New Delhi: External affairs minister Salman Khurshid is expected to travel to Bangladesh on 16-17 February to review bilateral ties that received a fillip after both sides signed a landmark extradition treaty that was in the works for almost three decades, people familiar with the developments said on Sunday.
Though the purpose of his visit is to co-chair the India-Bangladesh Joint Consultative Commission Meeting, Khurshid is also expected to pave the way for a likely visit to Dhaka by President Pranab Mukherjee next month, one of the people cited above said.
Before his elevation as president, Mukherjee, a senior figure in the ruling Congress party, was seen as a key pointman for engaging Bangladesh given his contacts with senior leaders across the political spectrum. The Bangladesh High Commission in New Delhi did not confirm either visit.
The India-Bangladesh Joint Consultative Commission was announced during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Dhaka in September 2011. The commission aims to “jointly coordinate and oversee implementation of initiatives as well as to explore newer avenues for cooperation” between the two countries. The first meeting was held in New Delhi in May.
Political ties between the two countries have been on an even keel in the past few years with the India-friendly Awami League Party’s Sheikh Hasina in power in Dhaka. Last week, India and Bangladesh signed an extradition treaty —a key item in India’s wishlist—that has been in the works since the 1980s, a second person close to the developments said.
With India and Bangladesh sharing a 4,000 km long common border mainly along the insurgency riven northeastern states, India has been trying to forge closer cooperation with Bangladesh on security issues for years.
During Sheikh Hasina’s visit to India in January 2010, New Delhi extended a $1 billion credit line to Bangladesh for a range of projects.
During Singh’s visit, the Indian prime minister announced duty-free import of 46 textile items in answer to a long-standing Bangladeshi demand for concessions to its apparel sector. And during a visit to Bangladesh by trade minister Anand Sharma in 2010, India allowed duty-free import of up to 10 million pieces of apparel from Bangladesh into its market.
India is seeking closer economic ties with its neighbour as a means to develop its eastern and north eastern states, which in turn will provide avenues for employment for the youth in the region, leading to the lessening of support for insurgencies. Bilateral trade was just over $5 billion in 2010-11, according to Indian government figures.
“Bangladesh is a critical neighbour of India,” said C. Uday Bhaskar, former head of the National Maritime Foundation. “It is not in India’s interests to have forces inimical to India gaining space and legimitacy in Bangladesh polity,” said Bhaskar, who is now associated with the South Asia Monitor, a New Delhi-based policy forum.
Bangladeshi commerce minister Ghulam Muhammed Quader last week described economic ties between the two countries as “excellent” though he did speak of few non-tariff barriers impeding trade.
“India has been allowing us duty free access (into its market), generously, (it is) one sided. We have not allowed (the same to India). India has been allowing us a lot of other facilities also in the economic space,” said Quader who was in Agra on Monday to participate in the Confederation of Indian Industry organised Partnership Summit.
Among the non-tariff barriers impeding the trade were non-acceptance of Bangladesh Standards and Testing Institution certification by Indian traders and problems relating to banking transactions, media reports say.
The Bangladeshi minister said trade between Bangladesh and India’s northeastern states had “tremendous potential” with the northeastern states “taking a large number of products from us for day to day use. They would like to have more as they get it cheaper,” he added.
“India is a big market. If we can get a dent in India, our exports will really flourish,” Quader said.
On land transit rights through Bangladesh to cut short the route to reach its landlocked northeast, Quader said Bangladesh was trying to sort out this problem.
“We are trying to give transit to everybody now. We are already working on the river transit. We are also trying to develop our railway infrastructure with the help of the Indian government so that we can use the railways for transit. Land transit is the problem. Our roads are not wide enough to carry goods and passengers from India. For our own domestic use, its overloaded, its congested. We are talking to India about this, India has already allowed some loans to improve road infrastructure in Bangladesh,” Quader said.
Quader brushed aside media reports which said that Bangladesh was moving slow on allowing India transit through its territory because both countries have not been able to sign a pact on sharing the waters of the river Teesta. A prominent item on Bangladesh’s wishlist, the pact has not been concluded due to reported opposition from West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.
“In politics, when we stand in parliament and talk about things, people make many linkages,” Quader said. “If you consider the economic benefits, by giving transit rights, we will be earning money. So it’s not a question of giving somebody some special facilities.”
One of the two people cited above said that sharing of Teesta waters and the early ratification of the Protocol to the 1974 Land Boundary Agreement which paves the way for settlement of the long pending land boundary issues including the undemarcated areas, territories under adverse possession and exchange of enclaves are expected to be discussed by the two sides during Khurshid’s visit to Dhaka.
Bangladeshi diplomats based in New Delhi have pointed out in the past that the pacts are crucial for the Sheikh Hasina government to showcase to its people that closer ties with India are beneficial for the country and counter the anti-India sentiments-- something critical with elections due in Bangladesh in December 2013.