Article written by Mr. Farooq Sobhan, President, Bangladesh Enterprise Institute on Modi’s visit: Veni, vidi, vici? on Dhaka Tribune, 13 June 2015
I came, I saw, I conquered: Veni, vidi, vici. This seems to be the theme of Mr Modi’s record-breaking travels around the world and in the neighbourhood. Was it any different in the case of Bangladesh? Well, he certainly seems to have won the hearts of a lot of people, including, it would appear, Begum Zia and Jamaat.
For the time being, the sceptics have been silenced or mesmerised by Modi’s rhetoric, his masterly handling of the media — in particular, social media. If Lata Mangeshkar is the golden voice of Bollywood, Modi can now claim to be the golden voice of Indian politics.
In the midst of all the hoopla, the razzmatazz, the cut-outs of Modi around Dhaka and the hype surrounding the visit, most people were reluctant to ask some of the hard questions which have plagued Indo-Bangla relations over the past four decades. Now that the visit is over, both sides need to sit down and take stock of the visit and the multiple follow-up measures required.
On the plus side, Modi has certainly succeeded in igniting a sense of optimism in Bangladesh about bilateral relations. There is clearly a willingness to see the glass as half full through the rose-tinted glasses which he left behind as a gift for the 160 million people of Bangladesh. The Bangladeshi side pledged zero tolerance for terrorism and has shown itself to be extremely pro-active in this area for the last six and a half years. This is a huge plus point for the Indian side. However, by contrast, the Indian side has to still deliver on its pledge for zero deaths on the Indo-Bangla border.
The signing of the MoU between the coast guards of the two countries will strengthen the joint efforts in curtailing illegal movement of goods, human trafficking, and piracy in the Bay of Bengal. MoUs on prevention of human trafficking and on prevention of smuggling and circulation of fake currency notes will further strengthen the existing security co-operation.
Reliance group’s $3bn 3000MW power plant with an LNG terminal will be the single largest FDI project in Bangladesh; while the Adani Group would set up a 1,600MW coal-fired power plant on the island of Maheshkhali at an investment of $2bn. The Dhaka-Guwahati bus link, extending Kolkata-Dhaka bus service to Agartala, and the decision to set up new Indian and Bangladeshi consulates in Khulna, Sylhet, and Guwahati, respectively, should help the private sector to boost and strengthen economic, cultural, and tourism co-operation between the two countries. Bangladesh will set up two exclusive economic zones, Mongla and Bheramara, for Indian investments.
Both the sides also renewed the Bilateral Trade Agreement and signed another one on coastal shipping which will allow direct and regular movement of Indian ships to Bangladeshi ports. In return, India will allow Bangladesh surface access to Nepal and Bhutan for trade.
To improve connectivity, an MoU was signed on Blue Economy and maritime co-operation in the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean. A separate MoU was also signed on the use of Chittagong and Mongla Ports by Indian ships to ensure better movement of goods.
From the Bangladesh private sector’s point view, the agreement signed between the Bangladesh Standards and Testing Institution (BSTI) and the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) on co-operation in the field of standardisation will remove a key bottleneck faced by Bangladesh exporters in entering the Indian market.
However, the feeling of optimism was diluted by the strong sense of disappointment at the failure to make any breakthrough on the proposed Teesta water-sharing agreement. The presence of Ms Mamata Banerjee alongside Modi had encouraged people to believe that following what many believed to be a very successful visit by her to Dhaka earlier in the year — a visit full of bonhomie, ilish maach and jamdani — the heart of the West Bengal chief minister had melted.
But Mamata remained uncharacteristically quiet on the matter; indeed she was taciturn, brooding, Hamlet-like during the entire visit. So instead of the much needed water of the Teesta, we have another bucket full of promises and assurances, with which we shall have to irrigate the water-hungry Teesta basin on our side.
In the curtain-raiser I wrote ahead of the visit I had stressed the importance of building trust and confidence. Modi’s visit has certainly contributed significantly in removing some of the mistrust and misgivings that had hindered progress in the past.
But this is the first step in a long journey. In three-to-six months’ time Sheikh Hasina should visit Delhi to sign the Teesta Water Sharing agreement. During the next six months there should be no shooting of any Bangladeshis by the BSF on the Indo-Bangla border. A task force to monitor implementation should be set up by both sides, which should meet every month to review progress of the implementation of the various agreements. The $2bn fresh line of credit should be implemented on a fast track basis. Unless there is tangible progress in the development of Bangladesh’s road rail and riverine transport, the agreement on connectivity will be unimplementable.
People-to-people contact must be further expanded at all levels. Despite all the explanations and initiatives, obtaining an Indian visa remains hugely problematic for the public, particularly for those who need to visit India for trade, tourism, and education. It was disappointing that no statement regarding the introduction of e-tourist visas for easy and hassle-free entry to India was announced. India has already launched the e-visa facility for 76 countries, including Chinese tourists. Let this also be on the agenda for the Bangladesh PM’s visit to Delhi in December.
Both the countries need to work together to find practical and humane solutions to labour mobility, human trafficking, and movement of illegal goods across the border. Instead of blaming each other for illegal immigration, both the sides can benefit by framing a mutually agreed system of citizenship identification and temporary movement of labour in the border regions.
Shortly before Modi’s departure from Dhaka, the Dhaka University organised a well-attended event at the Bangabandhu Conference Centre, where Modi, in his hour-long speech, stressed the multiple ties as well as opportunities that bind Bangladesh and India together; but he also outlined some of the critical challenges these two great neighbours face.
Modi said: “I assure you, we will find a resolution to the Teesta water issue on human principles.” The essence of Modi’s speech at the packed Chinese-built conference centre was: “We will work together as partners.” This is a message Bangladeshis can relate to.