By Shristi Pukhrem
After Manmohan Singh and Sheikh Hasina signed the 10 point agreement in Dhaka on September 06, 2011, young scholars and professionals from both the countries met under the banner of India-Bangladesh Studies in Gangtok and Dhaka from September 9-15, 2011. The objective was to exchange their views and ideas on the future dynamics of India-Bangladesh relationship. The programme was jointly organised by the Jamia Millia Islamia of New Delhi, Dhaka University and Sikkim University.
Notwithstanding the failure to reach a water sharing agreement on Teesta River, young delegates from both the countries discussed various issues, such as, hydro-electricity, road connectivity, waterways, rail and air transport, tourism and border management, considered as critical to improving the bilateral relationship. The significance of the growing Indo-Bangladesh relations in the context of South Asian region was brought out by stating that except for the political demarcations nothing else can limit the hearts of the South Asian communities. Underlining this message was the geo-strategic significance of South Asia and Southeast Asia that can be harnessed if the connectivity between India and Bangladesh is synergized, taking into account the human security dimensions and the need to accept one another as equal at the negotiation table.
The main concern of the young delegates during this interactive session was the absence of ‘people to people’ approach which was regarded as the missing link in foreign relations in South Asia. The main consensus was the absence of people-centric approaches in formulation of foreign policies. Hence, better relations between India and Bangladesh could be established only if the two countries emphasise on ‘people to people’ approach. In this regard, the concept of ‘Personography’, as an approach, which puts people as the centre of connectivity, was an element of discussion. In the present era of globalised world, the connectivity in terms of people-to-people contact, and free flow of goods and services, was considered as inevitable. It was stated that the application of the concept of personography could ease the state-centric notion of security and bridge the various differences, including the human security related dilemmas, commonly faced by both India and Bangladesh. Here, the role of civil society, academic institutions, NGOs, media and information technology are noteworthy in formulating and shaping policies.
The strategic location of northeast India has been well factored into the ongoing Indo-Bangladesh talks. It is now acknowledged that enhancement of physical and social connectivity between the two countries vis-à-vis northeast India would generate mutual benefits. Earlier, before independence, the northeastern region was connected to the mainland through broad roads, rails and inland waterways. The creation of East Pakistan (later Bangladesh) led to the isolation of the region with only a narrow strip of land, the Siliguri Corridor, with an approximate length of 100 km and width of 21 km in the east and 33 km in the west, connecting it to mainland India. The region lost its centuries-old transit routes and access to the port of Chittagong (Bangladesh), so was its access to markets in Bangladesh. Over the years, northeast India suffered from continuing isolation and economic backwardness. These geo-political developments turned it into a landlocked region along with Bhutan and Nepal as most of the routes went with East Pakistan. As a result, the lines of transportation between Kolkata and Agartala were extended to 1600 km from the earlier distance of 400 km. Thus, opening of transit routes between India and Bangladesh would not only reduce transportation cost but also provide easy access to markets within and outside India for its wide range of products, particularly floriculture and horticulture. Further, extending northeast India’s connectivity with Southeast Asia will also facilitate regional development and at the same time ensure huge markets for the Bangladeshi products.
Moreover, a viable Indo-Bangladesh cooperation will enhance the prospect of sub-regional cooperation since both the countries are part of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) and Forum for Regional Economic Cooperation among Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar (BCIM). An inter-regional connectivity comprising of India’s northeast, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and Yunnan Province of China can be established. Such prospects of sub regional cooperation will inevitably add more meaning to India’s Look East Policy.
The young scholars and professionals from both the countries envisaged the need to strengthen bilateral agreements by incorporating various stakeholders. In view of the fact that sharing river water has been an issue of contention between the two countries, it was felt that involvement of all the stakeholders in bilateral agreements could help arrive at an amicable solution. Though the agreement on water sharing could not be reached during the Indian Prime Minister’s Dhaka visit, there was consensus on the need to take the talks forward in the near future. As India and Bangladesh depend on rivers for livelihood, it is in their mutual interest, both for the upper and lower riparian states, to look beyond narrow interests and engage in numerous activities which can prove mutually beneficial. In this regard, the idea of joint hydrological survey of rivers, water management, basin management and flood forecasting could be put in practice.
The way forward is to focus on people-to-people connectivity which can actually transform the relationship between India and Bangladesh and take it to a higher level of cooperation and understanding. Greater focus on a more extensive and detailed sharing of information in the regional network is required, and the current political climate is appropriate to work towards a win-win situation in the Indo-Bangladesh relationship with the hope of establishing a more stable South Asia.
Originally published by Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (www.idsa.in) at http://www.idsa.in/idsacomment/NeedtoBroadentheScopeofIndiaBangladeshEngagement_ShristiPukhrem_241011