India-Bangladesh ties in review: Youth of both countries need to have a stake in bilateral friendship and cooperation

In this 50th year of Bangladesh’s liberation, need India remind them that in 1971 it sheltered over 10 million Bangladeshi refugees without a whimper, with hardly any foreign aid, and that all Indians kept paying for decades afterward to defray the cost to the nation?, writes Amb. Sarvajit Chakravarti (retd) for South Asia Monitor

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bangladeshi PM Sheikh Hasina

India-Bangladesh relations have never been better in the last fifty years than they are now. Therefore, the two countries must together ensure they reach higher peaks over the next fifty years. Discussions are on between governments and within civil society about how to achieve this, through the education and activities of future generations. However, to be effective and fruitful, there must be a continuous interplay and exchange of ideas and possible solutions between the government and civil society. Some of these came to the fore in a recent roundtable discussion between the Centre for Eastern & Northeastern Regional Studies in Kolkata (CENERS-K) and the Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies (BIPSS) in Dhaka.

Both nations are young and must optimally reap their demographic dividends to achieve mutual prosperity and ensure a superior quality of life for their people. India and Bangladesh, while striving to resolve issues of concern, should concentrate on building upon the positives, using their geography and shared heritage to support mutual prosperity, well-being and improving the quality of their citizen’s lives.

Both sides need to work together to foster the shared democratic, cultural and secular values that inspired the liberation struggle in 1971 and make them the bedrock of relationships over the next fifty years and beyond. The two nations have a golden opportunity to raise their levels of engagement in 2021-22.

There is a lot to improve in people to people (P2P) relations, particularly in tourism, education and healthcare. In education particularly, India and Bangladesh must facilitate mutual recognition of school-leaving certificates and tertiary/professional educational qualifications. A lot more media exchange is necessary to dispel public misconceptions about the other on both sides. We must also improve business-to-business (B2B) relations by encouraging links between chambers of commerce, trade and investment promotion, banking and finance institutions.

There is much scope to cooperate in agriculture, animal husbandry fisheries, MSME, telecom, etc - in fact in all fields of human endeavor. There is plenty of room to cooperate on climate change mitigation, environment and forestry, coastal erosion and wildlife. If we make sincere and sustained efforts to improve in every respect of our lives over the next fifty years, we will be among the leading nations on the planet.

Dispelling misconceptions about water sharing

There are many spheres of human endeavor that could benefit from India-Bangladesh cooperation. However, mutual understanding and knowledge need to be increased and public misconceptions dispelled to enable both sides to cooperate freely and without mutual suspicion.

Some misconceptions persist in public opinion and in the media of Bangladesh that need to be addressed. It appears that the people of Bangladesh are still concerned about the effects on their country of the operation of the non-existent dam at Tipaimukh. The Tipaimukh dam proposal was made by India in response to a request from Bangladesh during a meeting of their bilateral Joint Rivers Commission, which met last in 2010, to suggest ways of mitigating frequent flooding of the Barak river valley. However, Bangladesh objected to the Indian proposal, which was then promptly dropped. All Bangladesh opposition leaders have, over the years, sowed fear among the local population, with active support from some sections of Bangladeshi media. Both the governments must, therefore, cooperate to bring out the absurdity of such arguments, used to generate unproductive anti-India sentiment.

Another continuing apprehension in Bangladesh seems to be about India’s plans to inter-link some rivers. India needs to convince the neighbor that not a single river-linking plan would affect Bangladesh since projects under consideration are in peninsular India.

There are real areas for cooperation in the sharing of water resources, flood mitigation and adapting to climate change. Bangladesh, comprising largely a low-lying alluvial delta with high seasonal rainfall through which 54 trans-boundary rivers reach the sea, suffers annually from a water surplus/shortage situation because it is unable to store enough freshwater to ensure a stable supply round the year. Both countries must therefore formulate and implement the agreed basin management approach and also use the principles mutually agreed in the finalized draft Teesta Accord to quickly reach an agreement on sharing the waters of the 53 trans-boundary rivers during the lean season. They must also soon begin to review the Farakka Accord of 1996 which expires in 2026 and achieve an updated accord by then.

Conclusion of bilateral arrangements on sharing common water resources will banish a constant source of misunderstanding and mutual suspicion. India must, therefore, urgently consider the proposals made on such water sharing by its states bordering Bangladesh to prepare its negotiating offers to Dhaka.

Flood mitigation in Bangladesh will depend largely on efforts to identify potential water reservoirs in the country.  India may help in this by offering its remote-sensing and satellite–mapping capability. River-training works maybe then undertaken accordingly. The long-standing Bangladeshi request to hold water in Himalayan areas will need Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal (BBIN) approach and clearance by geologists and seismologists. A canal system from Dhubri in Assam debouching upstream of Farakka may help to supply water to northern Bangladesh in the lean season and reduce the continuing depletion of groundwater there.

Under the Farakka Accord, all the additional water would flow to Bangladesh to augment the Padma river, since India can divert no more than 40000 cusecs into the Hooghly river to maintain navigability of Kolkata port.

An affordable solution is required also for the desolation of reservoirs and maintaining the carrying capacity of rivers. Since a lot of rural housing is now washed away and needs to be rebuilt every time, architects on both sides may consider designing low-cost flood and weather-resistant housing with modern technology.

This will save a lot of the drain on the national exchequers by the repeated need to evacuate people into storm shelters and provide rescue and relief operations. It will also save the meager resources and energy of the affected people. Coastal afforestation and windbreak planting in agricultural areas can also mitigate weather havoc.

Illegal cross-border movement

Illegal cross-border movement of people, goods and livestock between the two countries has long remained a bone of contention between them. The problem arises because India was constrained by Bangladesh's insistence to construct the bilateral border fence 150 meters inside its side of the border. This left the international border unmarked but for periodic boundary pillars. It effectively left 735.90 sq km on Indian territory freely accessible to Bangladesh but constrained Indian administration from managing it properly.

Bangladesh does not acknowledge that crossing the international border now puts their nationals illegally in India. There is a responsibility to educate their people that Bangladesh must acknowledge and fulfill. They must task the Border Guards Bangladesh to prevent a crossing of the international border and realize that failure to do so may result in firing by India’s Border Security Force to prevent illegal incursion into Indian territory.

Although frequent meetings and coordination between the two country’s Home Ministries and border management and security officials have greatly reduced incidents of BSF firing on the border, attempts to breach the border fence or illegal movement of people, livestock and goods, whether in fenced or riverine areas, will continue to provoke firing. Only a shared sense of mutual responsibility can mitigate this.

BSF-BGB cooperation must be enhanced while illegal cross-border trade is minimized by the greater and more widespread use of border markets. The infrastructure of all border check-posts needs to be improved and fail-safe communications established between them and their headquarters and diplomatic missions and posts to enable real-time data exchange. Greater cooperation with Customs and Immigration officials is necessary.

Infrastructure needs to be established and/or expanded for perishable goods while mutual recognition of certificates issues by testing laboratories and export inspection authorities is necessary.  

NRC should not concern Bangladesh

Bangladeshi people appear to be unduly concerned about some internal affairs of India, such as the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). Misconceptions about these have been used by some vested interests to try to whip up anti-India sentiments. While the Bangladesh government perfectly understands the situation, more rectification of public opinion may be necessary in this regard. The NRC is an internal enumeration process of Indian citizens and does not apply to Bangladesh.

Under the Indira-Mujib agreement (formally called India–Bangladesh Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Peace that was signed on 19 March 1972 with then prime ministers Indira Gandhi of India and her Bangladesh counterpart Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as signatories) no one from Bangladesh who entered India after 1971 can be accepted as a refugee after Bangladesh emerged as a sovereign, secular, democratic country. The CAA only amends India’s Citizenship Act to allow anyone who entered India after 1971 and until May 2014, to approach the Indian authorities to seek asylum and subsequent citizenship by naturalization. If anyone has entered after the specified date in 2014 and is resident in India without proper authorization and documentation, they are liable to detention and deportation. This applies to Rohingyas as well.  Bangladeshis need not be worried or concerned about this.

The people of Bangladesh seem to have developed the perception that India is not doing enough to help the country handle the influx of Rohingya refugees. This needs to be put right, possibly through greater interaction of the Indian authorities with the media on both sides.

In this 50th year of Bangladesh’s liberation, need India remind them that in 1971 it sheltered over 10 million Bangladeshi refugees without a whimper, with hardly any foreign aid, and that all Indians kept paying for decades afterward to defray the cost to the nation? Need India remind the Bangladeshis of their responsibility to prevent Rohingyas from illegally infiltrating into India and that their failure to fulfill that responsibility has enabled thousands of Rohingya to venture deep into India, establishing illegal shantytowns in Kolkata, Delhi and northeast India, straining stretched resources and posing a threat to India’s security? This is causing mounting concern among Indian authorities and citizens alike.

Visa services are another pet peeve of Bangladeshis. One doesn’t know of any other diplomatic mission in the world which issues over 5000 visas every working day, which is the average daily visa output, on a free-of-charge basis, of our mission and posts in Bangladesh.

To improve visa services and border controls, the two countries must together develop far closer real-time police, immigration and anti-terrorism cooperation, work together as necessary to prevent radicalization so that continued infiltration into India by some terrorists such as JMB cadres does not unduly inconvenience the average Bangladeshi visa applicant.

More economic engagement, youth exchanges

Economic engagement between the neighbors remains below par. More needs to be done to augment and smoothen trade and investment flows. The questions of non-tariff and para-tariff barriers need to be examined and addressed. Advantage needs to be taken of South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) provisions. Integration of transport infrastructure has made good progress in the railway sector, while air, waterways and highway links still have a lot of potential for enhancement. Some grumblings are occasionally voiced about Indian Lines of Credit to Bangladesh, which need to be considered and addressed by both governments. They may promote private financing and services in the future. This requires detailed discussions between finance ministries and central banks of both sides to replace such LoC funding with private sector financing on commercial terms.

Both countries may usefully explore the possibilities of designating trade transactions in national currencies rather than international hard currency only, the low availability and high cost of which restricts the potential expansion of trade volumes between India and Bangladesh. Agreements on the transfer of social security benefits and mutual recognition of professional qualifications will encourage the free movement of professionals and help optimize the mutual use of human resources and infrastructure.

Close engagement is required to optimize the benefits of BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation -  an organization comprising Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Thailand that seeks to foster regional and economic cooperation)  and between BBIN countries to address transportation, energy cooperation and other issues, facilitate trade and investment to foster growth and unemployment. BBIN summits will be very useful in determining the future growth of the region to realize its full potential.

India and Bangladesh are two young neighbors. While the government-to-government exchanges are robust and healthy, to instill in each other’s youth and future generations the value of the bilateral friendship and continuing cooperation,  the two nations must focus on their education, instill shared linguistic and liberal, syncretic cultural values, disseminate knowledge of the common heritage and civilizations, discourage fundamentalism and extremism.

There is a need also to encourage greater youth, cultural and sports exchanges, debate, research and discussion so that both sides grow up in free and open societies full of optimism, comfortable with and confident of each other and able to collaborate and cooperate for mutual benefit and growth of our nations while respecting each other’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

(The writer is a former Indian deputy high commissioner to Bangladesh. The views expressed are personal.  He can be reached at sarva.chakravarti@yahoo.co.uk)