Farooq Sobhan, President, Bangladesh Enterprise Institute and former foreign secretary, talks with Naznin Tithi of The Daily Star about the opportunities and challenges of Indo-Bangla relations.
Farooq Sobhan: This is clearly a very important visit. India is not only our neighbour, but we have a wide ranging relationship. And there have been expectations ever since Mr. Modi won a landslide victory, became the Prime Minster of India and invited the heads of the SAARC governments to attend his swearing-in ceremony. It is a very important visit not only in the bilateral context but also in the regional and sub-regional context. So it’s important that we take full advantage of this visit to take the relationship forward.
Obviously, if the Teesta water sharing agreement is not signed, this will be a big disappointment for Bangladesh. Ever since the visit of Dr. Manmohan Singh in September 2011, we have been waiting for this deal. But the latest information indicates that although Mamata Banerjee is going to accompany Mr. Modi, the agreement will not be signed on this visit. It is not possible for India to conclude an agreement, or any water sharing agreement for that matter, without the support of the state governments. As you know, in December 1996 we signed the 30-year Ganges Water Sharing agreement with India. I was then the Foreign Secretary. We could only conclude that agreement because we had the support of the government of West Bengal. In fact, they were actively involved in the negotiations that took place to finalise the agreement. Similarly, in this case too, we cannot move forward without having Mamata Banerjee’s support. So what does this visit mean for us if we don’t have a water sharing agreement? Well, I would say there are multiple issues on the bilateral as well as regional and sub-regional agenda where we can make progress.
We understand that several agreements will be signed by some of India’s leading business groups during Mr. Modi’s visit. This includes a $3 billion investment by Reliance, headed by Mukesh Ambani. There are similar agreements being planned by other groups. So, clearly, they see Bangladesh as an important investment destination.
Getting an Indian visa is not easy for Bangladeshis. So we were very happy when Mr. Modi announced that he will make the process of getting an Indian visa hassle-free. If this can be done, it will be a major achievement and a confidence booster to the relationship.
A lot of preparatory work is required. We need expertise, we need an efficient bureaucracy which can monitor and implement all these different projects and programmes related to border management, connectivity and energy cooperation. I don’t see any shortage of issues and subjects that the two countries can discuss. We need to widen our cultural and educational exchanges. But above all, we need to focus on environmental and water related issues. We also need to focus on health, food security and agricultural cooperation.
TDS: What will be the major challenges in implementing the LBA?
FS: The ratification of the land boundary agreement (LBA) is very important. We have been waiting for 41 years for this to happen. The Indira-Mujib Land Boundary Agreement was signed in 1974. Now all the details have been worked out and we can move forward to implement it. We have agreed to exchange the enclaves and the land in adverse possession. So what is inside Bangladesh will now become a part of Bangladesh. Under the agreement, the people on both sides have been given a choice. Those who are living in the Indian enclaves and those who are living in the Bangladeshi enclaves can now decide where they want to stay. It is very interesting to note that in the survey that was carried out, 75 percent of the Indians living in enclaves inside Bangladesh opted to stay behind in Bangladesh. There will have to be an effort to settle them and give those who will move across the border all the necessary support.
TDS: Bilateral relations must be based on mutual trust and interests. Without proper action on part of India to stop border killings by the BSF, is it possible for the two countries to have a cordial relationship? How can Bangladesh convince India to solve this problem once and for all?
FS: One of the big issues in the India-Bangladesh relationship has been the issue of border killings. On repeated occasions our Indian friends have said that they would like to see zero killings on the border. We want to see this happen in reality. One of the areas where we have seen very good cooperation between the two countries during the last six and a half years is security cooperation. This should definitely include certain agreements and understandings in so far as patrolling the border. Instead of using live ammunition, rubber bullets can be used. We are told that one of the reasons for border killing is that there is a lot of smuggling taking place on the border. But surely there is a way to avoid deaths. We now have very sophisticated surveillance equipment which can be used on the border. India has fenced a large part of the border. So we don’t see any reason why border killings should happen.
TDS: The Indian government is likely to give a US$2 billion soft loan to Bangladesh for building infrastructure. How will the fund be used? How can Bangladesh reap full economic benefits of the regional connectivity projects?
FS: We hope to sign some agreements on rail, road and riverine connectivity. We will address the issue of how to improve river traffic. We also need to greatly improve the railway infrastructure within Bangladesh to connect with the railways in the Indian northeast, with West Bengal, and with Nepal.
India during the previous UPA government under Dr. Manmohan Singh had provided US$1 billion soft loan to Bangladesh, of this 200 million has been converted into a grant for the Padma Bridge project. The main focus of that line of credit was to support the development of our railways and to help with dredging. Now the US$2 billion credit will also, no doubt, be earmarked for infrastructure development. We have enough difficulty in transporting our own cargo and goods across the country. We need more trains, more railway tracks; we need to bring our railway system up to the global standard.
We should also understand that connectivity means not just transit from West Bengal to India’s northeast through Bangladesh. It is about Bangladesh’s ability to move goods and people freely between Bangladesh and Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan, through India. Likewise, to be able to move through the Indian Northeast to Myanmar, to the ASEAN countries, to China and beyond.
TDS: What steps need to be taken to reduce the trade gap between the two countries? What about removing the non-tariff barriers?
FS: We have duty-free access to the Indian market. I believe we need to now focus on removing the non-tariff barriers. We need to accept each other’s standards and certification arrangements. In the absence of trade facilitation measures and without removing the non-tariff barriers, Bangladesh cannot take full advantage of the duty-free access to the Indian market.
One of the most popular exports to India these days are the food products from Pran group. Frequently their goods were held up on the Indian border because the Indian customs did not accept the certification provided by Pran. We hope this problem will be resolved during Mr. Modi’s visit when the agreement on mutual recognition of certificates on standards is signed. For Bangladesh it is also very important to study the Indian market. India now has a prosperous middle class in excess of 400 million people. In my view, it is the Indian market that the Bangladesh private sector should focus on.
TDS: What are the main barriers to building trust between Bangladesh and India?
FS: We need to understand the Indian psyche, their concerns, their perception of Bangladesh. Similarly the Indians need to understand why there is a sense of misgiving and mistrust on the Bangladesh side. If Indo-Bangladesh relations stand to benefit both countries, it is important that people on both sides are convinced of this. This requires intensive and extensive interaction not just between the governments but at the people-to-people level. I believe that this is of critical importance in building trust and confidence in the India-Bangladesh relationship.
Building trust is of critical importance. We need to share data particularly on the flow of the rivers, we need to be completely transparent in this area. I would advocate regular summit meetings, which should be functional in nature. We need to see results. The two PMs should agree that after three months they will meet again to see how much of what was agreed during Mr. Modi’s visit has been implemented.
If the two countries can fully leverage the multiple opportunities that exist, both bilaterally as well as within the framework of the existing sub-regional and regional initiatives, Bangladesh can achieve 8-9% growth in the next two years.