A Delhi-Dhaka duet for the present and future
In a fractured South Asia, India-Bangladesh ties are an exemplar of pragmatic political leadership and diplomatic sagacity
In late November, Bangladesh foreign secretary Masud Bin Momen met his Indian counterpart Vinay Kwatra in Delhi for this year’s second Foreign Office Consultations (FOC). Since this is likely the last high-level meeting before both countries head for elections, a sober reflection of the past 15 years of Indo-Bangladesh relations — since the Awami League came into power in Bangladesh — is timely.
Bangladesh holds a prominent position as India’s largest development and trading partner in South Asia, and India is Bangladesh’s second-largest trading partner globally. Both nations are acknowledged as engines of growth, drawing strength from four vital forms of capital: The abundant availability of cost-effective human capital, a deeply ingrained social capital rooted in shared values, rich biodiversity serving as natural capital, and substantial growth in physical infrastructure. This synergy positions them as key drivers of growth and development in the region. Prime Minister (PM) Sheikh Hasina’s leadership has instilled greater confidence in India to pursue a more robust neighbourhood policy. Dhaka is recognised by India as an important strategic partner in the region. The positive trajectory of Bangladesh’s economic growth underlines its significance in the region and reinforces the potential for collaborative initiatives between the two nations.
Indo-Bangla trade relations have grown manifold in recent times. During 2008-09, bilateral trade was around $2.8 billion, which reached $18.2 billion in 2021-22 This comprised $16.2 billion in Indian exports and $2 billion in imports. On October 1, India-Bangladesh engaged in discussions regarding the initiation of talks for a free-trade agreement to foster and strengthen economic ties between the nations. The proposed trade agreement is expected to boost exports from Bangladesh to India and help reduce the trade imbalance. India and Bangladesh agreeing to settle some international trade payments in Indian rupees will alleviate pressure on Dhaka’s dollar reserves. This initiative promotes bilateral trade, starting with Indian rupees and later transitioning to Bangladeshi taka, reducing currency-related expenses for Bangladesh and capitalising on the stability and potential advantages of the rupee’s exchange rate dynamics.
Over the past 15 years, there has been a significant enhancement in connectivity, energy collaboration, and other areas. On November 1, PM Modi and PM Hasina, jointly inaugurated three India-supported development projects — the Akhaura-Agartala Cross-Border Rail Link, the Khulna-Mongla Port Rail Line, and Unit II of the Maitree Super Thermal Power Plant in Rampal, Bangladesh. In July 2010, India and Bangladesh also entered into a 35-year agreement for power transmission, allowing the transfer of 250 MW of electricity from India to Bangladesh.
In December 2019, Bangladesh agreed to purchase 718 MW of electricity from Reliance Power, spanning a period of the next 22 years. This year, Adani Power has commenced electricity export to Bangladesh from its 1,600 MW facility located in Godda, Jharkhand. Earlier this year, the India-Bangladesh Friendship Pipeline (IBFP) was inaugurated, which is a cross-border energy pipeline connecting India and Bangladesh, equipped to transport 1 million metric tons per annum (MMTPA) of high-speed diesel (HSD) to Bangladesh.
A key element shaping bilateral relations since PM Modi assumed office has been deepening India’s Northeastern region’s relations with Bangladesh. Dhaka has responded positively, resulting in various levels of sustained engagement on this front. Of the 4,096 km-long border with India, Bangladesh and Northeast India share 1,879 km, with a substantial portion being riverine. This provides water sharing opportunities, catering to both navigational and economic endeavours.
The widely discussed Teesta water sharing agreement remains unresolved. In 2011, the two countries came close to finalising a water sharing treaty whereby India was slated to receive 42.5% of the water and Bangladesh around 37.5% in the dry season. However, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee vetoed the proposal as water supply remains within the jurisdiction of state governments in India, and the proposed treaty was not implemented.
Border killings on the India-Bangladesh border continue to be a contentious issue. The Bangladeshi human rights group Odhikar has alleged that the Indian border forces are responsible for the deaths of at least 334 Bangladeshis since 2011, along with numerous instances of severe abuse.
Under PM Hasina and PM Modi, the India-Bangladesh relationship has experienced a steady rise despite the failures in Teesta river water sharing, addressing trade imbalance and border fatalities. As elections approach, the challenge is to make continuity of progress independent of the political leadership that may emerge post-election.
In the fractured South Asian regional integration, the Indo-Bangla relationship is an exemplar of pragmatic political leadership and diplomatic sagacity. To have otherwise will not only be self-defeating but also a regression that neither country can afford.
Syed Munir Khasru is chairman of the Institute for Policy, Advocacy, and Governance (IPAG). The views expressed are personal