India-Bangladesh Summit to open new chapter in ties; connectivity, agri MoUs in pipeline

Economics Times, December 17, 2020

India and Bangladesh are expected to ink five MoUs at their virtual summit on Thursday in the areas of connectivity, agriculture, high community development projects, wildlife conservation among other sectors to upgrade partnership coinciding with the birth centenary of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman and 50 years of Bangladesh independence celebrations.

Key outcome of the summit led by the two PMs include inauguration of Chilahati-Haldibari rail link to push regional connectivity.

India and Bangladesh have been making efforts to enhance transport and connectivity. The leadership on both sides have been committed to reviving and operationalising the 6 pre-1965 rail links between India and Bangladesh. With the inauguration of the Haldibari-Chilahati rail link, 5 out of 6 rail links are currently operational. The other 4 operational rail links between India and Bangladesh connecting West Bengal with Bangladesh are Petrapole (India) – Benapole (Bangladesh), Gede (India) – Darshana (Bangladesh), Singhabad (India)-Rohanpur (Bangladesh) and Radhikapur (India)–Birol (Bangladesh).

The Haldibari-Chilahati rail link was part of the Broad Gauge main route from Kolkata to Siliguri. However, the war of 1965 effectively cut off all the railway links. To revive this erstwhile rail link, both sides have restored the link enhancing connectivity and people to people links on both sides.

Haldibari-Chilahati route will enhance connectivity to Assam and West Bengal from Bangladesh. This rail link will enhance rail network accessibility and support the growth in bilateral trade and economic development of the region. Currently, the rail link will facilitate the movement of goods cargo. Passenger movement will also commence on the development of infrastructure on both sides. Work is also progressing on the rail link connecting Agartala and Akhaura.

Bangladesh is commemorating the year 2020 as Mujib Borsho – birth centenary of the father of the nation of Bangladesh – Sheikh Mujibur Rahman popularly known as Bangabandhu. He is known for his forceful articulation of the cause of his people and for opposing institutional discrimination. This eventually inspired a people’s struggle for rights and fueled the liberation of Bangladesh. Bangabandhu promoted close and friendly relations between India and Bangladesh. He called the people of India the best friends of the people of Bangladesh. Delivering his remarks during the commencement of Mujib Borsho on 17 March 2020, Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi remarked that Bangabandhu was “one of the greatest personalities of the last century”; and that “his entire life is an inspiration for all”.

In honour of Sheikh Mujib, both Prime Ministers jointly inaugurated a commemorative stamp on Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. A total of 500,000 stamps, 30750 First Day Covers and 25610 brochures on Bangabandhu have been issued by the Department of Posts.

There will be virtual Inauguration of Bangabandhu-Bapu Digital Exhibition.

Mahatma Gandhi and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman lived in different times and faced different opponents, but both leaders changed the destiny of their people for the better. To celebrate the life and legacies of these iconic leaders, both Prime Ministers jointly inaugurated a Bangabandhu-Bapu Digital Exhibition. This exhibition will get displayed in New Delhi. Subsequently, this digital exhibition would be displayed in different locations in Bangladesh, United Nations and would finally culminate at Kolkata in early 2022.

The exhibition is curated with 21 walls of information including the introduction wall highlighting the theme of the exhibition, a meeting wall, based on the day the two leaders met in August 1947 and Ba-Bangamata wall celebrating the two women who stood by their men. There are over 100 points of digital engagement such as a holographic time machine that layers historical photos with a timeline to provide a unique interface to the users to reference the time and lives of these leaders. The Jallianwala Bagh and Genocide tunnel portray the pain, suffering, and the agony endured by the people during these violent events. Bangladesh’s struggle for independence led to more than 3 million deaths and over 200,000 rapes.

There are other notable features such as a 360-degree view of some of the historic locations and a robotic signature of Bangabandhu and Bapu.

Bangladesh is an important neighbour of India. The relations between India and Bangladesh transcend even strategic partnership. In recent past both sides have worked to restore and also develop connectivity links for the benefit of the people on the two sides.

There has been significant advances achieved in the connectivity area in the recent months, especially in railway connectivity, connectivity using ports and inland waterways connectivity. Both sides have a long standing and time-tested Protocol on Inland Water Transit and Trade (PIWTT), which was first signed in 1972. It was first renewed in 2015 for a period of five years with a provision for its automatic renewal for a further period of five years. The 2nd Addendum to the PIWTT was signed by both sides on 20 May 2020. Through this, two new routes were added to the India – Bangladesh Protocol Routes: Sonamura – Daudkandi and Daudkandi – Sonamura. The trial run was successfully completed in September 2020 on this route, thereby connecting Tripura for the first time with the Protocol Route and through this with National Waterways network through Bangladesh. Bangladesh will also benefit as it creates another viable trade route for them to the north east.

Another recent important development has been the movement of Indian cargo under the Agreement on the use of Chattogram Port in July 2020, to Tripura.

Railway connectivity has been a major focus area for the two countries. progress has been achieved in recent months. Firstly, during the COVID-19 related lockdown, both sides facilitated the operationalisation of container and parcel train services in July 2020. Till the end of November, more than 1 million tonnes of cargo has been transported using these services.

Secondly, both sides have been working on restoring all the six pre-1965 rail links between India and Bangladesh. Currently, four out of the original pre-1965 six rail links have been operationalised. Out of the remaining two, Chilahati-Haldibari rail link, which used to be the old Darjeeling mail via Siliguri, will be inaugurated at the Summit. The other – Karimganj – Mahisashan rail link, on the Assam side is likely to get operational in 2022. Finally, the new rail link between Akhaura (Bangladesh) and Agartala is being financed under grant assistance from India and is expected to be operational by end 2021. To support enhancement of railway infrastructure of Bangladesh, India has handed over ten Broad Gauge locomotives in July 2020. This was the fulfillment of India’s commitment made in October 2019.

Two countries have also stepped up efforts to improve road connectivity between the two countries, including through discussions in the BBIN format. The last meeting of the BBIN Motor Vehicles Agreement (MVA) was held in February 2020 in New Delhi. Currently, both sides are in the process of finalizing passenger and cargo protocols.

On the civil aviation front, in the face of restrictions to air travel on account of the COVID pandemic, both sides established an ‘Air Travel Bubble’ on October 28 to facilitate movement of travellers on both sides, especially of medical travellers. The currently approved frequency is 56 per week.

“India and Bangladesh should revive all connectivity links that existed before 1965. It is also time to explore new links such as the Tetulia Corridor linking North Dinajpur with Jalpaiguri, thereby bypassing the Chicken’s Neck and reducing travel distance by 86 kilometres. Their border areas should be dotted with border haats bringing peace and prosperity to the grassroots. India should provide all necessary assistance to Bangladesh to graduate out of its least developed country status. Further economic growth of Bangladesh will help eastern and northeast India to grow more,” according to Bipul Chatterjee, Executive Director, CUTS International, a global public policy think- and action-tank on trade, regulations and governance.

Commemoration of Epochal Events

Mujib Barsho, 50th anniversary of Bangladesh Liberation War & the establishment of India-Bangladesh diplomatic ties

Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971 is a unique historical event in the history of post-colonial South Asia led by Sheikh Mujib against tyranny and oppression. Not only India assisted in the liberation war with material and personnel, but it also expended its diplomatic capital to rally the global opinion in favour of the just cause of the people of Bangladesh. India was also one of the first countries to recognise the nascent nation-state of Bangladesh.

The year 2021 marks the 50th anniversary of these epochal events – Bangladesh Liberation War as well as the establishment of the diplomatic ties between India and Bangladesh. Both sides have planned a series of events as part of the golden jubilee celebrations. At the 6th Joint Consultative Commission led by both Foreign Ministers on 29 September 2020, it was decided that both sides would coordinate with each other to commemorate the anniversary in India, Bangladesh and select third countries.

Separately, Bangladesh is celebrating the birth centenary of its Father of the Nation – Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, popularly known as Bangabandhu. India wholeheartedly supported Bangabandhu and the people of Bangladesh during their struggle, making him a hero in India as well. PM Modi was scheduled to attend the inauguration of Mujib Barsho (March 2020) during his visit to Dhaka that was planned at that time. However, on account of the outbreak of COVID, the visit was deferred. PM participated in the formal inauguration of the Mujib Barsho celebrations through a virtual address which was televised in Bangladesh.

Some of the major activities being planned to celebrate these anniversaries are Bangabandhu-Bapu Digital Exhibition, release of commemorative stamp on Bangabandhu, production of a biopic on Bangabandhu and a documentary on Liberation War. At the India – Bangladesh Virtual Summit of 17 December 2020, both Prime Ministers will jointly inaugurate the Bangabandhu – Bapu Digital Exhibition. To celebrate the legacy of Bangabandhu, India Post is coming out with a special commemorative stamp, which will be jointly unveiled by the two Prime Ministers at the Virtual Summit. Both sides are also producing a biopic on Bangabandhu. Apart from these, both sides will also organise joint seminars, visits of cultural delegations. A Proposal is under active consideration to establish Bangabandhu Chair at the Indian universities.

Growing Economies

India and Bangladesh are the fastest growing economies in South Asia.

Bangladesh is expected to graduate from the LDC status to a developing country by 2024. The GDP per capita is also projected to rise fast in the coming years.

Apart from the traditional sectors of the industry, both countries are also leading in the new and emerging market segments. In this context, the forthcoming summit is expected to discuss cooperation in the areas of ICT and Artificial Intelligence.

India has already become the third largest startup ecosystem in the world. Bangladesh’s start up scene is also maturing. At the India-Bangladesh Virtual Summit, both sides will sign the Terms of Reference of the India-Bangladesh CEO’s Forum which has identified services, including IT, as one of the priority sectors.

The industries in both countries are also responding well to these opportunities in the region, particularly in India and Bangladesh. Indian companies are setting up Indian Economic Zones in Bangladesh. It is expected that more and more Indian companies would set up manufacturing units in Bangladesh. The continuous emphasis given by both India and Bangladesh in ensuring seamless connectivity for passenger and cargo movement is a win-win equation.

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