[Answered] “There is scope for India­ Bangladesh ties to move to the next level, based on cooperation, coordination and consolidation.” Comment.

Demand of the question
Introduction. Contextual Introduction.
Body. Present relations and issues. What should be done to improve the relations?
Conclusion. Way forward.

India and Bangladesh share a common border of 4096 km running through five Indian states, West Bengal, Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram. India’s relations with Bangladesh are traditionally, cultural, social and economic. There is a much that brings them together. Today, the India-Bangladesh border is one of India’s most secured. The signing of the Land Boundary Agreement in 2015 was a milestone, where the two neighbours amicably resolved a long-outstanding issue. But there are many long-standing issues.

What are the present areas of co-operation?

  1. Connectivity: India’s ‘neighbourhood policy’ has focussed on Bangladesh, which has emerged as a key interlocutor in India’s ‘Act East Policy’ and sub-regional groupings like BIMSTEC and the BBIN Initiative. The Padma multipurpose bridge and the Akhaura-Agartala rail link will dramatically change connectivity within Bangladesh and with India.
  2. Cyberspace: Bangladesh has provided cyber connectivity between the international gateway at Cox’s Bazar to Agartala for faster Internet connectivity in India’s northeastern States.
  3. Energy: India has also become a partner in Bangladesh’s nuclear power programme, with the beginning of construction at the Rooppur nuclear power plant. India is poised to export around 1100 MW of power to meet the energy deficit in Bangladesh.
  4. Trade: Bangladesh is India’s largest trading partner in South Asia with an annual turnover of around $9 billion plus an estimated informal trade of around $8-9 billion. To enable more Bangladeshi exports to flow into India, duty free entry was granted in 2011 under the South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA).
  5. Credit: Indian investment in Bangladesh has reached $3 billion. To offset the economic asymmetry, India has granted Bangladesh generous lines of credit (LOCs) and grants, with commitments reaching $8 billion. While LOCs flow into infrastructure and connectivity projects, grants flow into social sector development.
  6. Tourism: Over a million visas are issued to Bangladeshi citizens by India annually. Both countries have signed Revised Travel Arrangement 2018 (RTA 2018) for further liberalising the visa regime, including enhanced duration for employment and student visas.

Issues Influencing Relations:

  1. Illegal trade: The porous borders are often used as a route for smuggling food items, livestock, drugs and medicines from India to Bangladesh.
  2. Water Dispute: India and Bangladesh share 54 trans-border rivers, varying in sizes. There is major dispute and a bone of contention over India’s plans to construct and operate the Farakka Barrage. The inadequate water during the lean season is unable to meet the assessed demands in the two countries became the root cause of conflict between bordering countries.
  3. Illegal Migrations: Illegal migration has been the most problematic issue between these two countries. Since 1971, when war of independence broke out that led to the creation of Bangladesh, millions of Bangladeshi immigrants (the vast majority of them illegal) crossed into the neighbouring states in India.
  4. Security Concerns: Over the years, insurgency has strained the relations between India and Bangladesh. Since 1956, Northeast India has been the worst hit region facing insurgency due to growing ethnic separatism among the inhabitants. Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), National Liberation of Tripura (NLFT) and National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFM) are major insurgent groups that have created an atmosphere of terror in Northeast India.

Where should the future focus lie?

  1. Ties on basis of cooperation, coordination and consolidation should move forward and should aim better economic ties and relations.
  2. The Rohingya issue has imposed a huge economic and security burden on Bangladesh. Thus issue should be resolved bilaterally.
  3. India, on its part, published the draft National Register of Citizens in Assam to account genuine Indian citizens residing in Assam and to curb the flow of illegal migrants in the future. Thus the illegal migrants issue, along with sharing of river waters, will require deft handling of bilateral ties between the two countries.
  4. Also, China’s security and economic footprint has grown in South Asia and managing this will remain a challenge for both countries. While Bangladesh is overwhelmingly dependent on military hardware from China, India has provided a $500 million LOC for procurement of defence-related goods from India.

In any case, course has changed after the difference in government in India, which advocates a solid ‘neighbourhood first’ outside approach. We need to go past the geopolitical impulses and move towards more concrete provincial collaboration like what the Europeans and Southeast Asians are doing. The shared colonial legacy, history and socio-cultural bonds demand that the political leadership of the two countries inject momentum into India-Bangladesh relations.

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