Indo-Bangla Talks 2017 – Can Hasina and Modi take Indi-Bangla Tie to New Heights?

Teesta Water Treaty may be critical to Indo-Bangla friendship. However, there would be more in terms of trade talks and Line of Credits (LoCs). There is need for statesmanship from both sides to keep the warmth in the time-tested friendship.

Indo-Bangla Talks 2017 – Can Hasina and Modi take Indi-Bangla Tie to New Heights

Come April 8, 2017, Mamata Banerjee, Chief Minister of West Bengal will be attending the banquet at Rashtrapati Bhavan, to be held in honour of the visiting Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina. By then it would be clear if the Bengal CM would be a partner in Indo-Bangladesh friendship or a hurdle. India’s diplomatic ties with Bangladesh is friendly and strategic. This means a lot since it shows the strength of bonding that the two nations have. Unlike with other neighbour, i.e Pakistan, this is a stable and mutually supportive relationship.

India-Bangladesh trade stands at USD 6.6 billion in 2013-2014, with exports from India at USD 6.1 billion while imports from Bangladesh accounts for the rest. As a partner in the neighbourhood they are politically, economically, socially and emotionally much closer. Yet they are two distinct sovereigns where people of both countries feel they are misunderstood.

Former Foreign Secretary of Bangladesh, Farooq Sohan says, “At the moment Indo-Bangladesh relations, at the government-to-government level, and I would stress in particular between the two Prime Ministers, can be described as excellent. But in my view, the relationship is not understood so clearly at the level of public opinion. There is a mismatch. The public perception of Indo-Bangladesh relations is very different.”

He also said, “Indians still see Bangladesh as it was in 1972 or ’73. They are not aware of the fact that nearly 22 billion dollars are being earned by Indians through trade, through remittances of Indians working in Bangladesh, through services. So we are in the general scheme of things, a very major player in terms of our contribution to India.”

Key Issues: Teesta Water Treaty

Given the magnitude of the relationship, Teesta Water Treaty will play a very important role since it affects the rice bowl of Bangladesh, keeping it deprived for the winter crop. While the aspirational class in both the nations will be looking at much more data points to evaluate this visit, the water treaty will surely be one of the boxes to be ticked.

As Maya Mirchandani, in her ORF report says – From source to mouth, the Teesta is approximately 414 kilometres, of which 150-odd are in Sikkim, 123 in West Bengal, and the remaining 140 or so, in Bangladesh. If India-Bangladesh ties in the 20th century were defined by conflict over sharing the waters of the Ganga, today the Teesta has become its powerful leitmotif. Before 1787, when a deluge in Rangpur broke river banks and altered the river’s course, the Teesta was the main river of the northern regions of present-day Bangladesh. Even today, it is the country’s fourth largest transboundary river for irrigation and fishing activities. According to available data, the river’s floodplain today covers an area of 2,750 square kilometres in Bangladesh. Its catchment area supports 8.5 percent of its population — roughly 10 million people — and 14 percent of crop production. Over one lakh hectares of land across five districts are severely impacted by upstream withdrawals of the Teesta’s waters in India and face acute shortages during the dry season. Bangladesh wants 50 percent of the river’s water supply, especially in the months between December and May annually, while India claims a share of 55 percent.

There would be a few questions that would be pertinent in this treaty. Both leaders need to think out of the box. For India, rising water crisis in a global warming scenario is as much a challenge as is for Bangladesh to keep its people satisfied. They also know that there couldn’t be a better time when this issue could be addressed amicably. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has a mandate that can decisively act. But Prime Minister Hasina also knows that water in India is a State issue and hence a nod from Chief Minister of Bengal, Mamata Bannerjee is going to be the decisive element in the signing of the pact. This is important for Hasina since she needs to go back with a clear signal that she has succeeded in safekeeping of the interests of her people. India doesn’t want her to lose her next elections, as she she is key player in security issues for India. There would have to be an objective approach to the issue and both sides can do that without muddying waters.

Defence Purchases

Bangladesh has recently purchased two Chinese submarines during the recent visit of President Xi Jinping to Dhaka.They also declared that China-Bangladesh relationship is being raised to the level of Strategic Partnership. This would mean lot more of investment flowing towards Dhaka. However PM Hasina also knows that Chinese lending comes with hidden clauses. Pakistan is one good example. Similarly in Sri Lanka, while China built some superclass airports, but they are underused and will only be instrument in creating debt burden.

While Bangladesh knows that as a sovereign nation, it has the freedom to engage with both India and China, it also knows that a trusted friend is better than two. There could be also better engagement with already initiated energy cooperation. Though under wraps, but at least half a billion Line of Credits (LOCs) is expected to be given to Bangladesh for defence hardware, if not more. There is also major defence cooperation and joint military exercises.

Trade and other sectoral exchange

While China has already signed a partnership and LoC worth USD 24 Billion, there is anticipation that there will be a signing of LOC with India worth USD 5 Billion for infrastructural investments. There is also hope that FDI flow from India could rise and some experts like Farooq Sohan see the scope to rise to almost USD 10-12 Billion. Bangla side of trade could rise to almost USD 2 Billion in the next few years and it is this trade exchange that would always keep India an active partner in Bangladesh’s growth.

At no point would Hasina also want to be seen as toppling the apple cart with China, but India for sure an all-weather friend and PM Hasina knows that.