We're Live Bangla Tuesday, June 06, 2023

Giving more, getting less -- let relations with India be balanced

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The general perception at home and abroad is that Bangladesh's relations with its largest neighbour India are better than ever before since independence. At a recent meeting with editors of national dailies in Dhaka, the Indian high commissioner to Bangladesh, Vikram Doraiswami, said that the India visit of prime minister Sheikh Hasina will take relations to a new height. His remarks reflect the high expectations at a government level in India about this four-day visit that commences today, Monday.

Speaking about taking India-Bangladesh relations to a new height, one particularly recalls a comment made in 2018 by prime minister Sheikh Hasina. She said, "India will forever remember what we have given them. We have restored their peace and have given them respite from the daily explosions and gunfire, firing. They must keep this in mind." On 30 May that year, at a press briefing in Ganabhaban, the prime minister was questioned in reference to a report in Kolkata's Ananadabazar Patrika, 'Bangladesh wants reciprocation from India'. She was asked if she had requested any reciprocation and whether she had received any assurance in this connection.

The strongly prevalent question as to whether we are giving India more than we get, was echoed in the words of former ambassador and the president of Bangladesh Enterprise Institute (BEI), M Humayun Kabir. He was speaking to Prothom Alo about the decision taken by Bangladesh and India to strengthen economic partnership by signing the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA). He said, "Attention must be paid to ensure that the agreement upholds the interests of both sides and ushers in mutual benefits. There is a general perception that we give India more and get less. So if this agreement is one-sided, this will not be sustainable."


The business newspaper Banik Barta drew up a picture based on statistics as to why the perception has emerged that Bangladesh gives more than it gets. In its report 'Balance in Bangladesh's relations with big powers takes complex shape', it wrote that the three countries US, China and India are stepping up the influence of their soft power (power to influence trade, culture and intellectual areas) on Bangladesh steadily, but Bangladesh is the most dependent on the two biggest economies in trade and investment, that is, the US and China. Quoting from the Bangladesh Bank records, the report said that the foreign direct investment (FDI) of the US in Bangladesh at the moment is now over USD 4.39 billion. In this regard, China ranks fifth and its FDI stands at around USD 1.44 billion. India's position is tenth and its FDI volume is just over USD 760 million.

These three countries feature prominently in trade too. Around half of Bangladesh's total imports come from these three countries, China topping the list. In the 2020-21 financial year, Bangladesh imported commodities worth around USD 12.93 billion.

In the same fiscal, commodities of USD 8.59 billion were imported from India. Imports from the US are negligible, at one time totalling around USD 2.27 billion.

But in the case of exports, things are quite the opposite. The US is the main destination of exports from Bangladesh. In the 2020-21 financial year, exports exceeded USD 6.97 billion. In the corresponding period, exports to India were around USD 1.28 billion and to China only USD a bit over 680 million.

There was a time when the trade imbalance with India was a bone of contention, but given our extensive import demand and limitations in export commodities, this is no longer considered a serious problem. But Bangladesh does not have a very good experience in the case of importing essential items, due to the certain illiberal policies of India. When there is a scarcity of onions, India prohibits exports. It followed the same policy in the case of rice and wheat. There is another example of this stark lack of empathy for its neighbour, evident during the Covid outbreak. Even after paying in advance, Bangladesh did not receive the vaccine in keeping with the agreement. Bangladesh now just has to search alternative sources in time of distress.

As in the case of the US and China, most of India's investment is in the infrastructure sector. But India's focus basically is on development of communications, where they benefit. They now can transport goods to the northeastern states in the shortest possible time and at the lowest expense. And further projects are being discussed to expand this facility further. On the other hand, there are still bottlenecks in Bangladesh's goods and people going to Nepal and Bhutan. There has been some investment in the energy sector, but Bangladesh will have to bear the burden of the environmental damage to be caused by the Rampal project. None of the protests or concerns was taken into cognizance. In the case of the energy sector, one may recall the bitter experience of Nepal in increasing its dependence on its neighbour.

Bangladesh's settlement of the land and maritime boundary disputes is often used to highlight successful relations. Bangladesh was not responsible for the fact that the land boundary dispute remained unsettled for four decades. Bangladesh approved of the boundary agreement long ago. And the maritime boundary dispute was settled through international arbitration. The most alarming matter is that though the land boundary dispute has been settled, the killing of Bangladeshi civilians on the border has not stopped and the Indian Border Security Force officials continue in their narrative to defend these actions. The sincerity of the political leaders is also questionable about halting this policy to term the Bangladeshi victims as smugglers and killing them without trial. Yet the latest reports say that investigations are being carried out into several cases against influential politicians and BSF members for their involvement in smuggling.

The Ganges water-sharing treaty is also used to indicate positive bilateral relations, though neither side can claim that Bangladesh ever received its fair share of water in keeping with the agreement. Talks remain hanging in midair on water sharing deals for over 50 other common rivers.

The Joint Rivers Commission formed in 1972 held its 38th meeting after 12 years on 25 August in Delhi. It is quite a task to overcome the torpor built up over the 12 years. There has been a memorandum of understanding on the sharing of Kushiara's waters too and the location of withdrawing water in order to resolve the drinking water problem of Subroom in Tripura. Talks were held on flood warning, river pollution and such issues. But many experts were surprised at Bangladesh agreeing to a survey concerning the optimum use of whatever water from the Ganges that Bangladesh receives. It is difficult to discern what role the neighbour may have about the little water that trickles down into the downstream country.

The Indian newspaper The Statesman drew a rather harsh conclusion to the political reaction of both countries following our foreign minister AK Abdul Momen openly taking about his request to India to keep the Awami League government in power. The newspaper quoted experts, saying that the message that has gone out to the global community is that the competence of Bangladesh's professional diplomats in determining foreign policy and vision is not up to the standard. Under these circumstances, there is significant importance attached to the prime minister's visit.

Kamal Ahmed is a senior journalist.