Wednesday, January 13, 2010

A new Indo-Bangla chapter

NITISH SENGUPTA

THE VISIT of Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed is a landmark in the history of the relationship between India and Bangladesh. The two countries are expected to reach several agreements of wide-ranging consequence — economic and political.

The first decade of the present century was, in many respects, a sort of nightmare for India as far as relations with Bangladesh are concerned. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party-led alliance, which ruled Bangladesh between 2001 and 2006, marked by far the worst period in Indo-Bangla relations. Bangladesh became a sanctuary for secessionist groups from India’s Northeast, including the United Liberation Front of Asom, and a centre for Pakistani jihadi elements. The economic relationship between the two countries also plummeted except informal cross-border trade.

Repeated Indian requests to the government of Bangladesh to control the terrorist groups operating from their soil failed. Though Bangladesh’s Islamic fundamentalist parties did not have much strength on their own, collectively they provided support to the Khaleda Zia government and extracted a very heavy price in the form of support for its anti-India and anti-minorities approach.

All this has now become a thing of the past. The return of the Awami League government with an overwhelming mandate shows that the younger generation in Bangladesh wants to make a complete break from their recent past. Now it is India’s turn to reciprocate. One irritant in the relationship between the two countries was removed during Ms Wajed’s earlier government when she concluded the Farraka water-sharing agreement with India. She also showed remarkable courage in concluding peace with the secessionist elements in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. But she had a slender majority and, therefore, her capacity for a more drastic reprisal was limited.

Now, endorsed with an overwhelming mandate, she is in a position to allay India’s fears and apprehensions. India should, in turn, reciprocate. There is no reason, for example, why India cannot declare its market open to goods from Bangladesh without any customs duty or, at best, with a very marginal flat rate of customs duty of two per cent. Traditionally, the mandarins from South Block produce a negative list of products that cannot be imported. But taking an overall view, this negative list does not appear to have much economic justification. The total quantity of products that Bangladesh can export to India would always be small and would not have much impact on the Indian market.

Then there is the question of migration of people from Bangladesh for work. This phenomenon is not unique to the subcontinent. Bangladesh will always send migrant labourers to work in India. So long as they travel with work permits issued by the Government of India, the human traffic can be regulated. It is our failure to create a system of work permits for limited duration that is encouraging illegal migration.

Over the years, the issue of transit permits for Indian goods to be carried through Bangladesh to the Northeast has been a matter of concern. Here again, it is not widely known that there is already a protocol between India and Bangladesh permitting goods traffic through the waterways. If the National Inland Water Transport Corporation is converted into a joint-venture with Bangladesh, a part of the problem can be solved. Once inland navigation through Bangladesh is permitted, the cost of carrying bulk goods like cement, fertilisers, tea, jute and foodgrains will come down by 50 per cent. Then we will have no reason to insist on road traffic through Bangladesh.

The problems of fixing the maritime boundary between the two countries and sharing offshore gas reserves in the Bay of Bengal are also very important and can be sorted out with goodwill and friendly cooperation. Profits can be shared by shareholders from both the countries and by the two countries as well.

Finally, Indian policymakers must shed their distrust in relation to Bangladesh. Sheikh Hasina’s government has shown a lot of trust in addressing India’s concerns. If some people are worried about the economic cost of dropping one or two items from the negative list, they should recall the last five years.

The anxiety caused by the Khaleda Zia government during 2001-2006 has to be taken into account and quantified — the massive cost of maintaining the Border Security Force and intelligence agencies to deal with Bangladesh-based jihadis can’t be ignored.

It is a pity that because of our internal problems, Ms Wajed is unable to visit either Kolkata or Santiniketan, something she strongly wished to do. The absence of an appointed governor in West Bengal and the tense situation in Santiniketan have caused this problem. Her visit to Kolkata would have been historic and she would have received a very warm welcome. Unfortunately this is not to be.

Bangladesh and India should enter into a new phase of mutual confidence and cooperation. Dhaka has already given the right signals. These should be reciprocated with generosity. All misapprehensions in Bangladesh, such as Tipaimukh multi-purpose hydel project on the Barak river, should be dispelled. Bangladesh should be told that Tipaimukh is only an electricity generation project and will not take away any water from the river. Bangladesh’s apprehensions about Teesta barrage should also be dealt with. There can be many power-sharing and water-sharing agreements. The use of India’s Chittagong Port should begin a new phase of cooperation and prosperity.

Together, Bangladesh and India should lay the foundation of a prosperous South Asia Free Trade Area. That would be a fitting tribute to the memory of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rehman who lived for mutual cooperation between the two nations. #

First published in The Asian Age, India, January 10, 2010

Nitish Sengupta, an academic and an author, is a former Member of Parliament and a former secretary to the Government of India