Issues with Bangladesh

The India-Bangladesh Land Boundary Agreement (LBA), which was signed in 1974, eventually came into force on 1 August 2015. It provides for the formal exchange of 162 enclaves between the two countries. It is imperative to further consolidate the historical ties through functional cooperation in other spheres of mutual interest. Observers feel that bilateral economic ties continue to be hobbled, a major irritant being the illegal trade in many commodities across international borders. This has resulted in a huge loss of revenue. The smuggling of cattle persists as a border crime.

Despite the improvement of infrastructure along the borders, a lot remains to be done. The construction and improvement of Land Customs Station (LCS), the setting up of Immigration Centres and further development of the Land Port across international borders are required along with simplified procedures. Direct trade in mutually competitive commodities can eliminate the need to trade the same through a third country.

Maritime connectivity between the two countries has long been a problem area, with traders having to operate through the ports of Colombo and Singapore. The consensus reached recently on the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for operating smaller river-sea bd-indiavessels between them is a path-breaking development. It is sure to give a major thrust to bilateral trade by way of reduced transportation costs and increased trade. Contextualised with the start of the Kolkata-Dhaka-Agartala bus service, this agreement will further consolidate the gains made thus far.

Large vessels from the two countries have so far skirted trade through Singapore and Colombo because of marginal profit. These are long routes, and the transportation charges and the cost of goods have only increased over the years. Economic ties have suffered owing to adverse economies of scale. The movement of cargo across the maritime expanse straddling India and Bangladesh has been impeded due to the unviable sea route. Hence, the need for such an SOP. Hopefully, the smaller ships will directly connect India’s eastern ports with the Bangladesh ports, including Chittagong. The competitive freight rates are expected to boost bilateral trade and provide direct trade linkages rather than negotiating the same through a third country. Nevertheless, it is felt that the list of permissible commodities should be expanded to further liberate the trading potential between the two neighbours. The agreement opens new vistas in bilateral cooperation by committing both countries to accord the same treatment to the other’s vessels as done to national ones.

The other highlight of the SOP is that both countries have agreed to use what they call River Sea Vessels (RSV) for coastal shipping. With one trade barrier crossed, it becomes still more imperative to implement the MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) on the use of Mongla and Chittagong ports in Bangladesh and the dredging of intervening rivers. Trade cannot flourish if the draft in the upper reaches of the rivers is low. A positive beginning has been made but the growth of bilateral trade will depend on the follow-through which is no less critical.

A related issue is border management of common rivers and sharing of their waters, including Teesta. But Teesta water-sharing, of all issues, has eluded a solution due to domestic political constraints. Foreign policy observers feel that unless the two governments secure the interests of farmers in West Bengal, it would be difficult to reach a consensus on the issue.

Considering the menacing pace at which terrorist groups including ISIS, Al Qaida and Taliban have been spreading their tentacles, it won’t be long before they reach our shores. And Bangladesh is no less affected by terrorism. The two governments ought to coordinate their acts for wide-ranging bilateral cooperation.

Drug trafficking in the border areas finances terror groups across the world. Narco-terrorism targets the youth and weakens the societal bonding by spreading disaffection. India has succeeded in containing the menace of poppy cultivation, a major source of drug money, in its border areas but poppy cultivation in Bangladesh remains a source of worry. Given the regular movement of militants across the international borders, a reinforced extradition policy for the exchange of prisoners languishing in each others’ jails will suit the security interests of both countries. The recent extradition of Anup Chetia from Bangladesh is a positive development in this direction.

A list of prisoners was exchanged during a recent high-level meeting between the two countries. The Bangladeshi authorities handed over a list of Indians in its jails and received a list of Bangladeshi nationals in Indian correctional homes. The two countries need to coordinate their acts to forge a common strategy including coordinated sharing of intelligence to deal with such problems.

During an India-Bangladesh conclave in Siliguri in January 2015, the festering problems -including poppy cultivation, cattle smuggling and management of common rivers -were discussed. Survey, construction, repair of missing border pillars and the convening of BGB-BSF flag meetings on a regular basis were also discussed. Quarterly meetings at the level of District Magistrates are also on the anvil.

There is yet another issue that needs to be addressed by the two governments -the protection of the Sunderbans. As a natural heritage site shared by India and Bangladesh, the Sunderbans has long been awaiting a coordinated initiative to avert an ecological disaster. The rising sea level precipitated by global warming and the resultant erosion have damaged the mangroves. Experts fear that both India and Bangladesh might have to redraw their maps as they lose their lands to the sea. Consequently, the world will lose one of the largest biosphere reserves that functions as an air purifier. Apart from the looming territorial loss, thousands of people would lose their home and hearth and the Royal Bengal Tiger will face extinction. The littoral cities like Kolkata and Khulna are likely to be ravaged by frequent natural disasters including cyclones, unseasonal rain or prolonged dry spells if these mangroves continue to suffer. It is heartening that both countries have begun to coordinate their efforts to save the Sunderbans. Towards that end, both Delhi and Dhaka have submitted their proposals at the recent climate-change summit in Paris. However, the initiative to protect the heritage mangroves rests with the local people. An inclusive and holistic approach, which addresses the ecological imperatives of the region while simultaneously protecting the inhabitants, has to be formulated.

The exchange of enclaves is only one of the many border issues that have been resolved. Not wholly unrelated is the issue of undemarcated borders. The survey, construction and repair of missing border pillars including exchange of Cadastral Survey (CS) records are some of the tasks which need to be taken up with urgent despatch. Several CS documents of Bangladesh’s Dinajpur district are in India’s South Dinajpur and some CS records of this district are in Bangladeshi Dinajpur. It is heartening to note that the two countries have been coordinating their decisions on several outstanding issues to develop dynamic bilateral cooperation on matters of mutual interest.

Saumitra Mohan, The Statesman