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Comment

Upstream challenge

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India and Bangladesh have a small window to make sure improvements in ties are rendered irreversible

Relations between India and Bangladesh currently stand at a crucial juncture, largely on account of two things. One, general elections in Dhaka are slated to take place by the end of the year. Two, ties look relatively rosy in a way they haven't in years. Consider how close on the heels of several Indian dignitaries President Pranab Mukherjee will arrive in Dhaka tomorrow, on his first foreign trip. Clearly, there is no denying the fact that the bilateral relationship between the two countries has experienced an upswing in recent years. Since coming to power in 2008, the Awami League-led dispensation in Dhaka has gone the extra mile to forge a new partnership with New Delhi, one that is based on mutual understanding. This is best exemplified by Bangladesh's efforts to crack down on anti-India forces operating from its soil. From dismantling Ulfa assets to cleansing its own security establishment of elements inimical to New Delhi, Dhaka has left no stone unturned to address Indian concerns.

On its part, India has reciprocated through several measures. It has extended a $1 billion line of credit for infrastructure projects in Bangladesh, significantly reduced tariff and non-tariff barriers - even allowing duty-free access to several lines of garments - for Bangladeshi imports, and signed a range of MoUs and agreements for cooperation in sectors as diverse as power, railways and education. It has also cleared the way for transit between Bangladesh and Nepal, as well as Bangladesh and Bhutan.

Having said that, neither country can afford to rest on these achievements. Thanks to the legacy of its liberation struggle, Bangladesh's polity continues to be extremely polarised. A change in government in Dhaka can easily see bilateral relations go back to square one. This is precisely why the momentum in two-ways ties should not be allowed to ebb.

In this regard, 2013 began on a positive note with the two countries inking an extradition treaty and a liberalised visa regime. The extradition treaty has been under discussion for the last three decades and is a natural corollary of recent security cooperation. It is a known fact that criminals from India and Bangladesh frequently cross the 4, 000 km border to evade the law. This in turn has converted the border areas into hubs for all sorts of criminal activities such as smuggling of drugs and contraband, kidnapping and human trafficking, running of counterfeit currencies, etc.

Similarly, there are several push factors behind undocumented migration from Bangladesh to India -and vice-versa - such as family bonds, seasonal unemployment, limited opportunities in the agriculture sector and the lack of alternative livelihood options. The hitherto cumbersome visa norms meant that migrants crossed the border illegally with the help of middlemen and brokers. In doing so they frequently exposed themselves to criminal elements. However, the new liberalised visa regime coupled with the extradition treaty should make cross-border travel far safer and easier than before, and boost people-to-people contacts. But given that this is an election year in Bangladesh, the Awami-led government needs to show some immediate gains for its substantial investment in the India-Bangladesh relationship. This is why the conclusion of the Teesta river water treaty and the implementation of the Land Boundary Agreement are so important. The waters of the Teesta, which flow through north Bengal before entering Bangladesh, are a crucial source of sustenance for the people of the region. Many more people in Bangladesh are dependent on the Teesta than in India. However, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee's last-minute refusal to agree to a 50:50 water sharing formula during the dry months scuttled this historic deal and embarrassed Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during his 2011 visit to Dhaka.

Similarly, ratification of the Land Boundary Agreement that would see a swap of Indian and Bangladeshi enclaves in each other's territory awaits aconstitutional amendment in the Indian parliament. There are 111 Indian enclaves in Bangladesh and 51 Bangladeshi enclaves in India. Several theories abound as to how these came about. The most colourful is that these were pieces of land wagered in games of chess between the Raja of Cooch Behar and the Faujdar of Rangpur. And there are the 51, 000 inhabitants of these enclaves who live in pitiable conditions. Cut off from the mainland and sans any law and order infrastructure, these enclaves have also become hubs for smugglers and criminal gangs.

If New Delhi moves fast to resolve the Teesta and enclave issues, it would provide a huge boost to the Awami dispensation. On his recent visit to Bangladesh foreign minister Salman Khurshid conveyed Indian willingness to go the distance. The Congress leadership has been holding exhaustive cross-party talks here to generate consensus on these deals. With Mukherjee's visit and Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina expected to visit New Delhi in August, this provides the perfect opportunity to seal the agreements. The resulting benefits would galvanise ties and put them on an irreversible trajectory.

 

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