India and Bangladesh are poised for greater ties in domains of trade, connectivity, energy and water sharing.
Sheikh Hasina’s much-anticipated visit to India from 5-8 September is expected to unfold a new chapter in India–Bangladesh bilateral ties. What makes her visit more special is the fact that it comes in acceptance of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s invitation to commemorate the Golden Jubilee of the diplomatic ties between the two countries. It will be Hasina’s first visit since the outbreak of COVID-19.
Sheikh Hasina’s visit is likely to take place after a ministerial-level meeting on bilateral issues that are to be addressed before the Prime Ministers hold bilateral talks on 6 September. Matters pertaining to bilateral trade, road infrastructure, water sharing, and energy cooperation are expected to dominate the prime-ministerial discussion.
The trajectory of Indo-Bangladesh bilateral relations shows how the two countries have accrued mutual benefits due to close ties between the Modi government and the Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League. Consequently, Indo-Bangladesh ties have become a matter of significant importance in Bangladeshi domestic politics, as a result of which, it has been constantly scrutinised by Sheikh Hasina’s opponents. For instance, the Awami League, frequently, has been lambasted by the Khaleda-led Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) on grounds of being ‘very weak’ while dealing with India. Sheikh Hasina’s upcoming visit thus shall carry great ramifications for the Awami League. Against this backdrop, this article seeks to analyse the probable outcomes of Sheikh Hasina’s visit to India.
Indo-Bangladesh ties have become a matter of significant importance in Bangladeshi domestic politics, as a result of which, it has been constantly scrutinised by Sheikh Hasina’s opponents.
It is expected that Modi and Sheikh Hasina will inaugurate the ‘Swadhinata Sarak’ (25 km long link road). The proposed name of this historic road that connects Mujibnagar in Bangladesh to Nadia in West Bengal, was put forward by Bangladesh to commemorate the road’s significant contribution during its War of Independence. Having shared a common heritage, the friendly neighbours emphasise reopening historical links between them to relive past glories and strengthen their bonhomie. In addition to re-establishing five historical rail links, the opening of the Swadhinata Sarak stands emblematic of growing fraternal ties between India and Bangladesh—ties that go beyond just fulfilling strategic interests.
On the trade front, there is a strong possibility that the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) shall come to be finalised during Sheikh Hasina’s visit. Following Bangladesh’s approval of the draft agreement, India’s approval stands pending. It is quite likely that the CEPA draft shall be discussed by the Prime Ministers when they meet. Both India and Bangladesh stand to gain from signing the CEPA. The agreement enables the countries to retain and secure all benefits in their trade ties, even after Bangladesh’s transition to a developing country. As a result, it is being hailed as a landmark agreement in India-Bangladesh diplomatic ties.
On the eve of Sheikh Hasina’s visit, the 38th meeting of the Joint Rivers Commission (JRC) was taken place (after a gap of 12 years) in New Delhi on 25th August to discuss the water sharing arrangements of the Muhuri, Gumti, Khowai, Dudhkumar, Monu, Dharla, and Feni rivers that flow across the neighbouring countries. The discussion was centred around bilateral issues like sharing flood data and addressing the menace of river pollution. Following the JRC’s recommendations, it is speculated that the water-sharing arrangements shall be finalised by the two prime ministers.
The agreement enables the countries to retain and secure all benefits in their trade ties, even after Bangladesh’s transition to a developing country.
The two sides also finalised the text of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on sharing the waters of the Kushiyara river. Thus, it is likely that the Kushiyara water-sharing agreement shall be finalized by the two leaders. The river forms a part of the Indo-Bangladesh border and originates in Nagaland before it picks up tributaries from the states of Manipur, Mizoram, and Assam in India’s Northeast Region (NER). The river is also a part of the National Waterway 16 (NW 16) of India.
The waterway has been crucial in linking the landlocked NER with the coastal city of Kolkata via India-Bangladesh protocol routes. Passing through Nagaland and the neighbouring states of Manipur and Assam, the waterway forks into two rivers—the Kushiyara and the Surma. After meandering for a considerable distance, the rivers come to form the Meghna River at their confluence point. It is to be recalled that NW 2 is the main protocol route between India and Bangladesh from Kolkata-Sundarban-Chalna-Khulna-Mongla, Kaukhali-Barisal-Narayanganj-Aricha-Dhubri, Pandu-Silghat. Water-sharing arrangements for the common rivers that are likely to get finalised in the upcoming visit can be seen as a starting point for more of such shared arrangements. The two countries must reach a consensus on water-sharing arrangements for all the 54 rivers that flow across their borders, to weed out any potential irritants in bilateral relations when it comes to water sharing. It is noteworthy in this context that plans to resolve the Teesta agreement, however, remain on the back burner for now. The lack of consensus between the Modi government and the West Bengal state government can be cited as a reason for this indefinite delay in finalizing the much-awaited Teesta agreement.
The Maitree Thermal Power project is also slated for a joint inauguration by the two prime ministers during the three-day visit. This project will strengthen the emerging domain of energy security in India-Bangladesh bilateral ties, in addition to the already existing and highly significant domains of trade, connectivity, and water sharing that have come to define India and Bangladesh’s bilateral relationship over the years.
Water-sharing arrangements for the common rivers that are likely to get finalised in the upcoming visit can be seen as a starting point for more of such shared arrangements.
The 1,320 MW coal-based power plant is Bangladesh's largest power plant till date and is near the Mongla Port and Sundarbans. While the power plant project marks a growth in energy cooperation between the neighbouring countries, it has also raised environmental concerns given its proximity to the Sundarbans. The project has been criticised for its negative impact on the Sundarbans' waterways, especially on the Pasur River’s fragile river ecosystem since it could largely diminish its aquatic biodiversity, especially its fish stocks. After receiving a lot of flak for its environmental costs, concerned authorities had to step in and make it clear that the plant, in fact, employs cutting-edge technology that mitigates its environmental impact by keeping down air and water pollution.
This initiative is based on a 50-50 joint venture between the Bangladesh Power Development Board (BPDB) and the Indian state-run National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC), While India gains from the joint project by winning Bangladesh’s favour, Bangladesh has much to gain from this lucrative venture due to its strategic location near the Mongla Port, as it seeks to export coal from the power plant to countries such as Indonesia, South Africa, and Australia, which in turn would garner large economic revenue for the country.
From having shared historical, social, and cultural affinities to working towards fulfilling common interests, India-Bangladesh ties have always been marked by the salient values of openness, mutual trust, cooperation, and mutual respect. As the friendly neighbours take on newer initiatives to enhance their ties in the essential domains of trade, connectivity, energy and water sharing, leaders from both countries have come to define this phase as a ‘Sonali Adhyay’ (golden chapter) in bilateral relations. In fact, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s much-awaited visit to India after a period of three years, following the COVID-19 pandemic, can be seen as yet another milestone in this golden phase. Nevertheless, a question still haunts whether this visit of Hasina can give political leverage to her party Awami League in the 2023 election in Bangladesh.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.
Anasua Basu Ray Chaudhury is Senior Fellow with ORF’s Neighbourhood Initiative. She is the Editor, ORF Bangla. She specialises in regional and sub-regional cooperation in ...Read More +
Prarthana Sen was Research Assistant with ORF Kolkata. Her interests include gender development cooperation SDGs and forced migration.Read More +