On 26th November, India’s External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar said that India is trying to improve trade and connectivity with Bangladesh and Myanmar on his two-day visit to India’s Northeast region. He emphasized the importance of linking Northeastern India to the rest of the nation and reiterated Delhi is working to improve connectivity and infrastructure in the region. By taking the G20 presidency India will try to showcase the true spirit of the Northeast to the world, with its tourism benefits.
But, the umbilical cord between the Indian mainland and North Eastern Region is Chicken’s Neck or Siliguri corridor which brings Bangladesh into the Indian equation of northeastern development. Not only that, Bangladesh has very close relations with West Bengal, Assam, Meghalaya, and Tripura in terms of language, culture, and history. These factors make Bangladesh an inextricable element of the development of the northeastern states.
Tourism Sector and Connectivity
It is well known that connectivity is the cornerstone of any regional economic cooperation and integration. But the main hindrance to India’s economic cooperation and integration with the ASEAN states is the connectivity issue. Northeastern states of India share international borders with Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar, Nepal, and China. Both Bangladesh and India are affected due to a lack of improvement in ties with Assam`s capital Guwahati, which is known as a `gateway` to the northeastern states. As a result, both sides are deprived of availing the potential for connectivity.
So, it is necessary to introduce road communications between Guwahati and Dhaka like between Dhaka and Agartala. The initiative of air connectivity has started between Bangladesh and the northeastern states. Flights from Agartala to Chittagong will be started soon as part of enhancing international air connectivity in the region. If the infrastructural barriers are removed, the tourism industry between Bangladesh and northeast India will see a boom the first step towards increasing tourism between Bangladesh and the Seven Sisters will be to reopen all of the blocked border checkpoints to visitors. There are now only three border checkpoints along the states of Tripura and Meghalaya. Both must look into the possibility of adding more border checkpoints and developing infrastructure, including communication lines. Furthermore, the international airport in Sylhet can act as a link between the secluded people of the northeast and the rest of the globe.
The northeastern region is a source of around 63,000MW of hydropower energy. Bangladesh can benefit from the extra power generated in the NER by bolstering its power supply. As a result, cooperation in this industry can benefit both regions. Not only that, diesel will come to Bangladesh through the pipeline from Numaligarh, Assam. Considering the geographical proximity, energy cooperation between the northeastern states and Bangladesh will see a new dimension if utilized properly.
Trade and investment
The goods from Bangladesh have demand in seven of the northeastern states of India. These states import many kinds of goods from Bangladesh. These include food and beverage, and garments. Not only plastic goods, melamine, cement, rod, ceramic, and cosmetics but also flash doors are also imported from Bangladesh. On the other hand, northeastern states are exporting all kinds of agricultural products to Bangladesh. These include ginger, onion, and betel nut. The market mechanism between Bangladesh and northeastern states can be facilitated through the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) as Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Pranay Verma discussed the potential of CEPA in a recent meeting.
Moreover, stones are abundant in northeastern states, Tripura is also importing stones from Bangladesh. The reason behind the import is the geographical proximity. India`s Assam and Meghalaya states are close to the northern part of Bangladesh. These stones are accumulated in the Sylhet and Sunamganj districts of Bangladesh. From there, importers can reach Tripura by road crossing only 150-200 kilometers. But, if the importers want to go to Tripura from Assam or Meghalaya, they will have to cross as many as 1000 kilometers. Because of this, the importers of Tripura are interested to import stones from Bangladesh. It helps them to save both time and money. But unfortunately, the trade between Bangladesh and those states is not reaching a desirable level due to a lack of infrastructure.
For example, the immigration problems. There are several land ports between Bangladesh and India. But the visa is processed at Kolkata and Siliguri of West Bengal and Agartala in Tripura. As a result, the people of Assam and Meghalaya are required to go to Kolkata or Agartala for visas crossing a thousand kilometers. If a visa center can be established at Guwahati, the gateway of the northeastern states it will accelerate the movements between the two countries.
India shouldn’t forget that; the northeastern region is an armed conflict a separatist movement-prone region. The separatists are capitalizing on the economic situation of the natives and consolidating the arms conflict there. If India focuses on improving bilateral economic and connectivity initiatives with Bangladesh, the economic development of this region is inevitable. We can be optimistic to believe that economic development will bring a long-lasting solution to armed conflicts. Though Bangladesh has the geo-strategic upper hand, the country never gives any statement that shows any gesture that put India-Bangladesh relations in any uncomfortable situation. If India keeps that in mind and chooses Bangladesh as an unwavering partner for the development of the seven sisters, it will take India-Bangladesh relations to a new height.
Samara Ashrat, PhD Student, International Relations, University of Bucharest.