On his maiden visit to Bangladesh, Prime Minister rendra Modi has said that new economic doors for India’s Northeast will be opened as the two neighbours become more connected and economically integrated. This in turn will help integrate South Asia and connect it with the dymic economies of East Asia. In this context, Modi spoke of the SAARC vision as a gift of Bangladesh. It is another matter that the South Asian grouping has long been held hostage to the contentious Indo-Pak bilateral relations — forcing Modi to comment at the SAARC summit in Kathmandu last year that ‘bonds will grow through SAARC or outside it, among us all or some of us’. So India needs to literally put its fences in order with Bangladesh and improve relations on several fronts. The ratification of the four-decade-old Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) is surely a great relief even though Bangladesh gaining more in terms of territory has given political ammunition to some parties in Assam. The two neighbours will at last be relieved of an 18th century hangover of 162 enclaves, placed in each other’s territories by the Radcliffe Award of 1947. With Bangladesh getting 111 and India getting 51 enclaves in the land swap deal, Assam stands to lose enclaves at the Dhubri and Karimganj borders while Meghalaya, Tripura and West Bengal will gain some and lose some. There is much heartburn in Assam as Pallathal-Lathitilla-Dumabari in Karimganj and Boroibari in Dhubri go over to Bangladesh. Hopefully the opportunistic blame game between the Congress and the BJP over this issue will end now, even though Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi has now castigated Prime Minister Modi for not taking along any Chief Minister of the three NE states that figure in the deal, on his visit to Bangladesh. While Prime Minister Modi is obviously trying to reach out to West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, she still continues to play hardball whenever it suits her interests, as evident in India and Bangladesh still failing to sign an agreement to share Teesta waters.
The hope in New Delhi and Dhaka is that a clearly demarcated boundary will at last bring some order and improve border security, and help check crimil activities like trafficking, smuggling of drugs and counterfeit notes, apart from infiltration and cross-border movements of extremists. This in turn can provide the impetus to both countries to build border infrastructure, especially in the Northeast to boost trade and sub-regiol connectivity. If the two bus services on the Dhaka-Shillong-Guwahati and Kolkata-Dhaka-Agartala routes really get going, it may yet encourage more linkages spped so drastically during partition. The NE states have long been interested in once again accessing the Chittagong port, but that will require much more free movement of goods along land routes and waterways from the Northeast — which is still in the future. One of the takeaways of Modi’s Bangladesh visit is the signing of two separate pacts on coastal shipping and the use of Chittagong and Mongla ports. This will primarily benefit maritime shipping in the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal, with Indian merchant vessels accessing the two ports to directly ship cargo to Bangladesh, rather than routing goods in roundabout way through distant ports like Singapore. Bangladesh has also offered to establish two Special Economic Zones (SEZ) exclusively for Indian companies in Mongla and Bheramara, to be developed with funds obtained from the 2 billion dollar line of credit from India. Dhaka has thus taken a concrete step to attract Indian investments in Bangladesh. Such a development is to be welcomed, since it may one day help to reduce migration for economic reasons. Significantly Dhaka has for long been seeking ‘special permits’ for Bangladeshi tiols who wish to work in India.
According to World Bank figures last year, while Bangladeshi workers in India transferred more than 6.6 billion dollars to their home country, it was not entirely a one-way traffic. There are an estimated 5 lakh Indians working in mostly high-end jobs in foreign firms and NGOs in Bangladesh as well as running businesses there, who sent home 3.7 million dollars, making the eastern neighbour the ‘fifth highest contributor of remittance flows to India’. As for bilateral trade which now stands at around 6.5 billion dollars, it is heavily tilted in India’s favour with India exporting around 6 billion dollars to Bangladesh. Prime Minister Modi has promised to address Dhaka’s concerns over its burgeoning deficit by facilitating more access to Indian markets. Overall, the two neighbours inked 22 agreements this time — dealing among other things, trade, investment, infrastructure, power, health and education projects. Most of these pacts aim to spur economic engagement and enhance connectivity so that Northeast India can be linked better to South Asian countries, which surely is good news. In the past, India has tried to promote broader economic integration in the eastern component of SAARC involving Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan, as well as with the BIMSTEC grouping of Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Myanmar, Thailand and Sri Lanka. But those efforts failed due to these countries’ perceived lack of will to engage with India’s NE states because of its poor infrastructure and disturbed law and order. New Delhi’s latest thrust to ratchet up bilateral ties with Dhaka has to be seen in this light, since only Bangladesh offers the way out for the land-locked Northeast to integrate better with the mainland.