." 

In view of the real thrust of regional cooperation that came from the decision by Prime Minister Modi when he invited the SAARC leaders to attend the swearing-in ceremony in May last year, researchers working on Bangladeshi and Indian economic relations have talked about a closer integration of Bangladesh's economy with the northeastern states of India, Nepal and Bhutan. All these countries could constitute a sub-regional unit within Saarc to make this part an economic hub of the region. 

Bangladesh has emphasised on accelerating industry, trade and energy in the south of Bangladesh, and Matarbari Island near Chittagong is being developed into a massive supply base of primary energy. This can support a quantum leap in industry and trade not only for Bangladesh but for the region as a whole. Furthermore, Bangladesh can provide a gateway to the Bay of Bengal for this region's hinterlands comprising of Bhutan, Nepal and north eastern states of India which are considered to be a huge untapped market for more than 70 million people.  

Bangladesh has shown keen interest in the regional economic corridor. India has so far been lukewarm about it thus Bangladesh may request Prime Minister Modi to push for it.

While the Awami League government's friendly policy toward India is vindicated in the eyes of the Bangladeshi people, Prime Minister Modi's visit will no doubt  boost Bangladesh-India relations. It may also act as a catalyst for stronger bilateral architecture if the Modi government takes fresh initiatives on the Teesta  water sharing agreement as well as all the other pressing issues.

The writer is former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva. 


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