If India focuses on improving bilateral economic and connectivity initiatives with Bangladesh, the economic development of this region is inevitable.
On 26th November, India's External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, during his two-day visit to India's Northeast region, said that India is trying to improve trade and connectivity with Bangladesh and Myanmar. He emphasized the importance of linking Northeastern India to the rest of the nation and reiterated Delhi is working to improve connectivity and infrastructure in the region. By taking the G20 presidency India will try to showcase the true spirit of the Northeast to the world, with its tourism benefits.
But, the umbilical cord between the Indian mainland and its strategic Northeast is Chicken's Neck or Siliguri Corridor which brings Bangladesh into the Indian equation of northeastern development. Not only that, Bangladesh has very close relations with the Indian states of West Bengal, Assam, Meghalaya, and Tripura in terms of language, culture, and history. These factors make Bangladesh an indispensable element in the development of India's northeastern states. or "Seven Sisters", namely Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh.
It is well known that connectivity is the cornerstone of any regional economic cooperation and integration. But the main hindrance to India's economic cooperation and integration with the ASEAN states is the poor connectivity issue. Northeastern states of India share international borders with Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar, Nepal, and China. Both Bangladesh and India are affected due to inadequate connectivity with Assam`s capital Guwahati, which is the "gateway" to the northeastern states.
Better connectivity a crying need
It is necessary to introduce road communications between Guwahati and Dhaka like between Dhaka and Agartala. Air connectivity has started between Bangladesh and the northeastern states with flights from Agartala to Chittagong. If the infrastructural bottlenecks are removed, the tourism industry between Bangladesh and northeast India will see a boom. The first step towards increasing tourism between Bangladesh and the "Seven Sisters" will be to reopen all of the blocked border checkpoints to visitors.
There are now only three border checkpoints along the states of Tripura and Meghalaya. Both must look into the possibility of adding more border checkpoints and developing infrastructure, including communication lines. Furthermore, the international airport in Sylhet can act as a link to the outside world for the people in the Northeast Region (NER).
Energy and trade
The northeastern region is a source of around 63,000MW of hydropower. Bangladesh can benefit from the extra power generated in the NER by bolstering its power supply. Energy cooperation in this industry can benefit both regions. Diesel can come to Bangladesh through a pipeline from Numaligarh, Assam. Considering the geographical proximity, energy cooperation between India's northeastern states and Bangladesh can add a new economic dimension to their widening ties.
Goods from Bangladesh are in demand in the Northeast, These include food and beverages, garments, plastic goods, melamine, cement, ceramic, and cosmetics. The northeastern states in turn are exporting all kinds of agricultural products to Bangladesh. These include ginger, onion, and betel nut. The market mechanism between Bangladesh and northeastern states can be facilitated through the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) that was discussed at a recent meeting between Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Indian High Commissioner Pranay Verma.
Moreover, stones are abundant in the northeastern states, But Tripura imports stones from Bangladesh because geographical proximity makes it cheaper to do so than transporting it over 1000 km from Assam and Meghalaya states. These stones are accumulated in the Sylhet and Sunamganj districts of Bangladesh. From there, importers can reach Tripura by road that is just 150-200 km away. It helps them save both time, money, and transportation hassles.
Regional economic development
Then there are immigration problems. There are several land ports between Bangladesh and India. But the visa is processed at Kolkata and Siliguri of West Bengal and Agartala in Tripura. As a result, the people of Assam and Meghalaya are required to go to Kolkata or Agartala for visas crossing a thousand kilometres. If a visa centre can be established at Guwahati, the gateway of the northeastern states, it will accelerate the movements between the two countries.
India shouldn't forget that the northeastern region has seen many armed conflicts and separatist militants have exploited the region's lack of development. If India focuses on improving bilateral economic and connectivity initiatives with Bangladesh, the economic development of this region is inevitable. And economic development in turn will be a panacea for armed conflicts. If India chooses Bangladesh as a partner in the development of its "seven sisters", it will be a win-win situation for both countries.
(The author is a Ph.D. Student, International Relations, University of Bucharest. Views are personal. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)