Vol. 5 Num 638 Wed. March 15, 2006  

Bottom Line
What issues should Bangladesh raise with India?

Bangladesh Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia is scheduled to visit New Delhi for three days from March 20. The 3-day visit is significant for both countries at a time when the relations may be not at their best. At this point of time, Bangladesh is perceived by India as uncooperative and insular, while India is perceived in Bangladesh as uninterested and insensitive.

There is a saying that one may choose one's friends but not neighbours. India surrounds Bangladesh on three sides with the opening to the Bay of Bengal on the fourth side, where the Indian Navy has a dominating presence. The geo-political-economic compulsions within and outside the region necessitate cooperative and mutually supporting relationship between the two neighbours.

Bangladesh's relations with India have gone through an up and down curve during the 34 years. This uneven relationship appears to be due to misperception of one country against the other at different times.

One fact is that the ties of history are so enduring and pervasive that relationship between the two exists independently of governments and their policies. Bangladesh's relations with India do not rest on normal tests in measuring the content and depth of relations. For example, half a million of Bangladeshis reportedly visit India per year. Similarly, the Bangladesh missions in India are overwhelmed in issuing visas to Indian nationals for their trips to Bangladesh. These processes are being undertaken quietly and without any hindrance or impediments. These are success stories in bilateral relations.

Bangladesh needs India as much as India needs Bangladesh. India is 23 times larger than Bangladesh and India's economy is not only much larger and more diversified but also is more advanced in industry, services, science and technology. The asymmetry in economic size and populations has impact for the way in which the distribution of possible gains is evaluated in both countries. Obviously the gains are seldom equally shared and this is a cold reality.

Given the background of India's rise as an industrial power, Bangladesh needs to work out a framework of cooperative relations with India. During the days of globalization, Bangladesh is in the throes of integrating with global economy and India has been a crucial player in the region.

Obviously all issues cannot be raised at the heads of government level meetings. A list of priority issues is to be drawn and some of them deserve mention below:

Common rivers
Article 9 of the 1996 Ganges Water Treaty makes it clear that both countries "guided by the principles of equity, fairness and no harm to either party ... agree to conclude water sharing Treaties/Agreements with regard to other common rivers." Furthermore mere sharing of waters of common rivers is not enough, joint management of water resources of common rivers is imperative so that floods or droughts are controlled and well-managed. The Joint Rivers Commission should be given the responsibility of management of water resources of common rivers.

Land borders
The 1974 Indira-Mujib Land Boundary Delimitation Agreement is yet to be implemented. Not only 6.5 kms of unmarked land border need to be demarcated, but also the exchange of enclaves under the terms of the agreement is required. There are 11 Indian enclaves with a population of 200,000 in the territory of Bangladesh while there are 51 Bangladeshi enclaves with more than 100,000 people in India's territory. Under the 1974 agreement all enclaves are to be exchanged and merged with Bangladesh or India as the case may be.

It is noted that Dashiar Chara is one of the biggest Indian enclaves with an area of 12 square kms and 1,750 acres of cultivable land within Bangladesh (Kurigram district). Its present population within the Indian enclave is estimated to be more than 7,000. The sufferings of the people know no bounds as they have no medical facilities, schools, sanitation, safe water, legal access and relief facilities. It is reported in 2003 in a newspaper that one of the inhabitants of the enclaves said: "We want to be Bangladeshis as early as possible. We cannot express in words about the sufferings we tolerate from the Indian Border Security Forces." The issue has become a humanitarian one and needs to be resolved quickly.

Labour movement between the two countries cannot be avoided. The migration takes place because of demands in private sectors. Often it is said that the migration of some Bangladeshi labour is due to a combination of active cooperation and support of employers in India and the connivance of government agencies responsible for controlling the illegal migrant labour. As empirical evidence elsewhere suggests that this problem does not lend itself to an easy solution. Bangladesh and India have to resolve the problem through pragmatic workable methods.

Regional energy grid
Both Bangladesh and India are hungry for energy. A common energy policy needs to be undertaken. Bangladesh and India may take initiative with Nepal and Bhutan to obtain regional energy program. Nepal is rich in hydro-power and so also is Bhutan. A regional power grid may be in place as Nepal and Bhutan are believed to have untapped hydro-potential estimated to be between 96,000 to 120,000MW.

It is noted that at the Dhaka Saarc Summit in November, the heads of states/governments underlined the need in promoting development of regional power grid. They also agreed to establish a Saarc Energy Centre in Islamabad and provide inputs to the Working Group on Energy (paragraph 20 of the Summit Declaration).

Joint fertilizer plant
Bangladesh is in dire need of fertilizer. During 1974 the feasibility study of the joint venture of a fertilizer plant was undertaken. The government of Bangladesh was to hold 100 per cent of the equity with a credit from India. This project may be revived given the change of the situation with regard to scarcity of fertilizer in Bangladesh. If there are surplus fertilizer, Bangladesh may export to India and China as they need fertilizers for their farmers.

Joint sponge iron or cement project
Bangladesh and India may initiate either a joint sponge or cement plant in Bangladesh. India has the raw materials and Bangladesh has the natural gas. The proposed project will benefit India and Bangladesh. A joint working group may be set up for feasibility study.

Cooperation in jute industry
Another area of cooperation appears to be in jute and jute products. The idea is to make joint efforts to diversify the use of jute products and expand the word market for jute manufacturers in the face of competition from synthetic substitutes. A reduction in the cost of manufactures is linked to an assured and stable supply of jute at a reasonable price. Further India and Bangladesh may explore the possibilities of establishing jute industries abroad in the large consuming countries, based on raw jute from Bangladesh and jute manufacturing machinery from India.

The Jute International is intended to promote overall world market demand for jute and jute goods and to undertake efforts in technological research and sales promotion.

Trade deficit
The trade deficit for Bangladesh is nearly $2 billion with India. Bangladesh has also a trade deficit with China and Japan. However the deficit with India has become a political issue for many reasons. India exports to Bangladesh many range of products -- more than 60 per cent are in the area of manufacturing and infrastructure goods, and 20 per cent food and others. The requirement of 40 per cent value addition in export items of Bangladesh to India free of duty is difficult to meet for Bangladeshi traders. India needs to consider seriously 20 or 30 items duty free to India. It seems that the Joint Working Group on Trade set up in 2003 is yet to come up with a realistic program for Bangladesh.

The visit of Bangladesh Prime Minister must be purposeful and result-oriented. The opportunity must not be missed. The agenda may be kept short but may contain priority items of cooperation. It is of no use to discuss all range of issues that have no focus and the joint communique after the visit must not contain "motherhood" or rhetorical statements as were found in the contents in many of the 53 paragraphs of the Dhaka Saarc Declaration.

We hope that commensurate with national interests and security, the improvement of bilateral relations is an important component of foreign policy of Bangladesh and India. Bangladesh does not compete with India. India has to respond to Bangladesh's needs with sensitivity and clarity. If India demonstrates visible good will towards Bangladesh, Bangladesh may reciprocate India's demands and needs appropriately because people in Bangladesh will support the government of Bangladesh.

One underlying fact of the visit is that the Bangladesh Prime Minister is visiting India at the final year of her government and the caretaker government likely to be installed in October this year. Generally it is found that any highest political level visit is fruitful if it takes place during the early term of the government. It is because the hosting government knows that the leader will be in power for some years and can easily implement the decisions. The visiting leader also is aware that he or she has been endowed afresh with a mandate from people and is confident in dealing with challenging issues.

Barrister Harun ur Rashid is a former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva.