Sunday, July 31, 2011

Bangladesh editor Ekramul Haque arrested

Saleem Samad, RSF correspondent in Bangladesh

On July 31 dawn, plainclothes police officers raided the residence of pro-opposition news portal Sheersha News and weekly Sheersha Kagoj editor Ekramul Haque in the capital Dhaka.
Sheersha News said that police blindfolded Haque with a black cloth when he was arrested and mishaved with his family when he was dragged into a waiting van.

Police said they have arrested him and was brought to a police station. He has been remanded for two days for interrogation on charges of demanding money as extortion from a business person. Police said that they had warrant of his arrest, but failed to show it to the journalist.

The sub-inspector Shariful Islam of the Kalabagan police station said the editor was arrested after an unknown Giasuddin Talukdar on July 28 filed a complaint with a court, saying Haque demanded BDT 2 million (Euro=18,577, USD=26,738) in extortion from him. Later a case was filed with the police station upon a court order, he said. Details of Talukdar's identity were not available.

Sheersha News after investigation of the background of the business person, discovered that the addressed mentioned in the case is false. No such person by the name Giasuddin Talukdar or any office mentioned in the case do not exist in the address in the capital Dhaka.
However, Sheersha News instead blames the government for intimidation against its editor Ekramul Haque for "writing against the government's corruption" for past several months. The sheershanews.com claims that they were harassed for publication of alleged corruption by different ministries was the reason for the arrest.

Earlier the press information department (PID) on July 17 cancelled the accreditation cards of all the 10 journalists including the editor of Sheersha News and Sheersha Kagoj.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Bangladesh social safety nets reduce poverty despite challenges

Food aid to vulnerable groups, vital for anti-poverty strategy
SALEEM SAMAD

BANGLADESH, ONE of the poorest among the least developing nations, has been able to provide social safety nets despite inadequate interventions, helping to elevate significant portions of the population from poor to non-poor status.

The safety nets that reach the poor have elevated their living standards, increased their average income and enabled them to buy cattle and to lease farm lands.
The conclusions are part of a study commissioned by the Bangladesh government and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). The report, “Social Safety Nets in Bangladesh,” presented Thursday by development economist Dr. Hossain Zillur Rahman, portrays a scenario that gives hope to the 56 million living in poverty in both rural and urban areas.
However, government officials lamented that reaching the hard-core poor in remote villages was the biggest challenge, despite efforts to plug "leakages" in the distribution of food aid to stabilize the safety nets of the vulnerable population.

Weak accountability of elected representatives responsible to ensure the safety nets and poor monitoring system has encouraged such leakages, said Dr. Abdur Razzaque, minister for Food and Disaster Management at a forum discussing the report.

Leakage has been attributed to pilferage, corruption and malpractices with food aid. Razzaque squarely blamed the members of parliament and grassroots administrative bodies. Various leakage-proof methods were adopted, he said, but were dodged by the bad guys.
Despite the leakage, the government promised to continue with its anti-poverty strategy with the financial support of the multilateral donors European Union and UNDP, which have pledged $1.63 billion to reach 35 million who are in extreme poverty, the study reported.

The study recommends scaling up social investment to ensure gradual adoption of “safety ladders,” an innovative project by a nonprofit organization that has demonstrated positive results in moving people out of poverty.

Despite their positive benefits, infrastructure projects have often been considered administratively demanding and subjected to large leakage of resources if they are not well monitored and effectively administered with unbiased attention to the poor, said Rahman.

Saleem Samad, an Ashoka Fellow is an award winning investigative journalist based in Bangladesh. He specializes in Jihad, forced migration, good governance and elective democracy. He has recently returned from exile after living in Canada for six years. He could be reached at saleemsamad@hotmail.com

Thursday, July 28, 2011

India and Bangladesh: Embraceable you

Growing geopolitical interests push India to seek better relations nearer home

NOT MUCH noticed by outsiders, long-troubled ties between two neighbours sharing a long border have taken a substantial lurch for the better. Ever since 2008, when the Awami League, helped by bags of Indian cash and advice, triumphed in general elections in Bangladesh, relations with India have blossomed. To Indian delight, Bangladesh has cracked down on extremists with ties to Pakistan or India’s home-grown terrorist group, the Indian Mujahideen, as well as on vociferous Islamist (and anti-Indian) politicians in the country. India feels that bit safer.

Now the dynasts who rule each country are cementing political ties. On July 25th Sonia Gandhi (pictured, above) swept into Dhaka, the capital, for the first time. Sharing a sofa with Sheikh Hasina (left), the prime minister (and old family friend), the head of India’s ruling Congress Party heaped praise on her host, notably for helping the poor. A beaming Sheikh Hasina reciprocated with a golden gong, a post humous award for Mrs Gandhi’s mother-in-law, Indira Gandhi. In 1971 she sent India’s army to help Bangladeshis, led by Sheikh Hasina’s father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, throw off brutal Pakistani rule.

As a result, officials this week chirped that relations are now “very excellent”. They should get better yet. India’s prime minister, Manmohan Singh, will visit early in September to sign deals on sensitive matters like sharing rivers, sending electricity over the border, settling disputed patches of territory on the 4,095km (2,500-mile) frontier and stopping India’s trigger-happy border guards from murdering migrants and cow-smugglers. Mr Singh may also deal with the topic of trade which, smuggling aside, heavily favours India, to Bangladeshi ire.

Most important, however, is a deal on setting up a handful of transit routes across Bangladesh, to reach India’s remote, isolated north-eastern states. These are the “seven sisters” wedged up against the border with China.

On the face of it, the $10 billion project will develop poor areas cut off from India’s booming economy. The Asian Development Bank and others see Bangladeshi gains too, from better roads, ports, railways and much-needed trade. In Dhaka, the capital, the central-bank governor says broader integration with India could lift economic growth by a couple of percentage points, from nearly 7% already.

India has handed over half of a $1 billion soft loan for the project, and the money is being spent on new river-dredgers and rolling stock. Bangladesh’s rulers are mustard-keen. The country missed out on an earlier infrastructure bonanza involving a plan to pipe gas from Myanmar to India. China got the pipeline instead.

Yet the new transit project may be about more than just development. Some in Dhaka, including military types, suspect it is intended to create an Indian security corridor. It could open a way for army supplies to cross low-lying Bangladesh rather than going via dreadful mountain roads vulnerable to guerrilla attack. As a result, India could more easily put down insurgents in Nagaland and Manipur. The military types fear it might provoke reprisals by such groups in Bangladesh.

More striking, India’s army might try supplying its expanding divisions parked high on the border with China, in Arunachal Pradesh. China disputes India’s right to Arunachal territory, calling it South Tibet. Some Bangladeshis fret that if India tries to overcome its own logistical problems by, in effect, using Bangladesh as a huge military marshalling yard, reprisals from China would follow.

Such fears are not yet widespread. Indeed, India has been doing some things right in countering longstanding anti-Indian suspicion and resentment among ordinary Bangladeshis. Recent polling by an American university among students found a minority hostile to India, whereas around half broadly welcomed its rise. A straw poll at a seminar of young researchers at a think-tank in Dhaka this week suggested a similar mood—though anger remained over Indian border shootings.

For India, however, the risk is that it is betting too heavily on Sheikh Hasina, who is becoming increasingly autocratic. Opposition boycotts of parliament and general strikes are run-of-the-mill. Corruption flourishes at levels astonishing even by South Asian standards. A June decision to rewrite the constitution looks to be a blunt power grab, letting the government run the next general election by scrapping a “caretaker” arrangement. Sheikh Hasina is building a personality cult around her murdered father, “the greatest Bengali of the millennium”, says the propaganda.

Elsewhere, the hounding of Muhammad Yunus, a Nobel laureate and founder of the Grameen Bank who briefly flirted with politics, was vindictive. Similarly, war-crimes trials over the events of 1971 are to start in a few weeks. They are being used less as a path to justice than to crush an opposition Islamic party, Jamaat-e-Islami.

It hardly suggests that India’s ally has a wholly secure grasp on power. A tendency to vote incumbents out may yet unseat Sheikh Hasina in 2013, or street violence might achieve the same. She would then be replaced by her nemesis, Khaleda Zia, of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party. Mrs Zia’s family dynasty, also corrupt, is as against India as Sheikh Hasina’s is for it. But India’s habit of shunning meetings with Mrs Zia and her followers may come to look short-sighted. When he visits Bangladesh in September, Mr Singh, the Gandhi family retainer, would do well to make wider contact if India’s newly improving relations are not one day to take another big dive for the worse.

First published in The Economist, July 30 2011

Rights group urges Bangladesh to ensure fair trial for mutineers

Photo: Rebel commands mutineers
SALEEM SAMAD

A WESTERN rights group has urged Bangladesh to stop mass trials for the hundreds of paramilitary border guards accused in the February 2009 mutiny that left 74 dead, mostly army officers.

New York-based Human Rights Watch on Tuesday said that those responsible for the deadly

mutiny should be held accountable, but in military and civilian courts that meet international fair trial standards.
The international rights watchdog expressed concern regarding the mass trial completed on June 27, in which 666 members of the 24th Border Guards Battalion were tried before a military court. All but nine were found guilty and sentenced to terms ranging from four months to seven years in prison.

In February 2009, soldiers of the Bangladesh Rifles staged a mutiny against their commanding officers, took over the main barracks in the capital city of Dhaka, looted weapons and killed dozens of people, including senior army officers. The mutineers defended their revolt over long-standing pay and work condition demands.


On Wednesday, a court in Dhaka indicted 310 guards on charges such as arson and murder. More than 800 are accused and the court is set to resume next month to indict the remaining guards.

More than 2,000 border guards are accused of crimes associated with the mutiny, including murder, looting and arson.
"It is impossible to try hundreds of people at the same time and expect anything resembling a fair trial," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "The massacre shocked Bangladesh, but each of the accused should only be found guilty if the government provides specific evidence against them."

The accused have been held and prosecuted in violation of Bangladesh's obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, HRW charged in a statement. Many were detained without charge for several months. The government has not produced individualized evidence against each detainee.


Human Rights Watch said the detainees' lack of access to legal counsel remains a serious concern. The rights group says many guards were detained without charge for several months.
Rights groups documented the deaths of some of the accused in custody, including as a result of torture, in the first few months after the mutiny.
"The border guard’s mutiny was brutal, but the current approach appears to be a witch hunt against a group rather than an attempt to identify the individuals responsible for specific crimes," Adams said.

HRW's concern was heightened because of the possibility that some of those convicted could face the death penalty. The rights watchdog opposes the death penalty in all cases as a fundamentally cruel and irreversible punishment.

Saleem Samad, an Ashoka Fellow is an award winning investigative journalist based in Bangladesh. He specializes in Jihad, forced migration, good governance and elective democracy. He has recently returned from exile after living in Canada for six years. He could be reached at saleemsamad@hotmail.com

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Rights groups urge India to probe deaths, torture at Bangladesh border

SALEEM SAMAD

A LEADING United States rights group has urged the government of India to investigate fresh allegations of killings, torture, and other abuses by the Border Security Force (BSF) at the border with Bangladesh.

New York-based Human Rights Watch said on Sunday that those against whom there is credible evidence of wrongdoing should be prosecuted as part of an effort to end longstanding impunity for abuses along the border.

In December, HRW in a report, "Trigger Happy," documented extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detention, torture, and ill-treatment by the BSF. In the past decade, the BSF is alleged to have killed hundreds of Indians and Bangladeshis.

Indian authorities in March assured Bangladesh officials that the killings would be stopped. The government announced that it would order restraint and encourage the use of rubber bullets instead of more lethal ammunition, which was recommended by HRW.

"Despite orders from New Delhi to end killings and abuse and to exercise restraint in dealing with people crossing the border, new deaths and other serious abuses are being reported," said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director for Human Rights Watch.

The group stated that the government has issued some positive new directives, but it needs to prosecute those who commit abuses so soldiers will understand they can't act with impunity.

The number of deaths reduced significantly in 2011. The Bangladeshi non-governmental organization Odhikar has documented at least 17 alleged killings of Bangladeshis by the border force and other instances of severe abuse since January.

Local rights groups in India have documented several cases of deaths as a result of severe beatings of suspects by the BSF. Indian residents in the border area, while expressing relief that the indiscriminate shootings have stopped, have complained about aggressive intimidation and beatings.

"The excessive use of force and the arbitrary beating of people along the border are unjustifiable," Ganguly said. "These abuses call into question India's stated commitments to the rule of law."

People routinely move back and forth across India's frontier with Bangladesh to visit relatives, buy supplies, and look for jobs. Others engage in petty and serious cross-border crime.

In many of the cases investigated by HRW, however, the victims were cattle rustlers, farmers, or laborers who said they were hoping to supplement their meager livelihoods by working as couriers in the lucrative but illegal cattle trade that is rampant at the border.

The Indian government needs to do more to ensure accountability for violations committed by the border force soldiers and to ensure compliance with the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, said the HRW statement.

Saleem Samad, an Ashoka Fellow is an award winning investigative journalist based in Bangladesh. He specializes in Jihad, forced migration, good governance and elective democracy. He has recently returned from exile after living in Canada for six years. He could be reached at saleemsamad@hotmail.com

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Bangladesh superior court halts ship scrapping operation

SALEEM SAMAD

BANGLADESH'S SUPREME court on Sunday overturned a lower court's ruling that allowed a ship scrapping operation until October. The court will review the case on Thursday.

Last week the high court allowed conditional importation of toxic ships and their dismantling. It extended the time on grounds that importers and ship dismantlers must ensure the safety and environmental protection of the public and workers.
The Bangladeshi Environmental Lawyers Association had appealed a previous ruling on the extension with the supreme court.

Attorneys of the Bangladeshi Shipbreakers Association, which is engaged in a $1.5 billion ship recycling trade, are scheduled to be at the hearing to ensure the original decision is upheld.

On March 7, the high court permitted import of hazardous ships and their scrapping for two months on several conditions, saying that no ships can be scrapped without cleaning toxic gas, and asbestos and toxic materials must be removed by experts before the ships are dismantled.

The high court relaxed the ban after leaders of the world's largest shipbreaking industry guaranteed it would adopt strict strictly rules to protect workers, such as an age limit of at least 18, training and proper safety gear, and cleansing of toxic material from ships prior to arrival.

It ordered the Department of Environment (DOE) to form a three-member committee to monitor whether the importers and ship breakers are complying with the given conditions.

Bangladesh's main source of 4 million tons of steel for construction is from the dismantling of cargo ships.

Saleem Samad, an Ashoka Fellow is an award winning investigative journalist based in Bangladesh. He specializes in Jihad, forced migration, good governance and elective democracy. He has recently returned from exile after living in Canada for six years. He could be reached at saleemsamad@hotmail.com

Bangladesh willing to tango much faster than Delhi realises

Union Commerce Minister Anand Sharma (centre) welcomes his Bangladesh counterpart Muhammad Faruk Khan as Meghalaya Chief Minister Mukul Sangma (right) looks on, at the inauguration of the border 'haat' at Kalaichar in Meghalaya on Saturday. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

JYOTI MALHOTRA

DHAKA ALLOWS transit, ready for more, even as Delhi preoccupied in pushing ties with Pakistan.

India — or at least the ministry of external affairs, as well as Delhi’s Pakistan-centric media — is gearing up to receive Pakistan’s newly promoted foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, for her first visit to India on Wednesday. Yet, the truth is that Bangladesh has been quietly undertaking radical breakthroughs in promoting connectivity on India’s eastern flank that have received little or no publicity in the capital.

Bangladesh commerce minister, Mohammed Farouk Khan, has told his Indian counterpart, Anand Sharma, that Dhaka will give India access to Chittagong port, so as to make transportation of goods to our northeast states easier and cheaper.

The assurance was appropriately given late last week at the small border outpost of Kalaichar in Meghalaya, which borders Bangladesh, when Sharma and Farouk got together to inaugurate a trading entrepot, locally known as a ‘haat’ at the border.

“India can use not only Chittagong but several other ports that we have developed in recent years. Other neighbouring countries such as Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar can also use our ports for trade and commerce in the future,” Khan told Sharma, who profusely welcomed the move.

Clearly, Dhaka seems to be bravely papering over the recent hiccup over Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s comments on the allegedly growing Islamic radicalisation of Bangladesh, by proceeding with the common understanding that economic connectivity is the way forward if Bangladesh has to share in India’s rapid economic growth.

EASING ON PAKISTAN
Meanwhile, as Foreign Minister S M Krishna prepares to receive Khar, word is that the government is finalising key confidence-building measures to promote both people-to-people interaction as well as push trade across the border.

The idea, official sources said, is to push the India-Pakistan relationship on two parallel tracks. That is, keep the focus on cracking down on terror on the one hand – especially, to push Pakistan to give voice samples of the seven terrorists accused of fomenting the November 2008 Mumbai attacks, as well as hasten the domestic process to act against the accused — and to ease restrictions for ordinary people in both countries so that they don’t bear the brunt of government anger.

On the cards, therefore, are measures to improve relations both across the international border at Wagah-Attari in Punjab and the Line of Control in Kashmir, so as to target both key constituencies, as well as the gesture to unilaterally release 90 Pakistani fishermen in Indian jails.

Fishermen from both sides are routinely picked up by the Coast Guard from both countries when they unknowingly cross the maritime boundary across the Gulf of Kachchh and the Sir Creek area, because there are no markers that divide the sea. On the Wagah-Attari front, the proposal is to enhance the number of days that trade can take place, from two to four days per week. Across the LoC in Kashmir, the idea is to increase the bus service between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad, streamline permits for traders, increase the number of commodities that can be traded and improve telephone facilities.

HANDLING HARDLINERS
Discussions on an easier visa regime are also on the cards, but this will not materialise during Khar’s visit because the home ministries control this aspect of the bilateral relationship. The home ministry in India has severely cracked down on issuing visas for Pak visitors, especially after the Mumbai attacks, including to Pakistani businessmen. While the ministries of commerce and external affairs hope they will soon make some headway on this front, the home ministry is holding out for reciprocal information from Pakistan on the Mumbai attacks.

Home minister P Chidambaram and his Pakistani counterpart Rehman Malik have just met at Thimphu on the margin of the Saarc interior ministers meeting, and officials said Islamabad was being persuaded to send a delegation to provide greater information on the Mumbai attacks.

Nevertheless, the fact that India is moving to dilute its own border controls, in the face of strong opposition from the home ministry, shows that the Prime Minister’s desire to use trade and economic interaction to pave the way for greater understanding and political dialogue is moving forward.

Clearly, Manmohan Singh seems to have outsourced the economic relationship between India and it’s neighbours to the commerce ministry, a charge that Anand Sharma has accepted with enthusiasm and some relish. A former minister of state in the external affairs ministry, Sharma understands well that he can use his current portfolio to maximise gains that are ripe for the picking, thereby enhancing his own profile in the bargain.

DHAKA PAYOFF
For example, the idea to open border ‘haats’ or trading outposts between India’s several northeast states and the neighbouring countries of Bangladesh and Myanmar are not new. In fact, they have been pending for several years. But politicians in charge of the commerce ministry have been disdainful of travelling to the backwaters of Meghalaya and Tripura to promote interaction with India’s poorer neighbours, believing they must focus on trendier, first world nations in Europe and the US.

Sharma’s initiative to travel to Kalaichar in Meghalaya last week is creditable, believe analysts. They also point out that he must now bite the bullet on textiles, ignore lobbies and throw open trade in textiles both with Pakistan and Bangladesh, an area in which both countries are proficient.

Although India has enhanced duty-free access to garments from Bangladesh from eight to 10 million pieces per year, Dhaka remains unhappy at Delhi’s unwillingness to contemplate a free trade treaty. But with Bangladeshi prime minister Sheikh Hasina having shown the way by allowing Delhi access to the Chittagong port — something each government in Dhaka has refused since 1971 — it may be time for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to return the gesture.

Dhaka, in fact, has already done more, behind the scenes. India has already started sending heavy machinery down an inland waterway through Bangladesh to the small port at Ashuganj, close to a Bangladeshi town called Akhaura, barely 10 km away from Agartala, the capital of Tripura. For the record, Indian goods have already begun to transit through Bangladesh, unnoticed, for the first time since the latter became a free nation in 1971.

First published in the Business Standard, New Delhi July 26, 2011

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Mumbai blast mastermind believed to be hiding in Bangladesh

SALEEM SAMAD

INDIAN SECURITY agencies believe that the mastermind of last week's serial bombings in Mumbai is hiding in Bangladesh.

Mumbai police say they suspect the bombs to be the work of the Indian Mujahideen (IM). The serial bomb blasts last week killed at least 19 people and injured more than 130.

The suspect, Abdullah Khan, of the Indian Mujahideen is alleged to have orchestrated the Mumbai blasts and is now hiding somewhere in Bangladesh. His movements had been tracked over the past few months, the daily Times of India quotes the National Investigation Agency, India's top unit to combat terror, as saying.

Khan is now "operating the IM module which is assigned to maintain liaison with the Bangladesh based Harkat-ul Jihad Al Islam (HuJI) and, in a joint venture, has recruited a few new jihadist for their outfit," according to the Times of India report.

Investigators said about six months ago, Khan was stationed in Nepal and shuttled between Bangladesh and Pakistan. The IM had started conducting training camps in Bangladesh, the newspaper mentioned.

The report also mentioned that the National Investigation Agency was homing in on IM members across India and was already questioning suspected operatives.

IM terrorists find it easier to penetrate through the porous India-Bangladesh border with support from the HuJI, the source said in the report.

In the first week of November last year, Bangladesh detectives foiled a plot to attack the U.S. Embassy and

Indian High Commission in Bangladesh. Several terrorist sleeping cells were smashed simultaneously in India and Bangladesh with intelligence tips from the CIA.

In a bid to combat such cross-border terrorism, organized crime and the drug trade, during Bangladesh prime minister Sheikh Hasina's visit to India in January 2010 the countries decided to form a coordination committee comprising representatives of law enforcement agencies and the two countries' intelligence wings to "deal with international terrorism and drug smuggling, investigation and completion of trial in such crimes."

India and Bangladesh are highly likely to sign an agreement during a planned visit to Bangladesh by Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh in September. Security analysts predict the pact will significantly reduce terrorism in the region. However, the analysts said it will be difficult to drag troubled Pakistan into a regional cooperation agreement to combat terrorism, so it will be an incomplete effort.

Saleem Samad, an Ashoka Fellow is an award winning investigative journalist based in Bangladesh. He specializes in Jihad, forced migration, good governance and elective democracy. He has recently returned from exile after living in Canada for six years. He could be reached at saleemsamad@hotmail.com

Friday, July 22, 2011

America demands Bangladesh extradite Taliban-trained militants

SALEEM SAMAD

THE UNITED States has demanded extradition of Bangladesh-born militants who were recruited and trained by the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina raised the issue Wednesday with the ruling Awami League’s central working committee. She also hinted at external pressure to hand over the suspects.


Hasina assured U.S. officials that her government would take necessary steps to nab the suspects, who are still at large.
The suspected jihadists, according to intelligence sources, returned to Bangladesh through clandestine routes soon after the U.S. and British-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

Hundreds of Bangladeshi recruits have joined the jihad in Afghanistan that overthrew the pro-West Mujahideen government.

Senior Pentagon officials, through diplomatic channels, have submitted a list of Bangladeshi militants and demanded the extradition of those suspected militants now living in Bangladesh.


Since the government led by the pro-secular prime minister swept to power more than two years ago in Ban

gladesh, scores of self-proclaimed Jihadists who boasted to have fought with the Taliban have been arrested.
Earlier, Bangladesh pledged to the United States and Britain to support the “war on terror” and have received high profile counter-terrorism training.

Afghanistan-trained militants are a security threat to Bangladesh's tolerant and secular Muslim majority, according to political scientist Professor Imtiaz Ahmed of state-owned Dhaka University.

Saleem Samad, an Ashoka Fellow is an award winning investigative journalist based in Bangladesh. He specializes in Jihad, forced migration, good governance and elective democracy. He has recently returned from exile after living in Canada for six years. He could be reached at saleemsamad@hotmail.com

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Bangladesh protests distract, but power is concern



Photo: Activists protest against contract with U.S. energy firm on gas contract
 
Dhaka, Reuters: Protests in Bangladesh against a US energy firm's gas contract will not scare big investors or force the government to scrap the deal, but they are a distraction from the real, structural problems braking the South Asian nation's development.

Strikes and street demonstrations are commonplace in Bangladesh, but in July, ConocoPhillips was targeted for an oil and gas exploration deal it signed, raising questions about whether the investment climate is turning more hostile to foreigners.

M. Tamim, a professor of petroleum and mineral resources at the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, went as far as saying the unrest "may leave a deep scar on overall foreign investment in the country", but behind the noise, investors are far more worried about structural problems.

"The reason for public concern is mainly because of the lack of knowledge about the contract agreed with ConocoPhillips," said Alia Yousuf, head of emerging markets debt at London-based ACPI Investments. "There isn't a dislike for foreign investment in the country, it is more a concern for the government's ability to secure energy self sufficiency for Bangladesh."

Power cuts are chronic, demand far outstrips supply. Reliable electricity is top of everyone's wish list and some say that rather than challenging foreign investment in the sector, it needs to be encouraged.

"It is important (that) the government takes measures so that ConocoPhillips and other foreign companies are able to participate in the development of the country's energy sector," said Muhammad Aziz Khan, chairman of Bangladeshi conglomerate Summit Group.

Through Summit Power , a joint venture with General Electric, his firm will build three power plants in a $1.1 billion (Dh4.4bn) deal signed in May.

US firms are keen to invest in the country, said an official with the American Chamber of Commerce in Bangladesh, but "they have been discouraged by obstacles such as severe shortages of power and energy, poor roads, communications and ports facilities. Now a new phenomenon has been added -- long spells of strikes, violence on the streets and deteriorating law and order."

Still, even the pessimistic do not see big business pulling out, and the protests should not be read as a sign that there is sufficient political pressure building to force the government to review the gas deal.

"I believe the recent protest against ConocoPhillips will not have any impact on its decision and that it will go ahead with its exploration plan in Bangladesh," said Bangladesh University's Tamim. "Our major political parties are in the same boat about the importance of investment by foreign firms in the oil and gas sector."

LESS CONVERSATION, MORE ACTION
Overall foreign direct investment rose 30 percent year on year to $913 million in 2010, according to Bangladeshi central bank figures. No data was available for 2011, but the pace of inflow dropped in the second half of last year and the dominant trend in global markets this year is away from assets seen as risky.

In this environment, those with money to spend may be deterred from doing so in Bangladesh by the threat of trouble.

"Disruptive actions such as general strikes coupled with other protests leading to political uncertainty keeps investors at bay, or makes them wait until the government can assure a healthy (investment) climate," said an international banker in Dhaka, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Others say anyone considering putting their money into a high-potential but specialist market like Bangladesh -- named a few years ago by Goldman Sachs as one of the 'Next 11' developing economies to watch -- is well aware of the risks.

"Foreign investors always invest with a long-term view and perspectives, and they also keep in mind the political risks or environment in developing countries like Bangladesh," said Tawfiq-e-Elahi Chowdhury, energy adviser to the prime minister.

"I don't think ConocoPhillips will be scared by protests staged by small groups in this country."

Still, would-be investors in China, South Korea and Japan are being put off not by politics, but lack of power.

"Politics is not a big issue for investors because that's priced in," said ACPI's Yousuf. "But infrastructure and shortage of power is the biggest issue, and that actually does stop investment."

At street level, Bangladeshis want the lights to work more than they fret about the source of the cash that makes it happen.

"We don't need a debate on deals with foreign companies," said Shahidur Rahman, an official at a privately owned bank. "We want the gas and electricity problems solved without further delay. Governments come and go but the problems remain."

First published in Emirates24/7 News, July 21, 2011

Bangladesh has reservations about cholera vaccine trial

SALEEM SAMAD

Bangladeshi authorities and officials of an international cholera research center are at loggerheads over the proposed trial of an anti-cholera vaccine, health terminology and the actual prevalence of diarrheal diseases.
Senior government health officials on Tuesday argued that the government does not see any reason for a trial of the oral vaccine, as the mortality rate of The vaccine trial was launched in 2009 and was limited to low-indiarrhea is less than 1 percent (0.6 percent). Instead, Health Services official Dr. Khondhaker Shefyetullah said the vaccine trial needs government's public policy, based on a detailed technical study and the opinion of stakeholders.

come people in the capital Dhaka, where incidents of diarrhea are common during peak monsoon seasons, which occur April through May and August through September. The trial, being conducted on children under the age of 5 by the International Center for Diarrheal Disease Research, Bangladesh (ICDDR,B) is set to end in September.

The government for more than three decades has avoided using the terms vibrio cholerae or cholera to describe the disease breakout. They insist that hospital doctors and the media describe the outbreak as diarrheal disease and dysentery.
Bangladesh deliberately avoids using the word cholera to prevent a ban on the export of fresh vegetables and freshwater fish, which are sold in markets in Australasia, Europe and North America, Shefyetullah told a seminar on the introduction of cholera vaccine.

Steve Luby, a researcher with ICDDR,B echoed statements by government officials that an affordable vaccine would provide only partial protection from diarrheal diseases. He stressed that social behavioral change and dissemination of health information could prevent 30 to 50 percent of the prevalence of diarrheal diseases, which mostly occur among disadvantaged populations in both urban and rural areas.

The government also disputes the prevalence of the disease. Professor Mahmudur Rahman of the government Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research (IEDCR) sets the annual figure of cholera outbreak at 450,000. The international health research institution estimates the figure at 1.2 million cases in its research journal.
Government officials have urged ICDDR,B to review its estimate and said that the government stands by its figure, which it said had been documented after obtaining information from the field over the last several years.

ICDDR,B executives agreed to review their data. They also said they will wait for the government public policy on clinical trials of cholera vaccine to protect child mortality and morbidity.

Saleem Samad, an Ashoka Fellow is an award winning investigative journalist based in Bangladesh. He specializes in Jihad, forced migration, good governance and elective democracy. He has recently returned from exile after living in Canada for six years. He could be reached at saleemsamad@hotmail.com

Monday, July 18, 2011

Muhammad Yunus banks on beating the enemies of microfinance

The Nobel peace prize winner discusses recent attacks on his schemes to relieve poverty, from within Bangladesh and abroad
Photograph: Philipp Ebeling - Microfinance pioneer and Nobel peace prize winner Muhammad Yunus

MADELEINE BUNTING

MUHAMMAD YUNUS is good at being calm. At 7.30am in a chilly office in central London, he talks with urbane charm and all the dispassionate objectivity of a philosopher as he considers the Bangladeshi government's campaign against him, and the possibility that it might destroy his life's work building up the world's first microfinance bank.

He is Bangladesh's most famous son, known as the world's banker to the poor, winner in 2006 with the Grameen Bank of the Nobel peace prize, a tireless campaigner at global summits for microfinance and social enterprise who can count Hillary Clinton, Nicolas Sarkozy and Mary Robinson among his many friends. But as the saying goes, a prophet is never recognised in his own country. Neither the global acclaim – nor the protestations of both the French and the US government – is making much difference to a government intent on destroying Yunus's hold on Grameen Bank and the network of social enterprise companies he has developed over the last four decades.

Bangladesh's prime minister, Sheikh Hasina Wajed has accused him of "sucking blood from the poor", and others have alleged corruption despite official government inquiries clearing him last month of any wrongdoing. In the end, the only charge that has stuck is that at a sprightly 70, he is too old to be managing director of the Grameen Bank. A charge made, incidentally, by the 77-year-old finance minister.

"I'm not hurt by the vilification in the press; I'm disappointed and I'm worried. I don't want to see an organisation which has come all this way and brought so much good to the country and brought power to the people, come to this. Many people are angry but anger doesn't solve anything," he says.

"I want to calm things down. If we are prepared, we can do damage control."

This is his first interview since the crisis broke early this year. Yunus is refusing to talk to the Bangladeshi media for fear of further inflaming the controversy, and he is adamant that he will not be drawn into speculating as to why the government has forced his recent resignation. He simply says: "I can't see the purpose, I can't see what the country gains, what the government gains."

There is certainly a lot to lose. Any bank depends on confidence and the last few months have been turbulent for Grameen's 22,000 employees and 8.36 million borrowers, 97% of whom are women. So far, repayment rates on the millions of small loans are holding steady and borrowers are not withdrawing deposits – either could bring the bank to collapse. Yunus's calmness in London is all about steadying the confidence of his Bangladeshi audience. As one of the most efficient and stable economic institutions in a desperately poor country, there are many who are hoping he will succeed and that Grameen will weather this storm.

It was a YouTube version of a documentary film made by a Dane and broadcast in Norway late last year about Yunus, Grameen Bank and microfinance generally that prompted the outcry against him. The film – in Norwegian, it has not yet been translated – eventually prompted a government review of the Grameen Bank, investigating a number of charges ranging from some obscure accounting between Grameen subsidiaries and the Norwegian aid agency in the 1990s, to the charging of high interest rates to poor borrowers.

The government review cleared Yunus in April, but made a number of recommendations for the future of the Grameen Bank. At the same time, the government followed another line of attack with the finance minister ordering that he resign because he is too old; Grameen Bank took the minister to court and lost. Reluctantly, Yunus decided that to avoid further turbulence, he had no option but to resign. He is hoping that "good sense will prevail" and the government will allow him to take up a position of non-executive chair to oversee the transition.

While Yunus refuses to be drawn on the reasons for this bitter political dogfight, his many friends and allies are rushing to his help. An international campaign, Friends of the Grameen, was launched in March, chaired by Mary Robinson, while both the US and the French governments have remonstrated with the Bangladeshi authorities. Clinton phoned to offer her personal support; Nicolas Sarkozy wrote to assure Yunus of his. It's all a far cry from the day he stood up in Oslo and talked of putting "poverty into a museum" in his Nobel prize acceptance speech.

The most likely explanation for the attacks on him is that Yunus's brief foray into politics in 2007 unnerved Sheikh Hasina. He announced he was going to set up a political party but ended up abandoning his the idea after only two months. His huge global reputation and the economic weight of the Grameen brand has made enemies insecure.

Yunus may be suddenly unemployed, but he is not short of offers. There has been plenty of interest from all over the world, he admits, adding that he has been offered institutes to head, initiatives to lead, figurehead positions. But on this he is very clear: he is not leaving Bangladesh.

If the man is under siege, so is the idea he nurtured. There is a crisis in the microfinance sector in India, where high rates of interest in the private sector microfinance banks were linked with suicides. Yunus is defiant about microfinance, which he still passionately believes has been of benefit to millions.

"We never said microfinance was a silver bullet," he insists. "Or why would I bother to create 50 other companies ranging from agriculture to telecommunications? Job creation is the solution to poverty. Loans should only be given to fund enterprises. They mustn't ever be used for 'consumption smoothing' or how can people pay back the loans? It has to be about income generation."

"When microfinance spread across the world, some people abused it. Some went berserk. In my opinion, if there is any personal profit involved, it should not be called microfinance, which should be totally devoted to the benefit of poor people. People used the respect for microfinance. In every country where there was microfinance they needed proper regulatory authorities to oversee the sector and legislation to define it. I knew that the sector was crippled by an inadequate legal framework."


Yunus recognises there was some "overbilling" of microfinance, but sees that as part of the way you win donors' interest in a project. He certainly used powerful rhetoric to urge on efforts in tackling poverty. But beyond that he is unapologetic. He didn't oversell it; when he talked of putting poverty in a museum it was a "hope", he says, it was not a plan. And he is emphatic: "Microfinance does reduce poverty. Look at the people who have joined Grameen. It's the most intensively researched organisation in the world."

The research in Bangladesh has been positive but then the country's economy has been growing at 8% a year, and the research has not been rigorous enough to separate out which has been responsible for poverty reduction. Yunus knows these debates about evidence but he will give them no quarter, and he simply repeats: "I believe it reduces poverty; it's become the fashion to be negative about Grameen."

"It was the media who built up microfinance," he says.

On one thing even critics of microfinance agree. Whatever the problems now bedevilling the sector, its originator is being treated appallingly in Bangladesh. As for Yunus, he stoically insists his work must go on. He spends as much time talking about social business now as he does about microfinance, such as developing partnerships with businesses such as the food company Danone to create enterprise schemes for the poor. Institutes dedicated to social business have recently been launched in Glasgow and Paris.

"I'm programmed to keep working," he smiles, and then he allows himself a little self-aggrandisement. "It's like Socrates or Galileo. If you are saying something different or new, and it doesn't fit, it will create tension. If people applaud, you're not doing something new. If people get shocked, you're in business."

First published in The Guardian, Britain, 18 July 2011


guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2011

Friday, July 15, 2011

Re-engaging with Bangladesh: Active economic and security co-operation can help India reinvigorate ties with Bangladesh

RAJEEV RANJAN CHATURVEDY and DAVID M MALONE

New Delhi and Dhaka are acting together again to boost their relationship. The upcoming visit of India’s prime minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, to Bangladesh offers an opportunity to review the bilateral relationship between New Delhi and Dhaka.

Whenever such top-level meetings take place, the Indian media recalls New Delhi’s critical role in Bangladesh’s liberation, culminating in the creation of a new country in 1971. However, relations between liberators and the liberated rarely turn out to be easy. Misaligned expectations lead to mutual resentment, and objective problems are often shrouded in negative atmospherics, making their resolution more difficult, if not intractable. With the exception of a brief period immediately after the liberation, the relationship between the two countries has been marred by mistrust and mutual suspicion.

Nevertheless, some progress has been registered recently, as recorded in a joint communiqué last year between the two countries, including the grant of a $1 billion line of credit by the Indian government to Bangladesh. India has increased the annual duty-free quota from eight to ten million pieces of Bangladesh garment imports, but Bangladesh is looking for the removal of the “quota”, an option India needs to consider.

Co-operation in the power sector, including grid connectivity, has already taken off and should grow through 2013. In addition, India’s National Thermal Power Corporation has gone ahead to set up a 1,320 Mw green field power plant in Khulna, Bangladesh, as part of a joint venture. Work on linking the railway lines between Tripura and eastern Bangladesh is also progressing. Similarly, two “Border Haats” in Meghalaya will soon be ready, encouraging cross-border trade by local populations.

Regular exchanges of business delegations have resulted in several joint venture agreements in packaging, animal foods, auto components, denim and household utensils. Exports from Bangladesh to India increased by 52 per cent in the first nine months of 2010-11, a helpful development in broadening Bangladesh’s manufacturing base in the near future.

CHALLENGES AND THE WAY FORWARD
Earlier, from India’s perspective, Bangladesh seemed resentful of India’s economically more successful track record, failing to emulate its growth strategies and resisting several large India-inspired economic projects and related Indian investments, for example from the Tata conglomerate.

Of greater concern to India was the strength of radical Islam in organised politics in Bangladesh as well as the existence of significant Islamist militant groups, some of which had international links (including with confederates in Pakistan, and, allegedly, in India). The fear of Talibanisation of Bangladesh, which seems far-fetched to casual observers, remains real and urgent for much of India’s security establishment, although Bangladesh’s new government, under Sheikh Hasina, has reversed the dalliance with Islamic extremists that marked the period of Bangladeshi government under her arch-rival Khaleda Zia.

Bangladesh’s politics has long been dominated by these two women, both linked to political dynasties. Ms Zia was perceived in India and the West as playing on Islamic radicalisation, and relations with New Delhi suffered accordingly. Ms Hasina’s return to power in December 2008 has greatly improved the mood for bilateral relations.

The migration of Bangladeshis to India has at times been a politically salient and sensitive issue for New Delhi, particularly when terrorist acts in India are attributed – not always convincingly – in whole or in part to Bangladeshi migrants. In addition, Bangladesh’s reported harbouring of movements aiming at secession of parts of India’s north-east region (much of which was coveted by Pakistan in the run-up to the Partition) has been a sore point in bilateral relations.

While Bangladeshis are worried about the potential for Indian domination, India has its own concerns about border management, water sharing, transit-related issues and illegal migration — the narrow Siliguri corridor that links the north-east region with the rest of India is a worry.
India is seen by many in Bangladesh as an insensitive regional power. Given the growing trade imbalance between the two countries, India’s government needs to emonstrate sensitivity to Ms Hasina’s public opinion. Some unilateral measures by India benefiting Bangladesh will give a fresh impetus to the relationship, notably on market access for Bangladeshi exports to and through India. A recent study by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry suggests that Bangladesh is internationally (and relative to India) highly competitive in batteries, jute twine, cordage and ropes, and cement and bricks. Investment by India in these sectors in Bangladesh, combined with the option to re-export to India, will help diversify Bangladesh’s trade and reduce the trade gap between the two countries.

While Bangladeshis understandably feel “India-locked”, those in India’s north east sometimes feel “Bangladesh-locked”. India’s ability to trade with, and support, the remote north-east region is limited. Bangladesh could help. Moving beyond a history of turmoil in India’s north-east region, Bangladesh could seek market access and make investments there, setting up special economic zones along the border to tap raw materials from India’s north east using Bangladesh’s capital, technology and labour to expand employment, trade and exports. Bangladesh’s entrepreneurial and business communities can help develop this Indian region.

Active economic and security co-operation is very much in the mutual interest of both countries, even where it is asymmetric. The two governments must accept this proposition and work towards implementing it.

Published in the Business Standard, New Delhi, India, July 15, 2011

Rajeev Ranjan Chaturvedy is senior assistant director, International Affairs at Ficci, New Delhi and David M Malone is the president of IDRC, Canada, and the author of Does the Elephant Dance? Contemporary Indian Foreign Policy

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Bangladesh opposition threatens election boycott, hints of overthrow

SALEEM SAMAD

BANGLADESH'S MAIN opposition party has threatened to boycott the election if the government refuses to hold polls under non-partisan neutral government.

“We will not take part in the elections under a partisan government, as people will never accept the scrapping of the caretaker government system,” the head of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), former prime minister Khaleda Zia, said Wednesday.

She urged her supporters to overthrow the government through a popular uprising such as those that have occurred in some Middle East countries since the beginning of the year, a definite shift of strategy of her anti-government campaign launched two weeks ago.

Criticizing the government that has been in power for two and half years, Zia said should her party win the election, she would scrap the recently overhauled constitution that dropped the impartial non-party caretaker administration to ensure holding of a credible general election.

The opposition fears that the election would be rigged and manipulated, which would further marginalize their share in the 300-member parliament. The next election is scheduled in 2013.

“Election without caretaker government cannot be held in the country and any election without participation of BNP will not be acceptable,” she warned.

The ruling Awami League has amended the constitution, which not only prohibited the interim government from holding a general election, but also included a Koranic verse in the constitution. In a radical shift from secularism, the government has adopted an Islamic constitution.

Ruling party vehemently opposed the argument and said the election commission, literally a paper tiger would hold the election independently after it is significantly strengthened, the government promised.

Saleem Samad, an Ashoka Fellow is an award winning investigative journalist based in Bangladesh. He specializes in Jihad, forced migration, good governance and elective democracy. He has recently returned from exile after living in Canada for six years. He could be reached at saleemsamad@hotmail.com

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Swim The Padma: Merely looking east won’t do. India now must hold Bangladesh’s gaze.

Photo: S.M. Krishna met Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina in Dhaka on July 7. They reaffirmed the ‘high trajectory’ of bilateral cooperation.


PRANAY SHARMA , SALEEM SAMAD

A 48-hour bandh call, sit-in demonstrations and street protests of the Opposition snowballing into a pitched battle with the police—these were the images Indian foreign minister S.M. Krishna faced as he landed in Dhaka on July 6 for a three-day visit. Usually bursting to the seams with teeming millions thronging noisy, congested streets, the near-desolate Dhaka that greeted him just didn’t provide an appropriate backdrop to propel India-Bangladesh relations on a higher trajectory.

But herein lies the twist, typically Bangladeshi—those who had taken to the streets were venting their anger against Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed, and not against Krishna or India. There were two distinct sections among the angry collective—opposition forces had rallied against Hasina’s decision to abrogate the constitutional clause that requires a caretaker government to oversee the general election; the other section was out there bemoaning the government’s lack of resolve to adequately bolster the secular foundation of the constitution.

This, though, doesn’t mean the people here aren’t miffed at Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s impolitic remarks about Bangladesh in an informal chat with newspaper editors in New Delhi. To them, Manmohan had said that at least 25 per cent of Bangladeshis were anti-India, owed their allegiance to the Jamaat-e-Islami, and were in the clutches of Pakistan’s ISI. Inadvisably placed on the PM’s website, the remarks were eventually pulled out—but not before wounding Bangladeshi pride.

An opinion piece in Dhaka’s Daily Star faulted Manmohan for exaggerating the numbers of staunch Jamaat-e-Islami supporters who are consequently deemed anti-India. The newspaper has a point—in all the four general elections beginning 1991, the Jamaat’s best performance has seen it bag just 8.61 per cent of the total votes, a far cry from Manmohan’s figure of 25 per cent. Pointing to another of his comments—“the political landscape in Bangladesh can change anytime”—the piece said New Delhi must improve its relations with Dhaka to such an extent that a change in the political dispensation in Bangladesh does not impact negatively on India’s security and prosperity.

Others tried to analyse the motives behind Manmohan’s controversial remarks. So what was his intent? The New Age said, “It would not be a stretch to presume that the comments arrived at the right time to exert an influence on the number of agreements that are likely to be signed during these (Krishna’s and the PM’s) visits.” As for the Jamaat, it was quick to condemn the remarks as “baseless and untrue”. Its acting general secretary, A.T.M. Azharul Islam, said, “The Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami is a political and an Islamic movement party. It’s the party’s duty to talk in favour of the country’s interest.” He also vehemently denied any links between the Jamaat and the ISI or any other foreign intelligence agency, and said it wasn’t opposed to India.

The consensus here is that Manmohan did rile Bangladesh, but only temporarily. As Prof Imtiaz Ahmed of Dhaka University told Outlook, “Well, the citizens did react, but didn’t overreact; nor did the mainstream opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party led by Khaleda Zia. In fact, many people laughed at Manmohan’s claim that 25 per cent of Bangladeshis are anti-India. Do I understand that the rest are pro-India? That figure is very unlikely.” Agrees former Bangladeshi high commissioner to India, Liaquat Ali Chowdhury, “In appreciation of the possibility of a positive development in the Indo-Bangla relationship, the people did not demonstrate their anger on these unwarranted comments.”

Perhaps Bangladesh isn’t infuriated because India acted with alacrity to defuse the situation. Apart from Krishna’s visit, Manmohan made a call to Hasina and announced dates for visiting Bangladesh, which hasn’t hosted an Indian premier for 12 years now. Yet, even the Indian foreign policy establishment faults the PM for not exercising discretion. Former diplomat Ronen Sen told Outlook, “We need to be mindful about the sensitivity of our neighbour, especially when we are commenting on their internal situation. The issue isn’t about the veracity of the comments, but the fact that it was not kept confidential by PMO officials. This needs to change.”

Change it must, for New Delhi can’t expect a friendlier government in Dhaka than Hasina’s. For all the ripples Manmohan’s remarks created in Bangladesh, Hasina sent her foreign minister, Dipu Moni, to receive Krishna at the airport, signalling her resolve to strengthen bilateral relations. This had also been on vivid display during her visit to New Delhi last year, when she promised to address New Delhi’s security concerns. India returned the favour by extended a whopping $1 billion line of credit to Bangladesh. Says Abdul Matlub Ahmad, president of the India-Bangladesh Chamber of Commerce and Industry, “India’s credit for building the road and railway infrastructure from Bangladesh to Tripura will widen the scope to explore the huge consumer market in India’s northeastern states.”

Yet Hasina was unsure of Indian reciprocity to her efforts, as there was no clear indication then of a Manmohan visit to Bangladesh. Only through that visit could Hasina counter her detractors, who claimed New Delhi hadn’t warmed to her overtures. With the Indian PM’s visit now scheduled in September, Hasina would get enough chances to prove India means well. Indian goodwill was on display during Krishna’s visit that saw the inking of two agreements between India and Bangladesh—one seeks to protect and promote each other’s bilateral investments; the other allows trucks plying between Bhutan and Bangladesh passage through India. Krishna also assured Bangladesh that several projects under the line of credit were now in the “implementation stage”. He confidently declared in Dhaka, “The bilateral cooperation between India and Bangladesh is on a high trajectory.”

Will Indo-Bangla relations tick now, in a better way than before? “For it to work,” says Sen, “the relationship has to be perceived by people of both countries as mutually beneficial.” Sen argues that New Delhi must change its attitude of perceiving its projects in neighbouring countries as favours bestowed upon them. He also thinks New Delhi must quell opposition to its foreign policy plans from states bordering Bangladesh in the larger national interest, as also that of Indian business interests.

Photo: Upping Ante Khaleda Zia being greeted by Manmohan Singh during her 2006 India visit. (Photograph by Narendra Bisht)

Take the textile sector. Bangladeshi garments are not only of good quality, but are priced low, as it is a labour-intensive industry. Providing the Bangladeshi textile sector access to the large Indian market will boost employment and endear India to Bangladeshis. Adds Sen, “The trade imbalance between the two sides is huge and favours India. Though we may not be able to narrow the gap overnight, by giving Bangladeshi garments access to the Indian market, we can perhaps make a dent.” Sen, who has worked in the Indian mission in Dhaka, believes “India’s ‘Look East Policy’ will not work” without Bangladesh, Myanmar and the northeastern states earning a stake in developing the region.

An obsession with Pakistan often makes many in India overlook Bangladesh’s importance. Says Leela Ponappa, a former diplomat who had earlier handled the Bangladesh brief, “Bangladesh’s importance needs to be brought into the Indian people’s consciousness. It is a very intense and extensive relationship. There are huge opportunities for both sides which need timely cashing in on.” For one, India and Bangladesh share a massive 4,000-km border, the porous nature of which lets many Bangladeshis to cross over, and also criminal gangs from India seeking a safe haven there. This phenomenon has resulted in the Border Security Force of India exchanging fire with the Bangladesh Border Guards (the erstwhile Bangladesh Rifles). Since every such incident becomes a highly emotive issue in Bangladesh, it is imperative for the two sides to evolve a mechanism to address this problem at the local commandant level through regular interventions.

Despite the hope enshrined in the Indira-Mujib agreement of 1974, nearly 6.5 km of the border still remains undemarcated. The exchange of enclaves that belong to one but are under the control of the other is also pending. No agreement has yet been reached on “adverse positions”, areas which, by virtue of their location, are under the control of one country but difficult to govern. Still hanging fire is the problem of sharing the waters of the Teesta and other rivers.

When Manmohan visits Dhaka in September, it is believed agreements on these contentious issues—better access for Bangladeshi goods to the Indian market, better border management, and water-sharing—will constitute the “big package” the two sides would agree upon. Former Indian high commissioner to Bangladesh Veena Sikri says, “We need a few high-visibility projects in Bangladesh as China has got. Modernisation of railways and dredging of rivers are examples.” Perhaps then the Indian premier might discover that he has no need to dream up anti-India forces.

Published in OUTLOOK magazine, July 18, 2011


By Pranay Sharma in Delhi and Saleem Samad in Dhaka