Begum Khaleda Zia comes to India today on her first visit as Prime Minister of Bangladesh but Delhi and Dhaka remain firmly stuck in a diplomatic groove. The two countries have made no substantive progress on any bilateral issue for nearly a decade. Rather than a 'big-bang' agreement, then, perhaps it is time they started looking at smaller confidence-building measures as a way of establishing trust.
20 March 2006
New Delhi, Dhaka looking at `CBMs' route
New Delhi: Confidence-building measures (CBMs) -- that staple of the India-Pakistan peace process -- could provide a way out of the bilateral logjam on India's eastern front with this week's state visit of Bangladesh Prime Minister Khaleda Zia provid9ing the perfect occasion for the two sides to engage in some creative diplomacy.
Begum Khaleda, arriving here on Monday, will hold talks with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Tuesday. The visit, her first in her current tenure as Prime Minister, comes even as Bangladesh slowly slips into poll season. General elections are due to be held no later than January 2007.
With Bangladesh holding SAARC chairmanship, Begum Khaleda's visit has a formal focus on regional issues but both sides are anxious to get the bilateral agenda on to a firmer political footing. After a long period during which normal institutional mechanisms for bilateral discussion on different subjects had fallen into disuse, India and Bangladesh have managed over the past year to revive high-level engagement in trade, security and water management.
For sustained engagement
The Indian side sees the visit as the culmination of that process. "From now on, we want to make sure there is sustained and continuous engagement with Bangladesh", a senior official told The Hindu.
Though the agenda of discussion is fairly open-ended, each side is expected to bring to the table issues that are of particular concern to itself. For Bangladesh, this means trade and water. Dhaka wants Delhi to cut or eliminate tariff and non-tariff barriers so that Bangladesh has a fair chance of reducing its yawning $2 billion annual trade deficit with India.
Apart from cheaper or easier access to Indian markets, Dhaka is looking for unilateral concessions on some specific product lines and an "early harvest package" under the proposed free trade agreement.
On water management, Begum Khaleda will want to hear Dr Singh reiterate the earlier assurances made by Priyaranjan Dasmunsi when he was Water Resources Minister that India's river-linking plans would not cover water in which Bangladesh has lower riparian rights.
In addition, Dhaka is anxious about the effect the proposed Tipaimukh barrage would have on dry season flows of the Surma and Kushiyara rivers.
Indian officials concede that there have been crossed signals in the past and the slow progress on joint water management has not helped either side. "There are 53 rivers (other than the Ganges) waiting to be shared," said an official.
The landmark 1996 Ganges Treaty created the space for a rational discourse on joint river use and development projects but this was not taken forward.
On his part, Dr Singh will raise issues such as security - with the alleged presence inside Bangladesh of training camps of Indian insurgent groups from the northeast a perennial irritant - as well as transit and transport infrastructure linkages.
Road, rail connectivity
India has been seeking to improve connectivity with Bangladesh and between the north-eastern States and West Bengal.
"I am afraid the agenda is the same as it's always been and so is the mindset", a former Indian ambassador to Dhaka told The Hindu. "I don't believe anything of substance will come out of this visit". He criticised Bangladesh Foreign Minister Morshed Khan for once again ruling out transit rights to the North-East for India by either road or rail because of the poor transport infrastructure inside the country. "His comments are a rehash of what we've been hearing for the past 30 years".
Bangladeshi officials disagree. They say that Prime Minister Khaleda is open to discuss India's security concerns as well transit and transport issues.
Reports from Dhaka suggest the government is apparently ready for "forward movement on connectivity" between the two countries. Among the rail and road links on the agenda are revival of the Sealdah-Tongi and Agartala-Akhaura-Chittagong rail lines as well as a bus service between Shillong and Sylhet with onward connections to Guwahati and Dhaka. These will be intended for passengers or perhaps point-to-point trade but they do open up the possibility of a more generalised and efficient movement of goods.
As the experience of cross-LoC transport in Jammu and Kashmir has shown, the movement of passengers gives rise to pressure for the movement of goods. Economists who have been active in Track-II dialogues suggest that rather than pressing for a big-bang approach to transit rights and unilateral tariff concessions, India and Bangladesh should initiate sub-regional border trade as a first step.
This might involve granting preferential access to the north-east for certain Bangladeshi product lines via traditional but now defunct border trading points like Daugarghat, and combining this with transit rights for India.
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