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India’s neighbourhood policies

The gap between promise and performance

by G. Parthasarathy

(September 02, New Delhi, Sri Lanka Guardian)
AS Ambassador to Myanmar, I had proposed in 1994 that, as Myanmar was interested in letting us develop the hydroelectric potential of the Chindwin river for the supply of between 1000 and 1500 MW of electricity to India, we should seek early implementation of this project, located close to Myanmar’s borders with Manipur. After some hesitation by the Ministry of Power, which claimed that there was surplus power in our Northeast, successive Prime Ministers supported early implementation of this project. The Myanmar government was advised about our intention to go ahead with its implementation.

Sixteen years later, we have not even finalised a detailed project report. There are now indications that in recent days China may have well tried to derail this project — a situation we could have avoided if we had acted more expeditiously. Delays in being unable to determine how we would transfer gas from an offshore field in Myanmar, in which both GAIL and ONGC had an equity stake, resulted in Rangoon deciding to supply gas to China.

While we may be able to tide over such developments in Myanmar, there now appear to be distinct possibilities that because of lack of attention, inertia and procrastination, we could well lose a historic opportunity to put our relations with Bangladesh on a sound footing. Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League swept to a decisive electoral victory in December 2008, winning 230 seats and securing a two-thirds parliamentary majority. Showing immense courage, Sheikh Hasina has declared Bangladesh a secular republic. She has overseen the signature of agreements with India on mutual legal assistance in criminal matters, the transfer of sentenced persons, and combating terrorism. Anti-Indian Islamists from groups like the Lashkar-e-Toiba and the Harkat-ul-Jihad Al-Islami, apart from separatists like the ULFA’s Arabinda Rajkhowa and the NDFB’s Ranjan Daimari have been quietly put behind bars, though for understandable reasons. Bangladesh avoids publicising its actions. Pressures in Bangladesh have forced top ULFA leaders to flee to safe havens along the Myanmar-China border.

The visit of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to Delhi earlier this year produced a broad road-map for future cooperation. Union Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee visited Dhaka on August 7 and inked an agreement for extending a soft loan of $ 1 billion for 14 projects in Bangladesh. He proclaimed: “I am sure this credit line will be a stepping stone for a shared destiny and will transform our bilateral relationship.” The line of credit will finance projects ranging from railway lines and equipment to the dredging of rivers and the supply of buses. India has also agreed to supply 250 MW of electricity from its grid to Bangladesh. Our image and credibility will be seriously compromised if the promised electricity is not made available expeditiously.

Bangladesh has agreed to the transit of Indian goods across its territory to our Northeast for the Palatona power project. But, given the opposition to such transit within Bangladesh, India should fulfil its commitment of improving the road network from within Bangladesh to Tripura before it is accused of damaging Bangladesh roads for the transit of its goods. Moreover, the Indian bureaucracy has little enthusiasm for upgrading and modernising border crossing points in remote areas. This needs to be addressed. Politically, the agreement for India to construct a bridge across the Feni river to facilitate trade would dilute Begum Khaleda Zia’s anti-Indian rhetoric, as it would facilitate border trade through her constituency. After agreeing to a long-pending request from Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh for according transit rights for Chittagong and Mongia ports, India has to fulfil its commitment expeditiously.

India has shown an overly protectionist attitude in its approach to SAARC neighbours like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka by placing key items of interest to these countries in a “negative list”, denying them duty-free access. This is short-sighted, given that we have a trade surplus approaching $3 billion with Bangladesh. It would be statesmanlike if India moves to expeditiously end the restrictions on the import of around 61 items of specific interest to Bangladesh. It is ridiculous to pretend that we are a rising economic power if we behave like an economic pygmy with smaller neighbours. There would be an immense political benefit if our Commerce Ministry acted to end these restrictions before the end of this year.

Sheikh Hasina is facing domestic criticism spearheaded by the BNP and the Jamaat-e-Islami for allegedly having sold out to India. She will have to show that relations with India are producing tangible and visible benefits for Bangladesh and that long-pending differences are being resolved. Under the 1974 Indira-Mujib agreement, India is required to hand over around 111 enclaves to Bangladesh and in return it will get 51 enclaves from Dhaka. It took us 18 years to lease a small corridor of land near Tin Bigha to Bangladesh, which we were required to do under the 1974 agreement. Barely 6.5 kilometres out of the 4096-km land border remains undemarcated. Measures need to be agreed upon so that the border is expeditiously demarcated.

The “Tin Bigha Corridor’ gave access in perpetuity to the Dahagram-Angarpota enclave and it was agreed during Sheikh Hasina’s visit that while Bangladesh would provide electrification to the affected population, India would build a flyover for unfettered Indian use while Bangladesh would use the ground under the flyover for its nationals. India should fulfil this commitment given by its Prime Minister immediately, given the sensitivity of this issue, which is seen as a litmus test of Indian seriousness and sincerity.

There are two factors which seriously undermine our ability to maintain a sustained effort in our relations with otherwise friendly neighbours like Myanmar, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. The first is the excessive importance and attention given to Pakistan which, as other neighbours believe, is at their expense. Surely, the time has come to realise, as Indira Gandhi realistically did, that relations with Pakistan are not going to materially change in a hurry and that on issues like trade and economic cooperation, we should stop giving the impression that we are yearning to get trade and economic concessions from our western neighbour.

A policy of “benign neglect” on economic issues and realistic and low-key political and diplomatic engagement is the only realistic way to deal with Pakistan. Secondly, there is need for a dedicated inter-disciplinary team at the Secretary level to seek imaginative ways for a forward-looking engagement with other neighbours. This team’s primary role can be to anticipate problems, assess opportunities and see that promises made by us are implemented, with the National Security Adviser and the Prime Minister constantly overseeing its work.

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