Bangladesh’s emergence as a fast-growing economy has coincided with improved ties with India that has catapulted bilateral relations as the one with the strongest potential in the region.
Neighbors are typically either friendly or rivals. In the case of , none of them are true.
A beleaguered nation that has its roots in the partition of the subcontinent in 1947--some might say even 1905 when the British divided Bengal into East and West, India played a critical role in the formation of modern-day Bangladesh.
That should have put India in the list of evergreen good samaritans for Bangladesh but that has not been the case. A host of issues including the country’s flirtations with radical Islam, the problematic porous border with India which leads to the issue of illegal infiltration, and traditionally unresolved water treaties, the two countries have largely enjoyed a blow hot blow cold relation at best.
Under the stable regimes of Sheikh Hasina in Bangladesh and in India that has begun to change. As the two most sure footed and growth-oriented economies in the region, India and Bangladesh could be seen as rivals in some sections but they have emerged more like allies.
As such, Modi’s choice of Bangladesh as the first foreign nation for a physical visit in the post pandemic era doesn’t come as a surprise. It comes on the back of a foundation that has been built over the last two years by a series of trips made by high level delegations.
It began with the visit of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to Delhi in October 2019 followed by the sixth meeting of the joint consultative commission in September 2020, the Virtual Summit on 17 December 2020 and the visit of India’s external affairs minister to Dhaka on 4 March 2021. Modi’s visit to commemorate 50 years of Bangladesh’s war of liberation and birth centenary of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman--father of the nation, could not have been more apt.
Shared heritage and challenges
“We have descended from a shared heritage, and we are advancing towards shared development. We have shared goals and shared challenges,” Modi said in Dhaka.
Beyond the rhetoric, many agreements were signed that lend credence to a better future.
The two Prime Ministers laid a foundation stone for five packages out of the total 8 of Rooppur Power Evacuation Project, inaugurated 3 border haats and Rabindra Bhawan facilities in Kuthibari. Both sides also agreed to run a passenger train – Mitali Express, between New Jalpaiguri and Dhaka on the recently restored pre 1965 Chilahati Haldibari rail link.
To reinforce cooperation in the health sector based on requirements indicated by Bangladesh, India also gifted 109 life support ambulances, the ley to the first of which was handed over by Modi to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. India has already provided 102 lakhs vaccines to Bangladesh-- of which 32 lakh is a gift, as part of its vaccine diplomacy.
In all five MOUs in the areas of disaster management, trade remedial measures, development projects and between the NCC of the two countries, were signed.
India and Bangladesh are today better connected through road, rail and river routes through which goods are transported using Bangladeshi trucks, vessels and railway. In the recent past arrangements have been made that gives India the opportunity to move its merchandise through Mongla port road, rail, and water routes.
Enhancing the economic links
In all, India and Bangladesh had signed an agreement on 17 railway projects costing about $2.4 billion. Of these projects, nine have been completed. A 12 km link between Agartala in India (Tripura) and Akhaura in Bangladesh, expected to be completed in September this year, will connect Gangasagar in Bangladesh to Nischintapur in India (10.6 kilometres) and then connect Nischintapur to Agartala railway station (5.46 kilometres) in India. This new rail link will reduce the journey time between Agartala and Kolkata to 10 hours from the current 31 hours while reducing the distance to a mere 550 km instead of 1,600 kms. Among other projects, the $78-million link between Kulaura and Shahbazpur and the $389-million Khulna-Mongla line would also be ready later this year.
READ MORE ON INDIA & CENTRAL ASIA:
“To strengthen relations with Bangladesh has been a priority for me since the first day,” Modi said in December. “This year has been full of challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic. During this time, there has been good cooperation between our countries in the sphere of working with health professions, COVID-19 vaccine etc.”
Better connectivity for people and goods has boosted bilateral trade as well. . Between 2009-10 and 2015-16, the trade deficit grew in India’s favour at a staggering 164.4 percent.
Before the two countries realise the full potential of this partnership a number of long-standing issues like the Teesta river water sharing agreements, border disputes and non-tariff barriers need to be resolved. The frequency of high-level engagement suggests these would be ironed out soon.