Event ReportsPublished on May 06, 2015
Like Europe interlinked themselves and how it has benefitted their economy as a whole, Dr. Muhammad Hasan Mahmud, a former Minister in Sheikh Hasina Cabinet, thinks the same kind of integration could be done between India and Bangladesh and the whole of South Asia.
South Asia region needs to be integrated as Europe

A day before the visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Bangladesh, Observer Research Foundation organised a roundtable on "India-Bangladesh Relations: Land Boundary and Beyond" on June 5 in New Delhi. Giving a big boost to the Modi’s visit, the Indian Parliament had passed a Resolution to sign the Land Boundary Agreement with Bangladesh which has been a major issue between India and Bangladesh.

The keynote speaker was Dr. Muhammad Hasan Mahmud, Member of Parliament and a former State Minister for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Bangladesh. The other speakers were Mr. Rajeet Mitter, former Indian High Commissioner to Bangladesh and Mr. Pinak Chakravarty, Distinguished Fellow, ORF and former Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs. The roundtable was chaired by Dr. C. Raja Mohan, Head, Strategic Studies Programme of ORF.

In his opening remarks, Dr C. Raja Mohan spoke about how in the run up to the Bangladesh visit, Prime Minister Modi’s government has demonstrated the will to deliver and has shown the capability to move forward in integrating the neighbourhood.

Delivering the keynote address, Dr. Mahmud expressed satisfaction over the fact that finally, the issue of land boundary with Bangladesh is going to be resolved, 68 years after partition. He said while South Asia is the most densely populated region in the world, it is also the least integrated region in the world. Speaking about Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s slogan ’Agenda 2021’, Dr. Mahmud said the foreign policy of Bangladesh is based on the three pillars of economy, ecology and security. Dr. Mahmud then gave the example of how Europe interlinked themselves and it has benefitted their economy as a whole. He said the same could be done between India and Bangladesh and the whole of South Asia as well. There is fencing and border shooting between Bangladesh and India, he said, along with mentioning that the tigers in Sunderban live on both sides. There were two protocols signed for conservation of tigers during the former Prime Minister of India Manmohan Singh’s visit to Dhaka in 2011, but it hasn’t been transformed into action. He said, to realise dreams of the people of both countries, we need to protect the ecology.

Coming to the Land Boundary Agreement, Dr. Mahmud said people living in the enclaves of both Bangladesh and India are in cheerful mood. So far, people used to provide fake address to get jobs, according to people living in these enclaves. Now the land agreement would provide these people, who have been living in these enclaves for 68 years, much needed identity. PM Modi has rightfully said this is more significant than the fall of Berlin wall. He said we are grateful to the Government of India, both members in the Houses of Indian Parliament and all other political parties in India. PM Modi was successful in creating a consensus in Parliament to pass it unanimously.

Dr. Mahmud hoped that now both the countries would be able to make use of the population dividend, majority being young and working age, and make fast progress to change the fortunes of the region. Mr. Mitter began his presentation by noting that PM Modi is going to Bangladesh with his hands strengthened after the 119th Constitutional Amendment Bill was unanimously passed by the Indian Parliament. While he credited the NDA government for achieving the political consensus, he also said the previous UPA government had done the work to get enclaves and sort out boundaries though it failed create a consensus with other political parties. Historically India’s relations have moved rapidly under the Awami League government in Bangladesh whenever it is in power. Security is an important issue and it is the crackdown on extremists in Bangladesh by Sheikh Hasina’s government that paved the way for greater ties between both countries. This led to a more conducive climate for the bilateral relations between both countries.

Undocumented migration is another area that needs to be looked into, said Mr. Mitter. Given that the bilateral relations between both countries are good, it should be brought on the agenda at least. Duty free access for Bangladesh goods to come into India was a huge positive. This came in 2011 and there has been a gradual increase in Bangladesh exports though the overall trade balance between both countries still tilts in favour of India. Diversification of Bangladesh economy is the key, he said. Connectivity will help to restore economic, political, social consensus of the region and we already have sub-regional grouping BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal) working on various aspects of cooperation and can move much faster than what SAARC is doing. He also spoke about how more Line of Credit would help Bangladesh’s infrastructural shortage and how visa liberalisation is needed. He concluded his presentation by saying close relations with Bangladesh is vital to India’s Act East policy.

Mr. Pinak Chakravarty said connectivity is one of the major issues that needs to be addressed. While there is too much focus on road connectivity, he said it is a no brainer that railways is the best mode of transportation and groups with vested interests opposed railways while roadways get more funding. He also emphasized the need for more efficient border management, while pointing out that more resources are needed to improve infrastructure in many border regions. On Bangladesh becoming a centre for human trafficking, Mr. Chakravarty stressed on the need for India to take the initiative to check this problem. He suggested a trilateral between India, Bangladesh, Myanmar to discuss various issues. He said Bangladesh should sit down and talk with Myanmar about issues such as the Rohingyas.

Mr. Chakravarty noted that Bangladesh is in need of more FDI from India and the need for creating conducive atmosphere to increase trade which will help both the nations.

After the presentations, the conference debated some lively questions with the participants asking interesting questions on such as relations between India and Bangladesh under different regimes in Bangladesh and the momentum of the BBIN forum. Addressing the questions, Dr. Mahmud spoke about how different groups identify themselves in Bangladesh and that influences their views on India. He said Begum Khaleda Zia’s party indulged in anti India politics and why it was essential to have secular forces, not just Awami League, ruling Bangladesh. He said there is nothing comparable to Bangladesh-India relations when a question on China’s relations with Bangladesh was asked.

Concluding the roundtable, Dr. Raja Mohan said we need to ask ourselves what has India done for its neighbourhood rather than asking neighbouring countries what they have done. He said India has not been imaginative in dealing with its neighbours and we should see where we have gone wrong. He said India has allowed China to become a larger trading partner with Bangladesh. It is not China’s credit, but India’s failure. India has not done the right things in terms of its neighbourhood. The more we reform the way we deal with neighbours, it will open up newer opportunities for India. Dr. Raja Mohan said India has to work on how to translate commitments into specifics. Getting to sort the nitty gritty is the real challenge that lies ahead for the region, he said.

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