Sunday, May 29, 2011

Engaging Bangladesh: Beyond Confidence-Building Measures

MD JAWAID AKHTAR

INDO-BANGLADESH relations in recent months have gained momentum with both sides taking steps to create a congenial atmosphere that could ultimately pave the way for broader bilateral, sub-regional and regional cooperation. Of late, there have been a number of interactions between leaders of the two neighbours in order to maintain the momentum. These interactions have resulted in positive developments in a number of areas, including political and border issues, economic relations and transit facilities. The apparent signs of optimism in India-Bangladesh relations emphasize a need to build on this momentum and sustain relations.

Indian Commerce and Industries Minister Anand Sharma recently visited Bangladesh. Talks with the minister’s Bangladeshi counterpart, Faruk Khan, in Dhaka, recognized that there has been a significant increase in bilateral trade. In the first three quarters of 2010-11, Bangladeshi exports to India have outstripped the total figure of last year, having touched US$359 million. Last year the figure stood at US$304 million. As part of the measures to promote trade and economic cooperation, India has raised the duty-free quota of readymade garments by 25% and countervailing duties on all jute exports from Bangladesh has been lifted. Anand Sharma also announced that private sector investment from India to Bangladesh to the tune of US $3.5 billion was in the pipeline. In addition, 50 Indian investors, including Tata, Birla and TVS Group, have sought a special economic Zone (SEZ) to be set up in Bangladesh for joint ventures. These steps would not only help balance the trade gap but also provide new employment opportunities and value addition to Bangladeshi exports to the rest of the world.

Transit has been a thorny issue in Indo-Bangladeshi relations for a long time. Both sides would reap the benefits of transit facilities once put in place. It is also likely to open fresh avenues for regional connectivity. Developments on the issue of transit have been encouraging, with the Sheikh Hasina government agreeing to grant transit to India. As per the agreement, Bangladesh will allow the Mongla and Chittagong seaports to be used for the movement of Indian goods, transported through rail and road linkages. India and Bangladesh have also agreed to restore railway links in order to enhance people-to-people contact and boost bilateral trade and investment. Initially Bangladesh and India proposed a rail link between Agartala in Tripura and Akhura in Bangladesh; later, however, the link between Agartala and Gangasagar (in Bangladesh) was finalized to avoid passing through densely populated areas near the Akhura junction. The Indian Railways’ Northeast Frontier Railway is also conducting a survey to extend the railways up to Sabroom in Tripura and to set up connectivity with the Chittagong Port in Bangladesh, which is just 72kms away.

India and Bangladesh are also gearing up to solve the protracted cross-border land conflict issue. Swap of enclaves seems to be very much on the cards; this could end the contentious issue of a total of 162 enclaves (115 Indian enclaves in Bangladesh, and 51 Bangladeshi enclaves in the Indian Territory) located in each other’s territories. Since India has more land in Bangladesh than Bangladesh in India, India is likely to lose about 10,000 acres of land. However this would help straighten the boundary, making policing and possible fencing of the boundary much easier. Currently, neither the police nor development agencies can enter these enclaves on either side of the border. As a result, these territories are grossly-underdeveloped and lacking in basic infrastructure and education facilities. Now that elections in West Bengal are over, the Centre is likely to approach the Cabinet Committee on Securities (CCS) to get clearance for the execution of a land treaty with Bangladesh. The deal could be signed during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s upcoming visit to Bangladesh.

Another important development in terms of resolving border tensions has been announcement by the BSF to use non-lethal weapons in sensitive areas of the Indo-Bangladesh border region on an experimental basis. In this regard, Bangladesh had raised the issue of the killings of its nationals along the border. India has also decided to allow Bangladesh 24 hours’ access to the enclaves of Dahagram and Angorpota enclaves through the Teen Bigha Corridor. It has been agreed to put in place all necessary arrangements, including infrastructure and security, expeditiously.

So far, the measures taken have essentially been to develop confidence on both sides, which need to be built on urgently. Efforts to enhance economic activities and the determination to resolve long-standing bilateral issues will help reduce common misperceptions and contribute to sustainable India-Bangladesh relations. The climate of goodwill and understanding, along with expanded bilateral cooperation, will also allow sub-regional and regional cooperation.

First published in Euroasia Review News and Analysis

Md Jawaid Akhtar is Research Officer, Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS). He could be contacted by email: akhtarjawaid120@yahoo.com