Sunday, January 10, 2010

A little political will can do miracles in Bangla-India relations


It is one of the strange paradoxes of life that neighbours, who should have the greatest interest in living together peacefully, are often at loggerheads with each other. India and Bangladesh have also followed this pattern for the last quarter of a century. Happily for both countries, however, saner counsels seem to be prevailing now. The result is that after an unconscionably long period of mutual recriminations, India and Bangladesh have started to mend their relationship.

Much of the credit for this must go to the Bangladesh Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, who won a historic election in December 2008. The promise of change came in the Awami League manifesto in the 2008 election. The manifesto was a comprehensive document covering the entire range of issues relating to security, terrorism, fundamentalism, economic development with social justice, improved communications and infrastructure, and the need for good relations with India.

Although on all these issues, Sheikh Hasina’s perspective is a nationalist one, she has not lost sight of the need to improve relations with India. Her ideas for change have provided the template for moving India-Bangladesh relations forward. So, after the Hasina government came to power, the goodwill for India in Dhaka has increased and both sides are working to address their differences and promote cooperation in a wide range of areas, including commerce, railways and power.

It was perhaps for the first time that eminent participants from Bangladesh in a recently concluded Track II Dialogue organised by the Asian Institute of Transport Development stressed that Bangladesh should allay Indian concerns regarding security and terrorism. The game-changer has come in the form of Bangladesh’s highly cooperative and much appreciated attitude towards India’s security concerns. To mark its seriousness and to underline the fact that it recognises these concerns, Bangladesh has, in a significant gesture, handed over to India one of its most wanted fugitives from Assam.

India had invested so much in the birth of Bangladesh in 1971. Now that the atmospherics are favourable, India should lend its helping hand once again. A secular, democratic and stable Bangladesh is in India’s long-term interest. Getting Bangladesh on board for pursuing anti-terrorism is particularly important to keep at bay those who have often used that country as a base to destabilise India. From Bangladesh’s perspective, it can take advantage of India’s strategic opening to the east and be a partner in the growing economic integration of the region.

There appears to be a feeling in India that it is only Bangladesh that would benefit from the India-Bangladesh engagement. But the truth is that there is a great deal that India can also learn from Bangladesh, especially in the area of service delivery to the poor, be it in health, education, microfinance or the empowerment of women. On all these indicators, Bangladesh has outperformed India by a significant margin.

Because of asymmetry of size and resources, India should not necessarily insist on immediate reciprocity in all matters. It has greater options and can afford to wait awhile for the dividends that will come with growing trust and confidence. Issues like the unresolved land and maritime boundaries, exchange of enclaves, improved connectivity and sharing of water resources are capable of early resolution given a modicum of political will and pragmatism on both sides.

Illegal migration remains a contentious issue, but India will have to recognise the fact that prosperity attracts not just capital — as can be seen from capital inflows — but also labour. More rapid development in Bangladesh, with Indian assistance, and the ability to exploit economies of scale by tapping the vast Indian market could provide a powerful stimulus to the Bangladesh economy and generate additional jobs and opportunities that would restrain labour outflows.

While there are 25 trading points between India and Bangladesh, infrastructure facilities are woefully inadequate. Cumbersome transshipment procedures at borders, lengthy documentation required at the check-posts and deficiencies in smooth transportation — all put constraints on trade activities. Traders on either side of the border are required to furnish multiple documents that need to have about 250 signatures of different officials on both sides.

It takes around five days to transport goods over a distance less than 100 km from Kolkata through Petrapole in India to Benapole in Bangladesh. Complex regulations have been instrumental in the proliferation of usurious intermediaries and a rise in 'informal' trade, a euphemism for smuggling and criminal activities.

India can help in improving the transport infrastructure of Bangladesh, particularly its rail system. Railways, as a mode of transport, need a critical mass in terms of network and volumes of traffic to sustain themselves. Bangladesh Railways lack both. Indeed, the partition of the subcontinent has in a way meant the death of smaller railway systems dismembered from the subcontinent rail network.

Hence, the imperative of connecting once again with the Indian Railways network to provide through movement of goods to the north-eastern states of India. In the process, Bangladesh Railways would gain the required volumes to become a viable entity. “Connect” was the mantra given by the well-known British novelist E M Forster to mend ties between countries, races and civilisations.

The visit by Sheikh Hasina should hopefully help to connect the two countries at political, strategic and economic levels. Indeed, it could well mark a turning point in their relationship for the good of the people, particularly the poor of the subcontinent who live at the margins of existence.