Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is scheduled to visit India during 7-10 April with the aim of strengthening ties between the two countries. The visit comes less than two years after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Bangladesh in June 2015 when the historic Land Boundary Agreement was signed. Yet the goodwill generated by the accord is of little significance as there are some visible signs of discontent in both sides.
The $24 billion credit line extended to Bangladesh by China during President Xi Jinping’s visit serves as a stark reminder to the growing Chinese influence in the region. According to terms of the agreement, China will finance around 25 projects which include the building of power plants, railways and a seaport. Though Bangladesh has time and again stated that it needs both India and China to further its developmental agenda, it has become more important than ever for India to offer some substantial takeaways for Hasina from the visit.
The most important will be to reach an agreement on the Teesta water sharing agreement. The river has its source in Sikkim and flows through the northern part of West Bengal in India before entering Bangladesh. In 1983, an ad-hoc water sharing agreement was signed between India and Bangladesh according to which both countries were allocated 39% and 36% of the water flow respectively. Efforts have since then been on to make the allocation equal.
Reaching an agreement on this front is important for two reasons. The first is that Bangladesh is primarily an agrarian country and as an upper riparian state, the onus is on India to not delay it any further. Secondly, with Bangladesh going to elections next year, it is important for Hasina to show some concrete achievements from the country’s engagement with India. Otherwise it will fan the already prevalent anti-India sentiments in Bangladesh and drastically reduce the scope for bilateral co-operation. But even with the stakes so high, the resolution of the water dispute seems to the most difficult with West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee refusing to pave way for a compromise.
Another area of dispute is the Farakka Barrage which was constructed with the aim of increasing the lean period flow of the Bhagirathi-Hooghly branch of Ganga to increase the water depth at the Kolkota port to avoid siltation. The two countries have been unable to reach an agreement over the sharing of water during the lean season due to increasing demands on both sides. India also has the uphill task of addressing the ecological concerns of Bangladesh over the construction of Tipaimukh Dam, the proposed hydel power project on the river Barak in Manipur.
Keeping in view the present circumstances, it is utmost necessary for show a steadfast resolve to address all the outstanding issues. The geopolitical importance of Bangladesh means that India needs to continuously engage with the country to secure its own borders. Bangladesh’s proximity to Northeastern India makes it a major player to contain the threat arising from insurgency. The government led by Shekh Hasina has so far been pro-active partners in cracking down on insurgents as well as curbing infiltration attempts.
Northeast India is also one of the most strategically important regions for India. The country’s most sensitive ‘choke point’, the Shiliguri Corridor which is within striking distance of the Chinese border lies in this region. Bangladesh is vital in ensuring accessibility to the region. It will also be able to stop China from spreading its influence in the Bay of Bengal.
The importance of the region also brings with the challenge of finalising a deal to allow India to use the Chittagong and Mongla ports for accessing Northeast. It has to be noted that Hasina has already addressed most of India’s connectivity concerns and has also cleared transit for Indian goods to Northeast through Bangladesh territory. This is expected to give a major boost to India’s Look East Policy.
The India-Bangladesh cooperation also extends to the fight against terrorism with both the countries being adversely affected by the dangers of Islamic fundamentalism. Bangladesh has openly expressed its solidarity with India in urging Pakistan to act on terrorism emanating from its soil. Also, in a bid to isolate Pakistan both the countries have been interacting in forums like ASEAN and BIMSTEC. But a lot more needs to be done to strengthen this partnership.
Bilateral trade is yet another area where both the countries will have to negotiate innovative ways to bridge the trade imbalance. The figures stand at USD 6.6 billion with the trade expected to reach $10 billion by 2018, according to a report by CII. But to reach the target, India will have to address the concerns raised by Bangladesh relating to non-tariff barriers and infrastructural issues. As a start, the Indian government has approved an increase in the number of border haats which are popular market places that allows traders from both sides to sell their products.
The way forward
It cannot be denied that there are some major irritants in India-Bangladesh relations with the looming factor being the increasing Chinese influence. The recent purchase of two submarines by Bangladesh from China in the absence of any conventional threats was interpreted by many as an indirect threat to India. Bangladesh also supports China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative. Another fact that did not receive much attention is that for the first time China-Bangladesh energy cooperation exceeded that between India and Bangladesh. To counter the growing Chinese presence, India in all likelihood is expected to emphasize its “Neighbourhood First” policy and strengthen the strategic relations with Bangladesh.
According to unconfirmed reports, India is expected to offer a $500 million line of credit to Bangladesh for purchase of defence equipment. A memorandum of understanding (MoU) on defence - the first between India and Bangladesh which aims to facilitate the exchange of military trainers and experts, and cooperation on maintenance of military equipment is also expected to be signed. Apart from this, India will continue the joint military exercise "Sampriti" with Bangladesh that has its focus on counter-terrorism and also hold the Army-to-Army staff talks with Bangladesh since 2009.
The exact course that India-Bangladesh relations will take will be clear only after Hasina’s visit. But the geographical, strategic and cultural ties that both nations share make co-dependency inevitable. The decision of Bangladesh to scrap China's bid to construct the Sonadia deep-sea port at Cox's Bazaar came as a relief to India and also signaled the country’s willingness to give importance to negotiate on important issues. Now it will be India’s responsibility to understand the sensitivities of Bangladesh a forge a strong strategic partnership that will be mutually beneficial and will have a positive impact on the South Asian region.