Who Gains Most from Bangladesh PM’s Trip to India?

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina recently concluded a two-day official visit to India from June 21-22, 2024. This was her first bilateral visit to India after the formation of the new government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The visit was significant as it came shortly after PM Hasina’s attendance at the inauguration of PM Modi’s third term on June 9.

During the visit, the two leaders held extensive discussions to further strengthen the India-Bangladesh “special partnership” that has grown significantly over the past decade. They outlined a shared vision for peace, prosperity, and development, focusing on areas such as connectivity, commerce, and collaboration. Several key agreements and initiatives were announced to deepen cooperation in sectors like maritime security, the blue economy, space, telecommunications, and more.

Significance of the Visit in the Current Geopolitical Context

The timing of PM Hasina’s visit is noteworthy given the evolving geopolitical dynamics in the region. Bangladesh, which enjoys close ties with both India and China, has been carefully navigating its relationships amidst the growing rivalry between the two Asian giants.

As India seeks to position itself as a key regional power and a counterbalance to China’s influence, the strengthening of India-Bangladesh ties assumes greater significance. Bangladesh’s strategic location and its growing economic clout make it an important partner for India in realizing its “Neighborhood First” policy and broader Indo-Pacific vision.

Moreover, the visit comes at a time when India is making concerted efforts to enhance its regional connectivity and economic integration. The agreements signed during the visit, covering areas like railway links, inland waterways, and power sector cooperation, are aimed at unlocking the full potential of the India-Bangladesh partnership and transforming their geographical proximity into tangible economic benefits.

Current State of Bilateral Relations

The current state of India-Bangladesh relations can be characterized as complex. The two countries have made significant progress in some areas such as connectivity, energy cooperation, defense and security collaboration.

However, some issues, such as the sharing of transboundary river waters and the problem of illegal migration, continue to be sources of tension. The rise of anti-India sentiment and ‘India Out’ movement among significant number of the Bangladeshi population due to perceived Indian interference in domestic affairs and the impact of India’s internal policies, such as the Citizenship Amendment Act, have also posed challenges to the relationship.

Nevertheless, both countries have demonstrated a commitment to maintaining a stable and cooperative partnership, recognizing the mutual benefits that can be derived from a strong India-Bangladesh relationship. The recent high-level visits and the signing of various agreements and initiatives reflect the shared desire to further deepen and diversify bilateral cooperation.

Key Issues of High-Level Talks

Delving into this recent visit, the discussions were bolstered with dialogues concerning economic collaborations, aiming to elevate the financial well-being of the two nations. There were nine announcements, seven new Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs), and the renewal of three existing MoUs.

India has announced the launch of e-medical visa services for Bangladeshi citizens. Additionally, there will be new train and bus services connecting Rajshahi and Kolkata, as well as Chattogram and Kolkata. Goods train services will also commence between Gede-Darshana and Haldibari-Chilahati up to Dalgaon. Furthermore, 40MW of power will be exported from Nepal to Bangladesh through the Indian grid. A joint technical committee will be formed to discuss the renewal of the Ganga water treaty, and a technical delegation will visit for a project on the conservation and management of the Teesta River.

Furthermore, several new memorandums of understanding (MOUs) have been signed between India and Bangladesh. These include agreements on a shared vision for a digital partnership, a green partnership, military education on strategy and operations, cooperation in shared satellites, improved railway connectivity between the two countries, support for research in oceanography, and cooperation in the maritime and blue economy sectors. These MOUs aim to further strengthen the bilateral relations and enhance collaboration in various key areas of mutual interest.

Additionally, renewed memorandums of understanding (MoUs) between India and Bangladesh include agreements on cooperation in healthcare and medicine, disaster management, mitigation, and resilience building, as well as cooperation to enhance fisheries.

Who gains the most?

The introduction of the e-medical visa for Bangladeshi patients is expected to boost medical tourism and promote economic growth in the healthcare sector with India. This initiative streamlines the visa application process for patients seeking medical treatment, improving efficiency and user experience. Additionally, the planned export of 40MW of power from Nepal to Bangladesh through the Indian grid is seen as a mutually beneficial endeavor that could help address Bangladesh’s energy resource deficit.

But the residents in the northern part of Bangladesh have long faced challenges such as floods during the monsoon season and water scarcity in winter, without significant mitigation efforts. While Dhaka and Delhi came close to an agreement on sharing the Teesta River’s water in 2011, objections from West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee derailed the deal. Amid the ongoing deadlock over water sharing, the focus has shifted towards water conservation and management of the river within Bangladesh. India emphasizes the technical management needed for effective conservation of the Teesta River, shifting away from water-sharing discussions. However, the potential benefits for Bangladesh remain uncertain, with the details of the old treaty still unknown.

The development of road and rail transit, corridors, and transshipment has sparked a debate but is believed to be mutually beneficial. India’s plans to connect 14 new railways aim to counter China’s expansion and safeguard the “Chicken’s Neck.” Additionally, there is a push for direct road and rail transit, corridors, and transshipment from Kolkata to Agartala via the Padma Bridge. While sea and road transit have been established free of charge and duty-free, prioritized usage facilities have been granted to the Ports of Mangla and Chittagong. The focus now shifts to the need for rail transit to serve both commercial and military purposes.

Despite concerns about the lack of commercial benefits from the transit initiative, the construction and maintenance costs may outweigh any potential gains. Bangladesh may need to secure loans from various organizations to build infrastructure that will primarily benefit India. The Feni Bridge, constructed at a significant cost, has raised concerns about the strategic military security of Chittagong Division. These concerns highlight the potential neglect of strategic issues in favor of infrastructure development along the Feni-Tripura route, which lacks bilateral trade potential.

The new rail connectivity may not bring substantial benefits to Bangladesh due to various challenges, including historical profitability issues with passenger rail transport and funding shortages. The country faces a debt service crisis, with the burden of foreign debt for new railways falling on Bangladesh to protect India’s strategic interests. 

India had offered to utilize the ports of Chattogram and Mongla at nominal costs. However, despite the minimal expenses, Indian companies have not taken advantage of this opportunity. Over the past decade, imports from India have tripled, indicating that the existing land and seaport infrastructure has not hindered the development of India-Bangladesh trade, nor necessitated the construction of new railways. In reality, Bangladesh possesses numerous land ports and multiple seaports on its three sides, facilitating bilateral trade with India, thus eliminating the need for separate transit transshipment corridors. There are at least 23 small and large land ports between India and Bangladesh. In the financial year 2011-12, imports from India amounted to $4.74 billion, while in the financial year 2021-22, imports from India increased to $13.69 billion. The trade is on the rise but not diminishing. Therefore, the primary objective of transit corridors is not only commercial but rather geopolitical, defense, and security purposes.

The issue of border disputes was not strongly addressed in the bilateral talks. According to a human rights organization in Bangladesh, a total of 332 individuals were reported killed by the Border Security Force (BSF) near the Bangladesh-India border between 2013 and 2023, averaging 30 deaths per year. Scholars have labeled this border as a ‘killer border’ and the ‘deadliest’ border in the world. Data presented in another research shows that 1236 Bangladeshi citizens were killed at the Bangladesh-India border during the period of 2000-2020. This aligns with concerns raised by Jones (2018) regarding the violent nature of border guards on the India-Bangladesh border. His estimates indicate that over 1000 deaths of Bangladeshi civilians have occurred due to border violence involving the 200,000-strong security force on the Indian side.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit to India has undeniably reinforced the strong foundations of the India-Bangladesh relationship, underscoring mutual commitment to economic prosperity, connectivity, and comprehensive cooperation. The agreements and initiatives launched during this visit reflect a shared vision for a synergized future amidst a complex regional and global geopolitical landscape. While immediate benefits are expected in sectors such as e-medical visas, energy cooperation, and digital partnerships, significant challenges remain in areas like water sharing, transit infrastructure, and border security.

Hence, India’s strategic and economic interests appear to be more immediately served by the visit. However, a balanced and equitable approach to these challenges will be essential to ensure that both nations benefit fully from this deepening partnership.

[Photo by Prime Minister’s Office, India]

Md. Obaidullah is a lecturer, Department of Development Studies, Daffodil International University (DIU), Dhaka, Bangladesh. He is also a Research Fellow, the Centre for Global Migration Studies, Daffodil International University.

Meherab Hossain is a Research Assistant, Centre for Advanced Social Research, Dhaka. His research focuses on International Relations, Migration, Geopolitics, and Politics. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors.

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