Foreign Minister’s visit to New Delhi: What did Bangladesh get?

Foreign Minister’s visit to New Delhi: What did Bangladesh get?

The third meeting of the India-Bangladesh Joint Consultative Commission (JCC) was held in New Delhi on September 20, 2014. The visiting Bangladesh delegation was led by. A. H. Mahmood Ali, Foreign Minister, while the Indian delegation was led by Ms. Sushma Swaraj, External Affairs Minister.

This was the first visit of a senior cabinet minister from Bangladesh to India after the BJP ‘s Prime Minister Narendra Modi formed the government. Bangladesh Foreign Minister was shown due courtesy as he met the President, Prime Minister and other senior ministers of the government of India.

President Pranab Muhkerjee during the meeting reportedly stated that the pending bilateral issues should be speedily implemented so that other areas of cooperation could proceed smoothly with Bangladesh. After all bilateral relations are consolidated when reciprocal actions from India and Bangladesh are adopted.

It is noted this visit was important for Bangladesh people as it would provide a picture how and when the pending bilateral issues would be resolved. It was hoped that given the mandate of the Modi government these bilateral issues would be resolved soon. However that is not to be case. It appears the words of the Modi government did not match with actions during the meeting between the two ministers in New Delhi.

After the conclusion of the visit, a 34-paragraph joint statement was released. If the statement is scrutinized, it reveals in core issues of Bangladesh, only promises and commitments were made by India without any time-bound actions as to their resolution. On the other hand, it may be argued issues which directly affect India, concrete action with time- frame has been mentioned.

Diplomatically it could be a triumph for India but Indian side forgets that it is a short-term gain and does not help remove the negative perception of India to people of Bangladesh. Bangladesh people are very conscious and are keen to know what they get from India in return. One would argue that it is a myopic view of India’s interaction with Bangladesh and trust and confidence cannot be built on such narrow view.

Below are some of the instances on bilateral issues which may demonstrate the above view during the New Delhi meeting..

First, on sharing of Teesta water sharing agreement and ratification of Land Boundary agreement (LBA), both sides “reiterated their commitment” to finalisation of sharing of the waters of the Teesta and Feni rivers and that the ratification of LBA “ was underway”. India’s commitment had been since 2010 and it could not be signed because of the opposition by West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee whose objection was based on the Sikkim’s many water projects which divert water from the Teesta River. Bangladesh expected that the Modi government would have built consensus among Indian stakeholders including Sikkim because of the massive mandate from the people in the last election. If Sikkim withdraws less water from the Teesta River, the flow will be larger and Ms. Banerjee would not have any objection to the conclusion of the Teesta Agreement with Bangladesh..

Second, on border management, transit or transshipment through Bangladesh to the northeastern states of India, coastal shipping and other related connectivity matters received so much importance that about 12 paragraphs were included in the statement..On coastal shipping, time bound steps are adopted as both sides agreed that trial runs would be held in October and the next round of Shipping Secretary level talks will take place in Dhaka in October 2014. On border killing of Bangladesh civilians, both sides agreed that the number “should come down to zero” and not that number should be zero. That means killing of civilians at the border would continue.

Third, on regional cooperation involving Nepal and Bhutan, both sides “stressed the importance of bringing about sub-regional cooperation in water resources management and power/hydropower and connectivity”. Who does not know its importance? Where are the proposals for concrete action for regional cooperation under the 2011 Framework Agreement of Cooperation for Development? No progress of sub-regional cooperation in water, power, connectivity and transit between Bangladesh and Nepal and Bhutan through Indian territory as envisaged by the Indo-Bangladesh Framework Agreement of 2011 has been made.

It is surprising that reference to this very significant 2011 agreement for regional cooperation is missing from the statement. The 2011 Agreement in its Article 7 stipulates that both sides agreed “to harness the advantages of sub-regional cooperation in the power sector, water resource management, physical connectivity, environment and sustainable development for mutual advantage, including jointly developing and financing projects”.

Fourth, on India’s power transfer through Bangladesh, both sides welcomed the decision of the Joint Steering Committee to accept the recommendations of the Joint Technical Team on power evacuation from the North East of India through Bangladesh with suitable power tapping points in Bangladesh. They directed that the relevant report in this regard be completed within the “agreed six month period”. Again time-bound action has been mentioned in this case which is of interest to India..

Fifth, trade deficit for Bangladesh with India is huge. It is no more an economic issue but has turned into a political one in the country. Exports to India declined 19 percent year-on-year to $456.63 million in fiscal 2013-14 whereas Indian exports to Bangladesh stand nearly $6 billion (formal and informal trade). It is pointed out that paragraph 33 of the Joint Communique after the Bangladesh Prime Minister’s visit in January 2010 states clearly: “ With a view to encouraging imports from Bangladesh, both countries agreed to address removal of tariff and non-tariff barriers and port restrictions and facilitate movement of containerized cargo by rail and water.”

On reducing huge trade deficit of Bangladesh at the New Delhi meeting, , the two sides “agreed on the need to promote balanced bilateral trade and to address para-tariff and non-tariff barriers”. What India has agreed in 2010, it seems that in 2014 it went backwards. Is that all from India to reduce trade deficit? Does it not go against the commitment India made to reduce trade deficit in 2010? Bangladesh side handed over a list of barriers to trade being faced by Bangladesh exports to India. Indian side agreed to examine the list and no time frame is mentioned for its examination.

Sixth, on the issue of holding of meeting of the Joint Rivers Commission, both sides resolved to hold the 38th Meeting of the Joint Rivers Commission in Dhaka “at a mutually convenient date”. The meeting of the Joint River Commission is very important for Bangladesh for knowing what water projects India has embarked on to withdraw waters from the upstream of the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna including the river-linking projects of these Himalayan Rivers.

Although the Indian side reiterated its earlier commitment that it would not take any unilateral decision on the Himalayan component of the proposed river interlinking project which may adversely affect Bangladesh, .no date or time frame of holding the meeting of the Joint River Commission was mentioned. The expression “mutually convenient date” is a term which is generally employed to delay a meeting.

Seventh, there are no proposed steps on further easing visa facilities for Bangladesh nationals, although the statement welcomed growing exchanges between the two peoples which is helping to foster greater understanding and goodwill between the two countries. It is obvious that to increase people-to-people contact between the two countries, issue of visa for India has been a great barrier for Bangladesh nationals.

Seventh, on the status of implementation of projects under the US $ 800 Million concessional Line of Credit extended by India to Bangladesh in 2010, both sides noted that projects amounting to US $ 751.95 million “were being processed and are at various stages of implementation”. More than four and half years have passed, many projects are still being processed and this does not go well for Indian bureaucrats. The Bangladesh side asked for favourable consideration for a second Line of Credit from India whose response to such request has not been mentioned.

Finally, it transpires from media that the Teesta water agreement cannot be concluded before 2016 as the election in West Bengal will be held in that year and both Trinamool Congress and BJP desire to win the state election and that politically it is not desirable to conclude an agreement on Teesta water before the state –election.

As regards LBA, BJP of Assam reportedly objects to the ratification of LBA as it loses some territory of the state. Meanwhile, the BJP government wishes to make progress in other sectors with Bangladesh without being bogged down with the above two issues. The position of the BJP government seems to be misconceived because Bangladesh people want the two issues settled first before moving to other areas of cooperation.

The outcome of the meeting is a serious disappointment for Bangladesh people from the Modi government. Bangladesh did not get what it hoped for to achieve at the New Delhi meeting. Another fall-out of the meeting appears to be that unless the above two core issues are or expected to be resolved, there will be no conducive political environment for the visit of either the Bangladesh Prime Minister or India’s Prime Minister to each other’s country which is necessary to keep up the momentum and dynamism between the two neighbouring countries.

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