Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The moment for grand visions and grander actions for Bangladesh and India

Mahfuz Anam, editor, daily Star, writes this op-ed in the Times of India.

The history of mutual suspicion, petty bickering on trade negotiations, cavalier attitudes on border killings, dangerous gamesmanship with arms smuggling, etc, of the last three decades of Bangladesh-India relations would not normally justify the agreements that Sheikh Hasina penned sometime ago in Delhi. Only vision would.

A vision of a South Asia doing what ASEAN did several decades ago, of trusting neighbours rather than of subverting them, of fighting poverty and not using it to justify other failures, of a thriving marketplace of goods and services rather than of counting items in the negative list. In the latest agreement, Bangladesh has moved towards such a vision. Has India responded? For us, the jury is still out.

Take the two biggest concerns of the two sides: for India they are security and connectivity with the north-east; for Bangladesh water sharing and trade imbalance. There is a feeling that the clarity and precision with which Bangladesh responded to its neighbour's concerns were not reciprocated in equal measure by India.

On Indian security concerns, Bangladesh's commitment was unequivocal: it will not permit the use of Bangladeshi soil for activities inimical to any other country, basically meaning India. It was in dramatic contrast to the past when India's worries about terrorist links and arms transit fell on deaf ears. India desperately needed friendly borders in the east that Bangladesh has now assured and is following up by decisive deeds. Sheikh Hasina has launched the most determined and widespread actions against internal militants and extremists and is systematically dismantling the terrorist infrastructure.

The permission for the use of the Chittagong and Mongla ports for shipment of Indian goods to the north-east is a very important step forward. With Bangladesh's present position on Asian highway and railway routes, the regional and sub-regional connectivity scenario is set to undergo a fundamental change. On Bangladesh's priorities water sharing and trade imbalance there is no dramatic progress.

On Teesta water sharing, the positive development is that the ministerial level joint river commission meeting will be held within March, 2010. But it still leaves us with an uncomfortable ambiguity about the outcome. On the Tipaimukh dam issue, sadly, there was nothing new. The Indian prime minister reiterated his government's earlier stand that India will do nothing that will harm Bangladesh's interest. Such broad and generalised expression of good intention is definitely welcome.

However clearer wording that further activity on Tipaimukh would only be undertaken after consultation with Bangladesh would have helped assuage remaining worries. On enhancement of economic and trade relations, especially giving Bangladeshi exports (which are meager to start with) zero tariff access, the issue remained mired in the politics of an ever narrowing negative list which will now come down by 47 from 260 items, which earlier was higher still.

The absurdity is that India earns a meagre $10 to $15 million in taxes from exports from Bangladesh of around $300 million. That is what it would have cost India to give Bangladesh zero tariff. The promise of rebuilding of our railways, roads, bridges including the two ports, is welcome. The $1 billion credit line will serve to stimulate early action. However, all these are ancillary to both the functionality and efficiency of connectivity, which is a euphemism for 'transit'.

The offer of 250 MW of electricity is of extreme relevance and among the most significant gains Bangladesh stands to make. Another hopeful sign is the agreement to amicably demarcate our maritime boundary.

Predictably, the Bangladeshi opposition, led by Khaleda Zia's Bangladesh Nationalist Party and supported by Jamaat-e-Islami, have called the agreements a total surrender of Bangladesh's interest to India. They have called for opposition unity and are clearly marking time for an appropriate moment to strike against Sheikh Hasina's government. Manmohan Singh's government must guard against the agreement getting entrapped in a bureaucratic maze, implementing its provisions soon.

As a first step, India should formally assure that, as an upper riparian state, it will always consider Bangladesh's interest and display maximum openness and transparency on water sharing. Killings on the border must immediately stop and the promised 24-hour access to Tin Bigha implemented.

On maritime boundary, it should go for a liberal interpretation and allow Bangladesh access to all available hydrocarbon and fish resources. Zero tariff access must be granted to all Bangladeshi exports. This must be followed by elimination of all inter-state taxes and non-tariff barriers. We must institutionalise annual summit and informal meetings in-between, for a few hours on one-day trips, as EU heads of governments have done.

Such a step will do wonders for our relations. The moment is opportune for India and Bangladesh to lay the foundation of a durable, mutually beneficial relationship that will transform the region's strategic and security scene.

Now is the moment for grand visions and grander actions.

If Bangladesh was guilty of being shackled to the mindset of the past, let India not be accused of having failed to think outside the box when opportunity beckoned.