Nepal and Bangladesh—members of vital regional organisations such as South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), sub-regional organisation Bangladesh, Bhutan India and Nepal (BBIN) and Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC)—share a lot in common and have huge potential for cooperation in various fields. The two countries also have similar position and views on other regional and international organisations.
The four-day official goodwill visit by the President of Bangladesh Abdul Hamid to Nepal this week, has once again highlighted the need to enhance bilateral relations between the two South Asian neighbours. Despite the close and trouble-free relations between the two countries, exchange of high-level visits has remained very minimal, though top leaders of the two countries frequently meet on the margins of regional and international meetings. The visit by Abdul Hamid is likely to break that tradition. His visit is likely to be reciprocated by Nepal’s President Bidya Devi Bhandari in the near future. To enhance cooperation in common areas, regular interaction at high-level visits is mandatory.
One of the major areas of cooperation between the two countries is in the hydropower sector. On August 10, Nepal and Bangladesh signed a much-awaited and historic agreement which has paved the way for energy cooperation between them. Nepal has huge potential to produce hydro energy and it could export that to Bangladesh which is in dire need of energy. Bangladesh has a fast-growing economy with Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth rate between six and seven percent. Bangladesh should import energy to sustain its economic growth and further enhance it.
The new electricity guideline introduced by India last year has paved the way for Nepal to export electricity beyond India, mainly to Bangladesh. The guideline, if implemented, will ensure reliable grid operation and power trade among South Asian countries. Bangladesh has plans to import 9,000 MW from Nepal by 2040. Bangladesh’s power demand is projected to double by 2030.
Even Bangladeshi private companies have shown interest to invest in some hydropower projects in Nepal. The prime minister of Bangladesh had requested for India’s cooperation in cross-border power trade with Nepal during her official visit to India in April, 2017. Not only Bangladesh, there have been efforts to sign energy cooperation in BBIN. And, Bangladesh is pushing for a BBIN electricity corridor. India should assist both Nepal and Bangladesh to cooperate in power and other areas.
Connectivity is another vital area where there is huge potential between the two countries. Bangladesh and Nepal are separated by 22 kilometres of Indian land. As a land-locked country, Nepal is seeking more and more access to the sea through India and China, but there have not been efforts to get the same facility from Bangladesh, which could be feasible in terms of both cost and distance. Following the opening of Kakarbhitta-Phulbari-Banglabandha transit route in 1997, Bangladesh has permitted Nepal to use the port facilities in Mongla. Bangladesh has also provided additional rail-transit corridor to Nepal via Rohanpur-Singhabad, but it has not been fully utilised. Various studies have been conducted regarding railway connectivity between the two countries.
There can be trilateral cooperation between Nepal, India and Bangladesh. The agreement on bus service is already in place, and a trial bus service on the Nepal-India-Bangladesh route was flagged in April 2018 which needs to be made operational. The status of air connectivity is already in place with regular flights between Kathmandu and Dhaka.
Economic and commercial relations which have already been forged can be further expanded with better connectivity. Nepal exports yellow lentils, oil cakes, cardamom (large), wheat, vegetable seeds, handicrafts and pashminas. Nepal imports industrial raw materials, chemicals, fabrics and textile, jute products, electric and electronic items from Bangladesh. The trade relations could be further enhanced in the days to come. Of late, the Nepali side has been complaining that there are a lot of bottlenecks to export some items to Bangladesh including medicine.
Though Nepal is importing 12 types of medicine, Nepal has not been able to export even a single type of medicine to Bangladesh. The Nepal-Bangladesh Joint Economic Commission (JEC) was set up at the level of finance ministers in 1978. It has not met regularly nor explored new avenues of cooperation. The status of bilateral trade is dismal due to the lack of a long-term vision.
Tourism is another area which has not really materialised to the extent that was expected; instead the flow of tourists is declining. From January-October this year, a total of 19,279 Bangladeshi tourists visited Nepal which is 1.9 percent less than the previous year. In 2017, 29,060 Bangladeshi tourists visited Nepal. That declined to 25,979 in 2018. One reason for this decline was the crash of a US-Bangla plane in Kathmandu Airport.
The time has come to prepare a blueprint of comprehensive partnership between Bangladesh and Nepal. For that to happen, first there is a need of agenda-driven high-level visits between officials of the two countries. The top political leadership of both countries should provide a blueprint of bilateral relations amidst the changing regional and international scenario.
The two countries can also play a vital role in strengthening the various regional organisations. Both Nepal and Bangladesh are strong proponents of SAARC so they can both work in unison to activate the SAARC process which has been in a coma for the last three years—negatively affecting the process of regional cooperation.
The meeting between the Bangladeshi president and top politicians in Kathmandu has provided hope that a new chapter will begin in the relations between Bangladesh and Nepal.
Kamal Dev Bhattarai is a Nepali journalist who writes on geopolitical issues.