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'We want more trade, travel, cooperation with Bangladesh, but ‘urban myths’ aren't helping'

  • Published at 11:52 pm October 12th, 2021
File photo of Indian High Commissioner Vikram Doraiswami Dhaka Tribune

Indian High Commissioner Vikram Doraiswami says India and Bangladesh can prosper together. But "incomplete narratives" and "urban myths" are making it harder for New Delhi and Dhaka to do that. This is the fourth part of his interview series with Adam Pitman, exclusive to Dhaka Tribune.

Journalists and commentators often present the India-Bangladesh relationship as a list of complaints. 

Academics and analysts cite this reporting as evidence New Delhi and Dhaka are at odds. Government representatives throw a wet blanket on it when things get heated.  

It's a vicious cycle. 

One way to look at it is that this is business-as-usual for India and Bangladesh. Another perspective is that bureaucrats need to communicate their decisions better.

The high commissioner, for his part, suggests observers should look out for solutions, rather than grievances, which he feels often reflect only one side of the story.

That suggests the relationship's critics may need to do more homework if they want their voice to count.    

DT: The India-Bangladesh relationship is often weighed in bureaucratic hang-ups. Export bans. Air travel bubbles. Water sharing agreements. Et cetera. A glass half empty view is that there is a capacity or communication problem. A glass half full view is that Bangladeshis want New Delhi to do better. What do you see when you look at challenges like these together?

Doraiswami: Interestingly, there is a desire for governments and bureaucracies to do better on both sides of the border. Traders and investors, as well as policy makers, in India, have their own lists of grievances. These range from import restrictions to minimum import pricing. High tariffs and para-tariffs and restrictions in accessing the market. Apart from other operational challenges. 

Rather than taking the discourse toward lists of demands and complaints, I think it is far more useful to focus instead on showing how resolving issues have a larger, mutually beneficial effect.

Also Read - 'It is important to filter political rhetoric from action on the ground'

The key is to be able to convincingly show -- and I believe this whole-heartedly -- that a pragmatic and de-politicized approach to facilitating more trade, more travel, more cooperation will inevitably lead us all to increased prosperity, greater stability and overall, a better neighbourhood. 

Obviously, that is to the larger benefit of all our people. 

At the same time, it is also reasonable to emphasize that markets and trading systems in South Asia are comparatively less developed, as compared to advanced economies. Shortages of essential commodities -- including food products -- do lead to demands for restrictions on trade. 

The goal that we have tried to follow, therefore, is to insulate our commercial relationship from such fluctuations by trying to expand partnerships to increase the availability of commodities that are in play. 

For example, we are trying to help increase local production of products that are particularly subject to seasonal demand fluctuations. This has included supplying onion seeds, enhancing cold storage, etc. 

I'm also keen on increasing access to better commodity product information, to reduce interventions by hoarders, but that will take longer.

There is sometimes a tendency to set out an incomplete narrative in the discourse about the relationship. This is not always very helpful, as it not only complicates the narrative, it also makes it harder for both sides to take the necessary steps. 

Also Read - 'It is important for Bangladesh to engage with India at the state as well as central level'

There is a longstanding belief that India is getting everything when it comes to connectivity and energy, and Bangladesh is getting nothing. It even leads to violent protests, both against connectivity, and against other projects. 

First, connectivity. 

It is said with great conviction in Bangladesh that India has benefited from connectivity that Bangladesh has provided, but there has been no reciprocal connectivity given by India for Bangladesh’s trade with other South Asian countries, like Nepal or Bhutan. 

Actually, more or less, the reverse is true. 

For example, the Agreement on the Use of Chattogram and Mongla Ports, signed several years ago, is cited as having led to hundreds of containers traveling from "mainland" India to India's northeastern states in transit. But it is not widely known that the total number of containers that have actually been moved as trade in transit in the past five years is exactly four. 

Some quantities of goods have also moved via the Inland Water Trade and Transit route, via Ashuganj, but that too is a modest amount. 

On the other hand, goods have been moving from Bangladesh to Nepal through Indian Railways since the 1976 Agreement, including fertilizers and so on. While in this year, 50,000 tons of urea were exported to Nepal, even in 1996-97, 1,400 tons of SSP (single superphosphate) was exported through India to Nepal. And such exports have continued in accordance with demand in Nepal, peaking at 25,345 metric tons of SSP and tobacco in 2005, and so on. 

Also Read - 'The nature of the incidents is very different from the popular narrative'

I should also mention here that we do not charge any additional fees on Bangladesh’s trade  with Nepal or Bhutan while in transit on our roads, using Indian, Nepalese, or Bhutanese trucks. Nor do we charge extra fees, beyond handling and other fees, for the use of our railway infrastructure for sub-regional trade. 

Nepal and Bhutan are landlocked countries and we have obligations to facilitate their trade. It is actually part of our policy to facilitate sub-regional connectivity.

There are also similar urban myths about power trade. 

There are many uninformed comments on social media that India is not "allowing" power trade between Bangladesh and the Himalayan nations of Nepal and Bhutan. 

The reality is that the 1,160 MW of electric power being wheeled from India's grid to Bangladesh -- from West Bengal mainly, and some from Tripura -- for the last four years or so has utilized all of the existing cross border transmission capacity. 

We are very keen to build new transmission capacity, and to encourage new power trading relationships, because it also benefits us! 

But the key to facilitating more trade in power, for instance, even directly between Bangladesh and Nepal, requires parallel investment in cross-border transmission infrastructure.

And we are ready to invest in that too, if permitted. 

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