Engaging with Bangladesh

By all accounts, Bangladesh prime minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit to India was fruitful with several outcomes on the table. India’s relations with fast-rising Bangladesh—which will soon graduate from UN’s least developed country status to a developing country—are a stellar example of its Neighbourhood First policy thrust to integrate South Asia. Bangladesh is India’s largest development and trade partner in the region. The country is crucial to India getting better connected to its North East and a North East that is more connected to India’s neighbours.

While welcoming his Bangladeshi counterpart, Narendra Modi termed the inauguration of the railway bridge over the Rupisha river a remarkable step towards enhancing connectivity. Like other South Asian nations, Bangladesh is facing a severe energy crunch that is impacting its exports drive, with garment factories idling due to power shutdowns. In this regard, another crucial takeaway from Sheikh Hasina’s visit is the inauguration of the first unit of the Maitri Thermal Power Plant—built with concessional financing from India—that will improve availability of affordable power in the country. Bangladesh also imports electricity from India. The progress of the Friendship Pipeline, which enables movement of high-speed diesel from India to northeastern areas of Bangladesh, was reviewed. IOC has also been registered as a G2G supplier of refined petroleum projects. Sheikh Hasina’s visit resulted in seven MoUs in the areas of water resources, capacity building, railways, S&T, and media.

Despite these, Sheikh Hasina might be disappointed on river water sharing. There are 54 rivers that are common to both countries. Ahead of a crucial national election next year, she set great store on an accord on Teesta that has so far proved elusive due to opposition from West Bengal’s chief minister Mamata Banerjee. She told a select gathering of journalists that Bangladesh is looking at large-scale dredging of all 54 rivers with India’s financial assistance and that if India allowed the Teesta to flow, it would have got Hilsa without dependence on Bangladesh, according to The Print. Besides sharing Kushiyara river water, the 38th meeting of ministerial level joint rivers commission of India and Bangladesh, which met after 12 years in August, also decided to enhance cooperation in relation to flood mitigation with India sharing data with Bangladesh on a real-time basis. The period of data-sharing has also been extended. Both sides welcomed the finalisation of design and location of water intake point on the Feni river to meet the drinking water needs of Sabroom town in Tripura.

To boost bilateral trade, both the PMs have green-lighted negotiations on a comprehensive economic partnership agreement. Bangladesh needs a CEPA not just to reduce its massive bilateral trade imbalance but also to secure more access to India’s vast domestic market when its preferential access to developed-country markets winds down as it acquires the developing-country status. The Bangladesh Foreign Trade Institute and India’s Centre for Regional Trade have conducted a feasibility study that suggested win-win outcomes for both nations with a CEPA. Bilateral trade, in any case, will boom with better rail, road and inland waterway connectivity. Most of the pre-1965 road and rail connections which were disrupted have been restored. The upshot is a highly successful visit of Bangladesh’s premier to deepen the country’s multi-faceted engagement with its most powerful neighbour.




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