India and Bangladesh: The Potential of Bilateral, Sub-Regional and Regional Cooperation

Perspective By Harun ur Rashid

India appears to be genuinely interested in promoting bilateral trade with Bangladesh. Many of the Indian companies are, however, not aware of the nature and quality of Bangladeshi manufactured products

In recent days, it has been reported that the new UK Prime Minister Theresa May had a working lunch with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin and an informal dinner with French President Franscois Hollande in Paris. I hope days will not be far when Indian Prime Minister may follow a work programme in the morning in New Delhi, Dhaka in the afternoon and Lahore in the evening as that of the British Prime Minister.

I am hopeful because the relations between India and Bangladesh have taken a positive trajectory for economic growth and development under the Hasina government since 2009 and other South Asian countries may follow the same. In the days of economic globalisation and inter-dependence of nations, no single country can adequately address the national, regional and global issues on her own and needs support and cooperation of neighbouring states.

Take Europe for instance. Millions of Europeans died during the Second World War and after the end of war, peace has prevailed as seen during the last 70 years. Hands of Cooperations are extended instead of confrontation and 27 States have developed a supra-national organisation – the European Union – that came with freedom of movement of persons, goods, labour, and financial services among the member-states. Although many Europeans are disgruntled with the existing rules-bound system of the European Union, they support the institution with reforms. Brexit, undoubtedly, has inflicted pain and witnessed downslide of the UK economy.

The engagement among South Asian countries is quite natural because they have common history of colonial past that left similar legacy and institutions in the countries of the region. Railways, laws and regulations, English language, education system, trade and industry are no different from one another. Such commonness has led easier cooperation among them. Issues and problems will be there but the leaders will have to continue to address them in order to resolve them.

Our common enemy is poverty and it has to be eliminated so that everyone has a sustainable basic minimum standard of necessities of life available to them. Old and disadvantaged are to be cared for. Safety of women and children are to be ensured. Human rights and social justice must be protected for the community. Social justice is not carried out at the court of law but at the court of human conscience, compassion and empathy whereas fundamental human rights are enshrined in the constitution and the courts are there for their enforcement.

South Asia has been endowed with huge natural resources and modern technology can easily be applied to harness the resources for the common benefit of the people. Speed and innovation are the hallmark of productive capacity of a nation in the digital age. Economists are of the view that integration of economy among regional and sub-regional countries must be established.

Two sub-groupings have been discussed for some years among the regional countries. First the idea has been to launch a sub-regional economic group with Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and north-eastern states of India for growth of regional economy. Regrettably, this eastern region suffers from much less economic activities than those of the rest of India and, therefore, the region needs special attention for investment and infrastructure. Unemployment among young will gradually disappear once economic growth increases and hence their frustration. Economic growth may lead to restoration of law and order in the area as well.

Bangladesh’s relations with India are complex, multi-dimensional in terms of membership of multiple regional organisations including SAARC and BIMSTEC and go beyond the official relations between the two governments. The relations among peoples of the two countries remain irrespective of highs and lows of governmental relations.

That is why the more interaction among the people takes place the better is the strength and quality of relations. One of the expectations of people of Bangladesh is the availability of Indian Visa on arrival in India (vice versa) – a facility given to the Chinese citizens by India.

A new phenomenon — the presence of prosperous and modern China has surfaced across the world. China has a presence in South Asia with its cheque-book diplomacy.

China has presented two far-reaching proposals to South Asia — first has been the BCIM (Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar) Economic Corridor which has the potential of tapping billions of dollars of trade and investment among BCIM countries. Allied with the Economic Corridor, the establishment of new maritime silk route through South Asia and Indian Ocean to Africa could be groundbreaking.

The bilateral relations between India and Bangladesh have been underpinned by two important documents: (a) the 51-paragraph Joint Communique of 13th January, 2010, following the visit of Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to India and (b) Joint Declaration on the 2011 Framework Agreement on Cooperation for Development during the visit of India’s Prime minister’s visit to Bangladesh.

The above two documents deal with bilateral, sub-regional and regional cooperation on almost all issues, from trade to global climate change, and from water sharing of common rivers to sharing energy grid.

This was the first time India has agreed to address a regional and sub-regional issue on a bilateral basis between two countries. Two kinds of meetings are envisaged under this Framework Agreement – firstly at the Foreign Minister’s level and secondly, at the Secretary level. By 2015, Foreign Ministers had met three times.

India appears to be genuinely interested in promoting bilateral trade with Bangladesh. Many of the Indian companies are, however, not aware of the nature and quality of Bangladeshi manufactured products. The chambers of commerce and industry of each country must be well equipped in providing the information to buyers and sellers.

To increase trade for Bangladesh, not only the tariff but also non-tariff and para-tariff including the rules of origin against Bangladesh products must be removed. A lenient attitude must be adopted toward Bangladesh – a still-developing country. The meetings of Joint Economic Commission may make recommendations to increase Bangladesh trade with India (in 2013-14 Bangladesh official exports were worth $456.63 while India’s were $6 billion.)

Experts suggest that the trade deficit is to be considered as a political one instead of economic issue because of the size of the deficit from Bangladesh.

Another area of huge cooperation among Bangladesh, India and Myanmar is the development of resources of blue waters because the maritime boundary of the three countries in the Bay of Bengal has been resolved through international tribunal (with Myanmar in 2012 and with India 2014).

There are numerous measures of water use, including total water use, drinking water consumption, non-consumptive use, withdrawn water use (from surface and groundwater sources), in-stream use, water footprint, etc. Each of these (and other) measures of water use is appropriate for some purposes and inappropriate for others.

It is reported that resources are found at the sea more than those available on land. The three countries may consider collaborating their activities with a view to utilising the variety of resources for the benefit of coastal states.

Bangladesh’s relations with Myanmar have become much cordial and friendly since the opposition leader and Nobel Peace Laureate Suu Kyi became the ‘State Counsellor’ and Foreign Minister of the country. Hopefully the issues pending between the two neighbours will gradually be resolved to the mutual satisfaction of both parties by concluding the proposed Framework Agreement which will enable to perceive the issues in the right context.

India is a regional power and is on its way to become a global power and therefore, India has been vigilant to the influence of other maritime powers in the Indian Ocean. Even the sale of two submarines by China to Bangladesh in 2014 has not escaped its notice and concern.

Day by day the Indian Ocean is becoming important for commercial and strategic reasons. It is here the interests of the US, India and China collide. This being the case, a kind of Cold War is being fought to maintain its influence over other nations. New equipment and naval assets are deployed in the Indian Ocean for its security by the three countries and the US is leading in this game.

Bangladesh’s relations with China are friendly and Bangladesh, which are independent of her relations with India. It maintains friendly relations with both and China is engaged in the construction of infrastructure in the country including the bridge over the Padma (Ganges) River.

However, to keep peace on the Indian Ocean, a regional organisation (recently re-named Indian Ocean Rim Organisation) was formed in 1997, the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Co-operation (IOR-ARC) which came into being to a joint initiative of South Africa, India, Australia and Mauritius.

There are five major features to consider: the recognition given to maritime security and the need to invest in modernisation of the navy and coastal defence, distribution of data and information establishing a network among Indian Ocean Region (IOR) countries and promoting standardisation and harmonisation in data, statistics and procedures. Bangladesh is among its 21 members.

Finally the people of Bangladesh and India have distanced themselves from being communal and are rather open, having mutual respect for each other and following the institution of secularalism. It has been observed that the people of both countries are fond of literary and cultural exchanges among musicians, singers, writers and artistes.

One may not forget that the national anthems of the two countries, emanate from the same Nobel Laureate for Literature - Rabindranath Tagore, whose literary works inspire and guide us from the cradle to grave. ■

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Diplomatist Magazine was launched in October of 1996 as the signature magazine of L.B. Associates (Pvt) Ltd, a contract publishing house based in Noida, a satellite town of New Delhi, India, the National Capital.