Days before Prime Minister Manmohan Singh leaves for Bangladesh, both countries are attempting to wrap up at least half-a-dozen agreements that, sources in the government here say, will mark a turning point in relations.
The latest in a long line of high-level visits to Dhaka in the run-up to Dr. Singh's visit will be by Water Resources Minister Pawan Kumar Bansal in order to arrive at a formula for sharing the waters of the Teesta and Feni rivers. At present, India is regularly blamed for either floods or drought.
“Agreements on land boundary, water resources and market access, and if there are two or three more, will make this an extraordinary visit. Both sides will be working till the last minute on some of them,” said the sources.
Mr. Bansal will visit Dhaka in early September, just before Dr. Singh's visit, to finalise agreements on the two rivers — 15 years after the Ganga accord, the only agreement of this kind though 54 major and minor rivers flow from India to Bangladesh.
“This will reinforce the idea that India is serious about its relationship,” the sources maintained, terming the proposed pacts “second-generation agreements.” Both sides have sought to address this highly emotive issue in Bangladesh by reviving the Joint River Commission. India has also been involved in the dredging of the Icchamati river, strengthening of the embankments of some rivers and the exchange of flood forecasting data during the lean season.
An acceptable river water-sharing formula is high on the agenda after both countries have sought to address each other's concerns over the border and the presence of anti-India militants in Bangladesh. If the presence of militants in Bangladesh worried New Delhi, Dhaka saw the killing of straying civilians by the Border Security Force as a constant irritant in the ties. Bangladeshi human rights organisations claim that about 100 of Bangladeshis are shot dead every year on the border by the BSF. Public anger was particularly high over the killing of a 15-year-old girl whose body hung from the barbed wire fence for hours.
“We enforce a curfew at night, but …smuggling takes place. Jawans sometimes open fire when they feel their lives are in danger. But we can't have this being seen in a negative light in Bangladesh,” official sources acknowledged. During his July visit, Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram sought to address this issue by assuring Bangladesh that the BSF would open fire as a last resort — and, that too, from inside the fence. Bangladesh should keep its gates closed and ask locals not to move near the Indian border during night curfew.
An issue that exercises both sides, a joint head count was done in 51 exclaves and 111 enclaves. This exercise, “never done on this scale before,” took place after New Delhi and Dhaka exchanged a concurred list of adverse possessions for the first time.
As for trade, Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee visited Dhaka last year to firm up the $1-billion grant announced during Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's visit to India in January last. Commerce Minister Anand Sharma visited the country in April this year and increased the quota of special tariff-free garments from 80 lakh to one crore.
In June, External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna signed agreements on investment protection and for allowing vehicles from Bhutan to enter Bangladesh.
They also discussed a proposed memorandum of understanding on textiles, which seeks to address non-tariff barriers, including for Jamdani saris from Bangladesh. “We will be working till the last minute on all of this. These are not easy issues.,” officials said.