The fifth meeting of the Bangladesh-India Joint Consultative Commission (JCC) was held in New Delhi on 8 February 2019 to discuss multidimensional cooperation ranging from water-sharing to security cooperation between the two countries. The meeting resolved to further expand Dhaka-Delhi multidimensional cooperation.
Held annually, the JCC was established under the Framework Agreement on Cooperation for Development signed during the visit of Prime Minister of India Manmohan Singh to Bangladesh on 6 September 2011. The first meeting of the JCC took place in New Delhi on 7 May 2012.Bangladesh Foreign Minister Dr. AK Abdul Momen led a high-level delegation that included Secretaries of different ministries and relevant departmental chiefs. Prior to the meeting, Momen met top political leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who reiterated India’s commitment to work towards consolidating its bilateral relationship with Bangladesh.
Momen and his Indian counterpart Sushma Swaraj co-chaired the fifth meeting of the JCC. Notably it was also Momen’s first overseas mission as Foreign Minister who, after assuming office, put emphasis on economic diplomacy.
The two foreign ministers reviewed the entire gamut of bilateral relations and assessed progress in security, defence, trade and connectivity, development partnership, water, power and energy sectors and consular and cultural collaboration. In her opening remarks, Indian External Affairs Minister Swaraj contended, “the two sides should continue to deepen partnership in defence and security, including increasing cooperation against terrorist groups.”
At this fifth meeting, Bangladesh and India signed four MoUs to further strengthen the ‘existing multifaceted cooperation’ between the two countries. The agreements concluded are: (a) MoU on mid-career training of 1800 Bangladesh civil servants, (b) MoU between AYUSH and the Ministry of Health of Bangladesh on cooperation in the field of medicinal plants, (c) MoU between Anti-Corruption Commission of Bangladesh and Central Bureau of Investigation of India, and (d) MoU between Hiranandani Group and Bangladesh Economic Zones Authority (BEZA) to expedite investments in the Indian Economic Zone in Mongla.
As far as the first MoU is concerned, Bangladesh needs trained administrators for policy making and implementation and to perform multiple tasks efficiently. For the Indian Economic Zone, BEZA has already sent the Development Project Proposal (DPP) to the Ministry of Planning, asking for $28.90 million from the second Indian Line of Credit. The sooner the implementations of the above-mentioned MoUs are completed, the better for both the countries.
The Rohingya refugee problem was discussed at the JCC meet and Momen once again sought India's support for early return of the Rohingyas to Myanmar and expressed thanks for Indian humanitarian assistance. Notably, around 720,000 Rohingya refugees fled persecution and have taken shelter in Bangladesh almost two years ago. Indian leaders have always assured New Delhi’s cooperation in resolving the Rohingya crisis but yet to launch proactive diplomacy aimed towards that.The decades-old contentious issue of water sharing of the Teesta River was raised by Momen at the JCC meeting and urged India to take steps for sharing the water of all common rivers. Teesta – a 414km long river originates in Sikkim and flows through Indian state of West Bengal and Bangladesh.
An early solution to the Teesta River dispute could not be reached due to West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s persistent objections. Her repeated opposition could not be overturned by PM Manmohan Singh and PM Narendra Modi to negotiate a deal since water remains a state issue. It appears the water sharing dispute will drag on.
Notably the joint statement did not define the trade issue. Bangladesh has a huge trade deficits with India. In FY 2017, Bangladesh imported goods worth $6.8 billion from India and exported goods valued at $672 million only. Observers believe trade with India will be harder after Bangladesh graduates from Least Developed Country (LDC) status as it will not enjoy duty-free and quota-free access to its products under the South Asia Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA) of 2011. Bangladesh needs to diversify its trade more as well as augment foreign investment.
Nonetheless, despite some concerns over relations, Foreign Ministers Momen and Swaraj expressed satisfaction at the headway made to further strengthen friendly ties since the fourth JCC meeting held in Dhaka in October 2017.
The writer is a former Professor and Chairman, Department of Political Science at the University of Dhaka.