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India And Bangladesh:BREATH OF FRESH AIR FROM DHAKA, by Dr Nitish Sengupta, IAS (Retd), 14 May 2010 Print E-mail

Open Forum

New Delhi, 14 May 2010

India And Bangladesh

Breath of Fresh Air from DHAKA

By Dr Nitish Sengupta, IAS (Retd)

Former Member LokSabha and formerly

Member-SecretaryPlanning Commission

 A speech delivered by the High Commissioner of Bangladesh, TariqKarim, at Shillong on 10th April last has so far notreceived the importance it deserves.  Inmany respects this speech titled “From land locked to land linked: North EastIndia” deserves to be widely read and widely studied.  It can be called a manifesto of the currentthinking among the best of experts from Bangladesh who wish to normalize traderelations between Bangladesh and India in a way that benefit both thesecountries and, for that matter, benefit South Asia as a whole.  He nostalgically recalls the trade relationsthat prevailed in the early days after the partition of the sub-continentbetween the then East Bengal provinceof Pakistan and the neighboringprovinces of India.  That phase came to end with the Indo-Pakistanclash of 1965 which led to the termination of all the existing communicationchannels. 

Dr Karim passionately advocates what he calls “relinking thedisconnected linkages” which existed prior to 1965 and were ruthlessly snappedby the Indo-Pakistan conflict of 1965. According to him “Bangladeshis in the very happy position of being able to offer itself as a gatewaybetween India and Bangladesh on the one hand and countries of the South East Asia on the other.  “We are ready to take on our destiny as anatural bridge between India’sNorth East and the rest of the country as also between India and Bangladeshon the one hand and South East Asia on theother hand.  We are ready and willing tohelp reconnect not only the States of the North East to the rest of India but also enable Nepaland Bhutan to get access tothe sea and enable India toreach Myanmar and Thailand.

Bangladesh is eager to serve as the hub ofregional linkages in all its modes – “air, road, rail and riverine”. He dreamsof regular riverine connection between Guwahati and Karimganj in Assam on one side and Kolkata and Allahabad in India.  He mentions addition of Ashuganj as a regularport of call.  He also mentions that as alogical corollary, Bangladeshshould allow India to use Chittagong port for transporting bulk goods to India’s NorthEast and vice-versa.  He also envisagesthe reopening of all the closed rail-road routes through Bangladesh suchas Radhikapur-Birol, Haldibari-Chilahati, Geetaldaha-Moghulhat andSealdah-Khulna not to speak of setting up of railway link between Akhaura andAgartala. 

Once these are established, travelling distance to the NorthEast India will be considerably shortened and that will benefit people of boththe countries.  He even envisages theextension of the existing Dhaka-Kolkata and Dhaka-Agartala bus routes toShillong and Guwahati.  A distinct gainfrom Indiawill be that the cost of transporting bulk goods like food grains and cement tothe North East India will be reduced by one-third.  It will also mean not using costly importeddiesel on a route (Kolkata to Shillong) which is more than double the roaddistance between Kolkata and Mumbai.  Bangladesh will gain enormously through theroyalty that it can levy on Indiaand also through the enormous employment opportunities which will be createdall along these new routes.  Dr. Karimalso talks of reopening of the traditional border Hats which will provideconsiderable economic benefit to the people of both sides of the border.

All this should be music to our ears.  India, therefore, needs to takethis speech very seriously and respond to it in a positive and concrete manner.In that event, Bangladeshwill become an essential platform for economic improvement of not only Bangladesh and India but also as a bridge-head foreconomic development in the entire SAFTA and ASEAN region. 

For years, India-Bangladesh relations were affected by a lotof mutual suspicion and mis-apprehension. Bangladesh feared India’sdomination and tried zealously to safeguard all visible aspects of hersovereignty.  It was felt that allowing India to trans ship her goods through Bangladeshterritory amounted to the loss of her sovereignty.  Also there were deep rooted suspicions of India withholding Bangladesh’s legitimate due ofriver waters.  The unmarked bordersbetween the two countries, not natural borders in any sense, but artificiallycreated borders, caused tension at many points. Extremist opinion in Bangladeshoften forgot Bangladesh’sadvantages in her geographical position, almost like Panama Canal or Suez Canalproviding transit passage for Indian goods through Bangladeshto the entire India’snorth east. 

Bangladesh could have earned billions ofdollars by permitting this transit traffic. Instead, all kinds of difficultieswere created.  Even at the Indian end,many officials in the South Block for reasons best known to themselves wereagainst reliance on Bangladeshfor transit traffic.  One cannot rule outthe influence exercised on both the countries by very powerful road transport lobbyfrom India.  In between for several years under theprevious Jot Government, Bangladeshencouraged both Pakistan’sJihadi elements to launch attacks in Indiatreating Bangladesh as abase and also the secessionists elements in the North East to operate from Bangladesh.  There was a high wall of suspicion betweenthe two sides. 

The new Government, which returned to power with anover-whelming mandate, made a complete break from the recent past by declaringthat Bangladesh would notallow her soil for use by anti-India elements and by handing over secured topsecessionist to India.Also, Bangladesh declaredthat she would favourably consider a request from Indiafor both transit traffic and the use of Bangladesh’sport and riverine facilities for transit traffic between India and hernorth eastern States.  Prime MinisterSheikh Hassina’s recent visit to NewDelhi was a land mark in restoring normalcy.  Now Bangladesh’sHigh Commissioner’s statement with refreshing candour shows that Bangladesh iswilling to forget the past and is ready to begin a new future. 

India should encash thisopportunity.  The protocol between India’s CentralInland Water Ways Corporation and Bangladesh Government for riverine trafficbetween Kolkata and Guwahati and Karimganj should be immediatelyimplemented.  If necessary, BangladeshWater Ways Corporation should be allowed 50 per cent share holding in theIndian company. The Portof Ashuganj which isnavigable throughout the year should be reactivated for traffic with Kolkata.  Ashuganj is only 40 kms from Agartala and ifthe Indian trucks are allowed to proceed to Ashuganj and allowed to load goodscarried by the steamers from Kolkata. This can be a key signal for development. Lastly there is strongpossibility of trans-shipment of goods by coastal ships from Haldia andParadeep to Chittagong and thereafter carryingthem through Bangladeshrailways to Akhura where Indian trucks can take over the task of trans-shippingof these goods to all over the north east. 

India need not pursue the agreement thatshe has entered with Myanmarfor trans-shipping goods through Akyab port and Kaladen river to Ajal. Thatwill be very costly and uncertain. Finally there is a question of permitting the ASEAN highway and theASEAN rail road through Bangladeshupto Bangkok and Singapore.  Indiashould no longer spend unnecessary time on “negative list, etc.” and permitfree import of goods from Bangladesh.  This will correspondingly impose on Bangladesh thesame obligation to do so in respect of Indian goods. Already the cement factoryat Chatak depending on raw material, from Meghalaya has set a goodexample.  There could be any number ofgood examples.  Bangladesh’s current power crisis can be solvedby Indiaproviding some power from her own grid. It is the duty of Indiaand Bangladeshto ensure that all these proposals are not allowed to remain only emptypromises but are translated on the ground. They will surely benefit both thecountries and also usher in a new era of friendly cooperation. ---INFA

(Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)



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