The >passage of the Bill ratifying the 1974 India-Bangladesh Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) is a sign that India’s ‘neighbourhood-first’ policy is beginning to work. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s deftness in reversing course on this issue within his party and winning support from all others enabled him to fulfil the assurance he had extended to his Bangladeshi counterpart last September in New York.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina >hailed the event as a new milestone in bilateral relations. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), in the name of its Chairperson, Khaleda Zia, described the passage of the Amendment “an important day in our national life.”
Significance of LBA India’s relations with Bangladesh had already taken a distinctly positive course since Sheikh Hasina’s 2010 visit to New Delhi. The LBA’s unanimous endorsement is seen in Bangladesh as an affirmation of the general attitude of friendliness towards it in India. “What it has done,” says Shamsul Bari, a prominent resident of Dhaka, “is to create a positive image for India in Bangladesh.” It reflects the resolve of India’s leadership to be fair towards a country that has demonstrated goodwill for India by taking action against insurgent leaders sheltering within its territory, as also its readiness to partner India on mutually supportive connectivity and infrastructure initiatives.
India’s decision to opt for international arbitration to settle her maritime boundary with Bangladesh was a similar gesture of goodwill. It signified a deliberate, a priori relinquishment of its claims on the disputed waters, nearly 80 per cent of which have gone to Bangladesh. Negotiations could never have settled this matter since the India-proposed median line was drawn in a way – taking account of the concave configuration of the coast – that the Bangladeshi waters got confined to a narrow triangle between India and Myanmar.
By establishing its ability to resolve sensitive, sovereignty-related issues of its land and maritime boundaries and displacement of peoples, India has signalled, just prior to Mr. Modi’s visit to China, that the Sino-Indian border may be ripe for a similar settlement. India’s inability to ratify a 41-year old LBA, which addressed issues of a lesser magnitude than the McMahon Line, had given reason to China to continue to keep on hold the settlement of the boundary dispute with India.
India’s land and maritime boundary agreements with Bangladesh also show that intractable issues can be wrapped up between neighbours within an overall relationship of growing trust and friendship. It is also instructive for the issue of Jammu & Kashmir, which can be resolved as a function of improved India-Pakistan relations, and not the other way around, as sought by Pakistan.
Developments in Bangladesh After gaining its freedom, Bangladesh has made remarkable progress. At a time when Bangladesh was emerging from a quarter century of neglect and the trauma of war, and it was derisively dismissed as “an international basket case”, few could have imagined its evolution as a flourishing multiparty democracy and, arguably, as the most socially dynamic South Asian country.
Former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had prophesied this at her public rally in Dhaka in March 1972: “I am confident that you will go forward step-by-step, and that with each step Bangladesh will become stronger, and that the progress you will achieve will not be limited to a few people, but extend to all your people and reach every doorstep whether in villages and towns. It is then that your country will become ‘Sonar Bangla’ — Golden Bangladesh.”
In the 20 years following 1990, Bangladesh has reduced absolute poverty almost by half, from nearly 60 per cent to just over 30 per cent, together with improved child health and nutrition, reduced infant and maternal mortality, greater access to drinking water and sanitation, and gender parity in primary and secondary education. There has been a sharp decline in the fertility rate, and steady growth in women’s employment. Targeted industrial development has made Bangladesh the fourth largest garment exporter globally.
A disquieting element is the periodic visitation of political violence in Bangladesh, whose latest bout was inspired by BNP, with storm troopers provided by the Jamaat-e-Islami, which has still not come to terms with the logic of 1971. Many of its leaders have been sentenced in the war crimes trials that have targeted the Razakars — employed by the Pakistan Army against the liberation movement.
If Islam- pasand forces regain political space within Bangladesh, they could replicate the mayhem that exists today in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Any regime change that places power in their hands will result in the Inter Services Intelligence’s re-establishment in Bangladesh and terrorist attacks in India from Bangladeshi soil.
The promise of partnership With Bangladesh’s growing prosperity, trade with India has grown. Indian exports more than doubled over the past five years, from $2.7 billion to $6.1 billion in 2013-14. Bangladeshi exports last year were at $462 million. A World Bank estimate places illegal trade at three-fourths of regular trade, mostly constituted by Indian exports of consumables. The barbed wire fence constructed by India is permeable to all manner of goods, including live animals.
The transaction costs of trade remain extraordinarily high, with forced transshipment of goods at the border and the absence of coastal shipping. Customs and documentation requirements are not up to international standards. India could redress the trade imbalance with greater facilitation, further reducing non-tariff barriers, and promoting Bangladesh’s industrialisation. All these issues are now receiving attention.
The three prime areas of economic cooperation and investment between India and Bangladesh are energy, infrastructure, and connectivity. The 71-kilometre Baharampur-Bheramara transmission grid now carries 500MW of electricity to Bangladesh. This supply will soon double.
Partnership in energy has been a two-way process. Bangladesh facilitated the transportation, by the riverine route, of the two 300-tonne gas turbines for the Palatana power project in Tripura, along with 88 other packages of over-dimensional cargo — virtually impossible to carry through the serpentine, single-lane roads of northern Bengal, Assam, Meghalaya, and Tripura. Now, 100MW of power will flow to Bangladesh from Palatana.
When additional hydropower becomes available from Bhutan and, later, from India’s northeast, Bangladesh will benefit from these, while wheeling electricity through its grid for supply to other Indian states.
India is promoting Bangladesh’s energy security by encouraging investments in power generation. On the anvil are a 1,320MW coal-fired plant in Rampal, and a 130-kilometre long ‘Friendship Pipeline’ from Siliguri for supply of one million tonnes of diesel annually.
For countries that share so much in common across densely populated frontiers, more people-to-people initiatives are needed to stoke shared memories, including revival of railway routes (such as between Kolkata and Khulna) and bus connections (between Shillong and Sylhet, effectively connecting Guwahati and Dhaka).
India could strengthen Bangladesh’s short term liquidity by offering it a currency swap facility similar to the one provided to Sri Lanka. Fresh credit commitments will be needed for road, railways, and waterways connectivity projects. Bangladesh will require help to ensure navigable depth for the Inland Water Protocol routes, and to develop Ashuganj as a transshipment point, with a railway link from Akhaura to Agartala.
Bangladeshi business and industry will gain from connectivity and infrastructure investments, as also India’s northeast. The linking of Nepal, Bhutan, and India’s northeast to Bangladeshi ports might help make Bangladesh the natural bridge between South and Southeast Asia.
India and Bangladesh are seminal to each other’s progress and prosperity. By the smooth passage of the 119th Amendment Indian parliamentarians have conveyed to the people of Bangladesh that India wishes them well and is ready to work with them cooperatively as their preferred partner.
(Jayant Prasad is Advisor at the Delhi Policy Group, Visiting Fellow at the Research and Information System for Developing Countries, New Delhi, and Non-Resident Fellow at the Center for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania.)