Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is arriving in India today (5 September 2022) on a 4 day visit. A much anticipated reciprocal visit possibly also a last one before Bangladesh holds its 12th Jatiya Sangsad (parliamentary ) election in 2023. While the two neighbours are likely to agree to conclude at the earliest the proposed Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement, it is also likely to sign a water sharing agreement on river water sharing of Khusiara. The Joint River Commission which met recently indeed after a long break, has identified seven common rivers for developing a framework for water sharing, a long standing demand from Bangladesh.

By Dr Sreeradha Datta

Undoubtedly, water sharing is the most emotive issue for Bangladesh vis-à-vis India and it alludes to the strength of this bilateral partnership that the lack of any water sharing agreement over the past decade has not derailed the neighbours from engaging on a broad based framework of cooperation that has increasingly added more projects and proposals to the large basket of joint collaboration that is ongoing between them.

While for political reasons there exists a stalemate on the Teesta river water sharing but both sides need to examine water sharing issue beyond the quantum of water flows. As two friendly neighbours India and Bangladesh can seek to address the need and the requirement for the water flow, and seek to understand how they can supplement and complement each other’s agro needs and cropping patterns, including any augmentation plan.

Sheikh Hasina in a recent interview about her upcoming visit has noted that this visit is about strengthening the ‘multifaceted’ bilateral ties. India and Bangladesh partnership is truly multifaceted. The bilateral ties range from social and cultural, political and economic, security and defence. The bilateral breakthrough was possible with the 2010 joint communique that was signed and buttressed further with the land boundary agreement of 2014. Energy trade agreement was one of the first bilateral tangibles between the two neighbours. Presently, Bangladesh not only receives 1000 MW of electricity from India (of which about 100 MW goes from Tripura) in the wake of Bangladesh rising fuel prices, strengthening bilateral energy cooperation will take uppermost priority for Hasina. Much is already on the cards. The first of the two units, Maitree Super Thermal Power Project at Rampal is likely to be commissioned later this year. Each unit would produce about 660 MW of electricity. Bangladesh may also be considering buying LNG from India shortly. More interestingly the bilateral energy cooperation is set to enlarge its scope to the subregion drawing in Bhutan and Nepal, given their larger hydro potential. They both are in discussion of proposals to sell Bangladesh electricity through a regional grid over India. The modalities are being discussed and once finalised this will likely change the sub- region’s energy trade prospects.

A large business delegation is accompanying Hasina. Apart from the high-level meetings with President and Prime Minister of India, this visit will have a distinct business focus. Not only has Bangladesh become India’s 6th largest bilateral partner but from 3 billion USD trade in 2014 it has crossed 10 billion USD in 2021. More importantly Bangladesh’s exports to India have grown and if the proposed Indian Special Economic Zone is established in Bangladesh the trade patterns are bound to change too with Bangladesh’s ability to produce potential export products. While Indian investments in Bangladesh needs to be encouraged more comprehensively through specific measures, Bangladeshi investments are slowly coming to India and Bangladeshi PRAN Group Company’s presence in Tripura will not only help break many past difficulties but also develop the regional supply chains which has the potential to substantially change the regional trade landscape.

Over and above the many engagements that India and Bangladesh enjoys spanning several sectors, the two most important take away of this bilateral relationship is how Bangladesh has helped India bringing its Northeast region closer to its mainland, by providing transit through the cross border transport infrastructure, which has also led to an emergence of sub regionalism in South Asia. This has huge implications for many other regional initiatives like BIMSTEC and IORC that India is keenly pushing. The cross border transport projects between the two neighbours have not only re-created the erstwhile broken transport linkages but also enabled a physical and mental reconnect across the borders. Through roadways railways, airports, inland water transit, not only people’s cross border movement has been greatly facilitated at the same time, it has also led to an efficient multimodal cargo movement which has led to mainland India accessing Northeast far more easily that it was ever possible in the past 50 years. This was possible only because Sheikh Hasina soon after assuming office in 2009 addressed India’s outstanding security concerns. Beginning with a billion USD line of credit in 2010, India has now offered a credit line of 8 billion USD. The grants have been used not only for the cross border facilities but also for dredging and building the India Bangladesh friendship pipeline, which will transport diesel from India to Bangladesh through a 130 km oil pipeline costing Rs 346 crore that will start functioning shortly.

Clearly, India and Bangladesh share a robust partnership which shows all signs of strengthening through time. This is not to suggest that there are not several outstanding issues between them, Rohingya, illegal trade, human trafficking and many such more. But given the level of understanding that exists even tough conversation can take place without ruffling feathers. There is a need to clarify many bilateral concerns, while also converge on several traditional and non-traditional issues of climate change, rising sea levels, pollution etc affecting both neighbours.

Increasingly people on both sides are enjoying the dividends from the various projects that have already been implemented. While India has benefitted with Bangladesh’s cooperation on security, transit and others, many of the India supported projects have equally benefitted Bangladesh and will yield positive resonance with greater implementation of the proposed or incomplete projects. It needs to be underscored that the importance of India for Bangladesh outweighs any of its other bilateral ties.

India’s role in its Liberation War that was evident during the joint activities of Bangladesh’s celebration of its 50 years is unique and a significant factor that will continue to positively influence the two neighbours. At the same time, the expectation from India is also greater sometimes creating some dissonance amongst the common people. For India and Bangladesh, it is important to ensure that nothing derails them from the large scope of cooperative framework that they have set themselves up for. The neighbours need to stay the track. This is critical not only for sake of their own national interests but also for giving regionalism a fair chance in South Asia.