How do you think the India-Bangladesh relationship has evolved over time?
We addressed a key issue in the first few months of Sheikh Hasina taking over as PM in January 2009. The Indians listed this as their number one priority – cooperation in the field of security – more specifically, that neither Ulfa nor any other terrorist group should be allowed to operate out of Bangladesh. We have ensured this. The Indians were highly appreciative of this gesture and wanted to reciprocate in some way. One major request put forward by Bangladesh was to ask for duty-free access to the Indian market. We were given this on paper but not in practice; the reality is there are still so many non-tariff barriers and para-tariffs, that what is given with one hand is being taken away with the other.
We are one of the most competitive producers of readymade garments in the world. If we had unhindered access to the Indian market, our RMG exports to India alone should have been in the region of $6-8bn, but it is only a fraction of that now. In paragraph 35 of the Joint Statement, the Indians have protested the fact that we have imposed a “discriminatory regime … of imposing a minimum import price in respect to certain products from India to Bangladesh.” So where is the paragraph that should speak about the multiple barriers that exist for Bangladeshi exports to India? On the contrary, we find that India has imposed anti-dumping duties on a minor export product like jute.
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My point here is that, at the end of the day, we want this to be a relationship which is strongly supported by people on both sides of the border. When you have border killings, and goods that are being held up at the border, will this not have an impact on public opinion? We need to be working much harder at making India understand the issues that Bangladesh feels strongly about, just as we have understood and responded to their issues of priority concern on security, connectivity and defence cooperation. We have been extremely sensitive to India’s concerns and I think it is only fair that India should show us the same sensitivity.
You said energy cooperation is the big success story, but is there enough focus on sustainable energy, especially in the wake of the controversial Rampal plant?
During the recent visit, both sides emphasised their commitment to sustainable development, and that certainly means renewable energy. There is a lot of potential for hydroelectric power in the case of Nepal, Bhutan and the Indian Northeast, and room for cooperation.
If you look at the PM’s vision 2021, the key to the realisation of this vision is going to be energy. The target for power generation under Vision 2021 is 24,000MW and under Vision 2041 power production should be 60,000MW. Renewable energy will certainly be an integral part of Bangladesh’s energy profile by 2041.
In the case of Rampal, the position of the government is well-known. It would appear that this position has been accepted by the Indian side. What we again need to look at is the impact as far as public opinion is concerned. I dwelt at length on water-related issues and market access, and this too feeds into the narrative of public distrust of India, and the government needs to be sensitive about how the public at large feels about the Rampal project.
I want to make it perfectly clear that I have been a strong supporter of building close relations with India. This is of critical importance for Bangladesh, but it has to be a well-rounded relationship that is perceived by the people in general as fair and equitable. We should not underestimate the importance of public opinion, particularly on an emotive issue like water. This is something the government needs to work on, and we need India to be much more aware of these concerns. Frankly, this is the key to Indo-Bangladesh relations.
Do we have a stronger voice now, as a sovereign nation?
I think we should have been much more assertive on a number of issues. I have mentioned the 62-paragraph Joint Statement, but I would like to ask the question – what was the input of the Bangladesh side? How many of the MoUs and agreements were initiated by the Bangladeshi side? We really need to build up a team of experts, and we need to be more plugged in to the issues of concern to the private sector, and of course to people in the border areas who are affected by India’s actions.
In my view, one of the problems in the Indo-Bangladesh relationship is the infrequency of summit level meetings. If we look back to the eight years of the present government, our PM has visited India twice, and we have had two visits from the Indian side. In my view, we should have had 16 visits but visits totally free of pomp and ceremony; these should be half-day or one-day working visits where the two prime ministers personally review the progress of work on the multiple agreements and MoUs that have been concluded in the past. We have half a dozen initiatives that link our countries together within the framework of various regional and sub-regional organisations or initiatives. The Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal (BBIN) initiative figures prominently in the Joint Statement, but the Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar (BCIM) corridor only gets a passing reference, although the BCIM initiative is almost two decades old. There’s the Bay of Bengal Industrial Growth Belt initiative, Bimstec and the Trans Himalayan Development Forum and many others, including the Ganga Mekong Delta Cooperation initiative, of which surprisingly we are not a member.
Now, the latest major initiative has come from China – One Belt, One Road – and we need to assess what this means for China, India and Bangladesh cooperation. The states of our bureaucracies tend to make progress very slow, so we need even more to see the two leaders push the relationship forward. They also need to be directly involved in winning the support of public opinion. Since I am speaking frankly, it doesn’t help the relationship at all when we are told that India has nearly completed building a barbed wire fence all around Bangladesh, and it doesn’t help if India constantly keeps speaking about illegal immigration from Bangladesh.
We don’t get any recognition for the fact that we are a major contributor to the Indian economy. Indians are remitting, officially and unofficially, more than $10bn from Bangladesh to India. To the best of my knowledge we have not objected to this, nor have we made a major issue of the fact that Indian exports to Bangladesh account for well over $10 billion, officially and unofficially. We have 600,000-700,000 tourists from Bangladesh who visit India every year for treatment, wedding shopping and on holiday, and we have thousands of Bangladeshi students studying in India. All in all, approximately $25 bn is being earned every year by India from us. Bangladesh is a partner of immense importance. We need recognition for this.
Our prime minister’s visit clearly outlined the contours of our very special relationship with India. The potential for growth and expansion is immense. But if we are to realise this potential, then the two PMs, Hasina and Modi, need to invest more time to nurture this high maintenance relationship. Their biggest challenge will be to make the people in their respective countries believe in the special relationship; to make the people believe we are equal partners and we will give the very highest priority to addressing the concerns of each side, whether it is in the fields of security and defence cooperation, border management, connectivity, trade, energy cooperation, services or the sharing of the water of our joint rivers.