South Asia is facing tough times- with a failing Sri Lankan Economy, Pakistan’s political instability followed by a debt crisis and environmental catastrophes, and Afghanistan’s regime change to Taliban and Myanmar’s military dictatorship. There is also global unrest caused due to the Russian-Ukraine war that has increased prices and tension in the geopolitics world over.
Amidst all this, two South Asian nations, India and Bangladesh, have set a good example by taking relevant steps toward strengthening their bilateral relations. The four-day visit of Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to India on September 5th with the purpose of a tete-a-tete with the Indian counterpart PM Narendra Modi, followed by delegation-level talks between the two focused on water treaties, connectivity, power and energy, trade and investment, security, border disputes, environment and climate change, development cooperation, and regional and multilateral issues. “In order to keep the spirit of 1971 alive, it is very necessary that we jointly face forces that want to attack our mutual trust,” PM Modi said. The two signed seven Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) in different sectors and, several other projects and initiatives were also unveiled during the visit.
Both sides talked extensively on the connectivity concerns, welcoming the ongoing initiatives, such as conversion to dual-gauge of Tongi- Akhaura line and supply of rail rolling stock. Some newer initiatives include Kaunia-Lalmonirhat-Mogalghat-New Gitaldaha link between Hili and Birampur, upgradation of track and signalling systems and railway stations along the Benapole-Jashore line, link restoration between Burimari and Changrabandha, construction of container depot at Sirajganj, etc. The two MoUs signed between the Ministry of Railways, India and the Ministry of Railways, Bangladesh focuses on the Training of Bangladesh Railway Personnel in India and Collaboration in IT systems such as FOIS and other IT Applications for Bangladesh Railways. The two sides also inaugurated the 5.13 km Rupsha rail bridge, connecting Khulna with Mongla port and the Indian border at Petrpole and Gede in West Bengal. PM Modi said, “India will continue all kinds of cooperation for the development and expansion of Bangladesh’s railway system.” The leaders also mutually agreed to start talks on the proper implementation and planning of the BBIN initiative, later this year.
The issue which had the utmost relevance between the two nations was the water management and water sharing agreements. Though the expectations were towards concluding the long pending interim agreement on the sharing of the waters of the Teesta River, the draft for which was finalised in 2011 but the two leaders instead signed an MoU between the Ministry of Jal Shakti, India and the Ministry of Water Resources, Bangladesh on withdrawal of water by India and Bangladesh from the common border river Kushiyara, which will help Bangladesh to tackle its irrigation needs in the Sylhet region and simultaneously facilitate projects in Assam. Referring to the issue of sharing river water, PM Hasina said, ”I know as long as Prime Minister Modi is here, Bangladesh and India will resolve all these problems.” India also thanked Bangladesh for enabling the intake well on withdrawal of 1.82 cusecs of water from Feni River for an efficient supply of drinking water in the state of Tripura.
Showing gratitude towards the declining number of border deaths, both countries have decided to work in the direction of bringing the numbers down to zero. They appreciated the guarding forces of both the nations standing against the smuggling of arms, narcotics and fake currency and preventing women and child trafficking. One MoU has also been signed between the National Judicial Academy, India and the Supreme Court of Bangladesh on the Training and Capacity Building Programme for Bangladesh Judicial Officers in India.
In the field of energy, the two nations agreed to expeditiously implement projects to synchronise the power grids of the two countries, through the proposed high capacity 765 KV transmission line from Katihar (Bihar) to Borknagar (Assam) passing through Parbatipur in Bangladesh. To further strengthen its power capacities, Bangladesh has requested for import of power from Nepal and Bhutan through India. MoUs on Scientific and Technological Cooperation between Council for Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR), India and Bangladesh Council of Scientific & Industrial Research, Bangladesh and on Cooperation in the Area of Space Technology between Newspace India Limited and Bangladesh Satellite Company Limited were also signed between the two neighbouring countries. Moreover, the two leaders unveiled Unit 1 of the Maitree power plant at Rampal, Bangladesh – a project with an estimated budget of $2 billion out of which $1.6 billion was provided by India. “The plant will increase the availability of affordable electricity in Bangladesh,” PM Modi said.
Bangladesh’s import demand aligns perfectly with India’s export capabilities. Hence, India was among the largest exporters to Bangladesh in 2021, with an increase in trade by almost 80% (in terms of the value of $15.9 billion). PM Hasina’s request from PM Modi for the supply of essential food commodities from India such as rice, wheat, sugar, onion, ginger and garlic; and other import items like cotton, fuel, machinery, equipment, etc. highlights the untapped trade potential between the two neighbours. Both the leaders were keen to initiate discussions in the direction of a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) which would be mutually beneficial.
The two sides also signed an MoU between Prasar Bharti and Bangladesh Television on Cooperation in Broadcasting.
The meetings were conducted with great warmth and cordiality, the two PMs expressed their gratitude for the state of increasing bilateral relations, which are based on deep historical ties and shared values of democracy and pluralism. The connectivity projects will mutually benefit both sides – connecting the Northeast Region with the rest of India through Bangladesh and improving trade and energy output from India, Bhutan and Nepal for Bangladesh. With the onset of climate change, the instances of river drying, sudden floods and droughts have increased and hence, water treaties play a major role in the sustenance of people for both nations. Though bitter about the NRC Policy of India, Bangladesh has agreed to tackle the issue of refugee and illegal migration. On the global front, strengthening bilateral relations with Bangladesh reiterates India’s position as the regional superpower challenging China’s increasing presence in South Asia. This will also act as an impetus for other neighbours to seek India’s assistance over China in the future.
As shown by its actions, India has proved that Bangladesh is a key partner in its Neighbourhood First Policy. In the words of PM Hasina, “Bangladesh-India bilateral relations are known to be a role model for neighbourhood diplomacy”. Bangladesh, on the other hand being the third country in South Asia to seek help from IMF to cope with the rising economic pressure, has shown that if nations can work together in their region, they can collectively move towards peace and development.