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The case for regional cooperation

The case for regiaonal cooperation
Regional unity starts at the border. Photo: Mohammad Islam/ Drik News

Geography dictates that the destinies of India and Bangladesh are inextricably intertwined. This is what makes Bangladesh and India very special neighbours. There is great benefit in the two countries working very closely together. Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit to India in January 2010 clearly revealed that leaders in both countries recognise this.

Overcoming poverty is the most important common challenge. Both countries should be greatly concerned that South Asia’s eastern regions have a lower level of development than the already low South Asian average. Till 1947, this part of undivided India, comprising present-day eastern India, Bangladesh and India’s northeast region, was always an integrated political, economic and cultural space. As the pioneering region in India’s industrialisation, it was the country’s richest and most prosperous region. Today, sadly, it is among the least developed. Where Kolkata and Dhaka were once flourishing commercial and economic centres, today they have fallen far behind many other South Asian cities. This regrettable situation is primarily the result of decades-long shortsighted policies that ignored the region’s interdependence, complementarities and commonalities.

If this region’s enormous natural wealth and human resources are to be unlocked, both India and Bangladesh must sincerely and resolutely take advantage of the numerous mutual synergies in the fields of economy, culture, history, language and society. This will open the doors for this region to once again play a leading role in South Asia — in politics, socioeconomic development and intellectual debate. If India and Bangladesh act boldly and imaginatively, this region will be transformed from being a relatively underdeveloped periphery of the subcontinent to the centre of a thriving and integrated economic space, linking the dynamic and growing economies of South and Southeast Asia with a network of highways, railways, pipelines and transmission lines crisscrossing the region. Should we not dream that one day it will be possible to drive, or take a train, not only from West Bengal to Meghalaya, Assam and Tripura via Bangladesh, but from Kolkata to Yangon, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore via Dhaka? This could open the way for millions of tourists, pilgrims, workers and businessmen to travel in both directions. Apart from the direct economic benefits that would flow to it, Bangladesh could earn considerable transit revenues.

It is against this background that Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s path-breaking visit to India in January 2010 holds out promise of a paradigm shift, not only in India-Bangladesh relations but in regional and sub-regional cooperation too. Some important decisions taken during the visit are the agreement on improving rail and road connectivity between Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan; use of Chittagong and Mongla ports by India, Nepal and Bhutan; making the India-Bangladesh Inland Water Transport and Transit Protocol more effective; and construction of an Akhaura-Agartala railway link. Perhaps the next step should be for Bangladesh to develop, with India’s assistance, regional projects like a deep-sea port at Chittagong that can handle container traffic from India to the rest of the world, instead of it being routed through Dubai, Colombo or Singapore.

Of course, India as a whole, and the northeast region in particular, is a natural market for Bangladesh’s products, which should be given much freer access to the Indian market. In addition, sharing many complementarities with India, Bangladesh can become globally competitive if it can take full advantage of its geographical proximity to India. It could exploit India’s competitive advantages, such as easy availability of raw materials, economies of scale of a huge production base and a large market. Bangladeshis understand India well, and are well networked with key players in India. Bangladesh can leverage its geographical location to build links with the Asean countries and develop new markets for its products.

Bangladesh may like to consider adopting a step-by-step strategy for Asian economic integration. The first step has to be economic integration with its immediate neighbours. It would seem to be in Bangladesh’s interest to come on board India’s ‘Look East’ train. One of the most useful existing frameworks that could facilitate this is the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (Bimstec) that brings together the South Asian nations of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka with Asean members Myanmar and Thailand. Bangladesh and India’s northeast region lie in the middle of the Bimstec region. Unlike Saarc, Bimstec is a geographically coherent and logical grouping. It is also well balanced, since the dependence of India’s northeast region on Bangladesh and Myanmar considerably reduces India’s preponderance in the grouping. Moreover, the absence of Pakistan will prevent Bimstec from getting bogged down in sterile bickering of the India-Pakistan variety that characterises Saarc meetings. Bimstec already complements and supplements India’s engagement with Asean. With five of its members from South Asia, Bimstec could become a practical and desirable bridge between South Asia, as a whole, and Asean. This would benefit both Bangladesh and India.

In recognition of the critical role that improved transportation and communication linkages and greater connectivity play in ensuring more effective regional cooperation, Bimstec and ADB have conducted a study on transport infrastructure and logistics that has identified the bottlenecks and suggested ways to overcome them. These should be seriously examined and followed up. Bangladesh should be commended for joining the Trans-Asian Railway and the Asian Highway Network. It should now consider joining the Trilateral Highway Project, linking India, Myanmar and Thailand, which could become a Bimstec project. Bimstec cooperation should also be accelerated in the other agreed priority areas, like energy, fisheries, agriculture, public health, poverty alleviation, counter-terrorism and transnational crime, environment and natural disaster management. Bimstec would acquire dynamism once a secretariat is set up. Dhaka would be an ideal location, and hopefully, all Bimstec member-states would see merit in this.

Apart from Bimstec, the Mekong-Ganga Cooperation (MGC), with its focus on areas like education, culture, tourism that promote people-to-people linkages, is another supplementary prong of India’s ‘Look East’ policy and one more building block in the process of Asian economic integration. Bangladesh may find it in its interest to become a member of MGC. This would help to revive the organisation and give Bangladesh one more bridging mechanism for its gradual step-by-step integration into a larger Asian community.

The optimal success of India’s economic integration with the East Asian economies requires Bangladesh’s cooperation. Bangladesh cannot and should not be kept away from the larger Asian integration process. In publicly articulating India’s long-term vision of an integrated Asia, from the Himalayas to the Pacific, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has made it clear that India is conscious of this imperative. The need now is for practical steps to demonstrate that India is both sensitive and generous towards its neighbours.
Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s recent visit to India has certainly achieved a momentous breakthrough in India-Bangladesh bilateral relations. It could also fundamentally change the way India and Bangladesh work together in the larger process of Asian economic integration.

This article is quoted from The Daily Star, Bangladesh. The original article was published on 2010.02.09. The writer is Mamun Rashid a former Secretary in India’s Ministry of External Affairs, and the author of Challenge and Strategy: Rethinking India’s Foreign Policy.

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