Indo-Bangla ‘blood ties’ withstand pandemic

Rezaul Karim

7 September, 2020 12:00 AM printer

Bangladesh and India have set excellent examples for the entire world during the Covid-19 pandemic by creating new opportunities, especially for regional trade and connectivity.

The two South Asian neighbours have scripted a golden chapter in their relations when the whole world is grappling to fight off the deadly virus by closing the borders.

New avenues of trade and connectivity between the two next-door nations have been opened during the corona crisis.

“This is an exceptional relation, a relation tied by blood. So, in any crisis one country will stand by the other. It’s natural,” said a senior official at the foreign ministry.

Trade between Bangladesh and India has been continued by railways and inland waterways amid the corona lockdown.

The relations began in 1971 when India stood by Bangladesh during its war against Pakistan. Many Indian soldiers also laid down their lives in the Awami League-led war for the independence of Bangladesh.

But recently, questions have been raised by many about the Dhaka-Delhi ties in the wake of Chinese investments in Bangladesh.

Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla’s recent surprise visit to Dhaka is being seen by many as an effort to counter the Chinese influence on Bangladesh.

“Bangladesh made it very clear that India should not be worried about the Dhaka-Beijing economic ties,” a diplomatic source said.

Bangladesh and China are negotiating a loan for a Teesta project. But Bangladesh and India are planning to draw a roadmap for the future, diplomatic sources said.

“Bangladesh’s ties with China are economic, but with India it’s more than that,” the source said.

Bangladesh and India are initially mulling over holding a Joint Consultative Commission meeting at the Foreign Minister level and another at the BGB-BSF Director General level to explore new areas of cooperation to address problems on their borders.

Indian High Commissioner to Bangladesh Riva Ganguly Das said Shringla visited Dhaka to convey a message that Bangladesh and India have deep relations, and reiterated that they will continue to be a development partner of Bangladesh.

“India has special and close relations with Bangladesh. Therefore, the Indian Foreign Secretary has come to meet the Bangladesh Prime Minister with this message even during this pandemic,” she said.

Bangladesh Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen has termed the Bangladesh-India relations a ‘blood relationship’ and Bangladesh-China relations ‘economic ties’.

And India has recently described its relations with Bangladesh as "exceptionally close" but expressed displeasure over "mischievous" stories pertaining to Bangladesh-India ties.

Both sides appreciate mutual sensitivity and mutual respect building further on the relationship. Today, the Bangladesh-India relationship is seen as a role model of good neighbourly relations in the region.

From developing a mega smart city near Dhaka to building an airport in Sylhet in eastern Bangladesh besides a growing defence relationship, China has been making deep inroads in that country, much to New Delhi’s discontent.

Of late, the Chinese have been working on improving ties with Bangladesh. This month onwards, China will allow 97 per cent of Bangladesh’s exports to Beijing to enter the country under its duty-and quota-free programme.

This was decided after a telephone conversation between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in June. With this move, as many as 8,256 Bangladeshi items will enjoy a duty-free access to Chinese markets.

Diplomatic sources said China has always been playing these tactics and putting pressure on India’s neighbouring countries. It has been making rapid progress in doing so.

They said India should work harder now, especially in a post-Covid scenario, keeping in mind that Beijing’s pressure will only increase.

Diplomats said it may seem the Chinese implement projects quickly, but they have problems also. China comes in with a friendly price, but increases it for spare parts and all. While India gives them favourable rates for lines of credit, the Chinese lay a “debt trap”.

Earlier this year, Bangladesh sought Chinese funding to develop nine new projects involving $6.4 billion, which include a seaport, a bridge and hi-tech parks. China is already implementing $10 billion worth of infrastructure projects in Bangladesh, which includes economic zones and power plants.

India-Bangladesh trade and connectivity received a boost on September 5 as the two neighbours launched a new inland water route amid the pandemic lockdown.

Riva Ganguly called it a “historic moment” as she joined Chief Minister of Tripura Biplab Kumar Deb to receive the first trial run vessel carrying cement from Daudkandi in Bangladesh to Sonamura port in Tripura.

The inauguration of the new riverine route followed the ‘Second Addendum on Protocol on Inland Water Transit and Trade’ between the countries in May this year amid Covid-19. With that addendum, the number of Indo- Bangladesh Protocol (IBP) routes has increased to 10 from eight.

“Today is a very historic occasion,” the Indian High Commission said.

“We made sure that even during Covid-19 we could explore all possible avenues of increasing trade. The waterway is economical and climate friendly and during the Covid period health and hygiene can be maintained much more easily. Today is truly a historical occasion,” she said, adding that this gives a “great connectivity” to Tripura.

The pandemic lockdown slowed down the trade initially. But both the countries have set examples by introducing new ideas to continue business.

Railway was one of those means. Indian Railways handed over a total of 103 freight trains to Bangladesh carrying essential commodities such as onions, ginger, chilies, maize, turmeric, rice seed, sugar, finished products, and raw materials for industries to Bangladesh Railways in June.

Although there are regular freight train operations between both the railways, for the first time the numbers of freight trains operated by them have crossed a 100-mark.

Both the railways had come up with solutions to transport all the essential commodities across the border when the lockdown and transport restrictions were imposed by both the countries to arrest the spread of Covid-19.

Many importers are now using the rail route for transporting their goods, though usually they are not reliant upon the rail transportation services.

Upon seeing the success of the movement of goods by rail, Bangladesh Railways has permitted the introduction of the Parcel Train Service between India and Bangladesh. The carrying capacity of the parcel train is 238 metric tonnes.

India also handed over 10 railway locomotives to Bangladesh, reflecting a renewed focus on the “neighbourhood first” policy to bolster economic ties and connectivity within the region during the pandemic.

The first transshipment of goods (iron and pulses) from Kolkata to India’s North-East took place through Bangladesh’s Chattogram port during this lockdown.

This shows that the “ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has not slowed down the pace of our overall cooperation”, Indian External Affairs Minister Dr. Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said earlier.

“Our two countries continue to script a relationship of ‘Shonali Adhyaya’ (golden chapter), guided by the progressive vision of PM Narendra Modi and PM Sheikh Hasina,” he had said, adding that the two neighbours’ partnership would be “key to building a prosperous and peaceful South Asia”.

“This will be a befitting tribute to the vision of Bangabandhu in this historic Mujib Barsho.”

Both the countries are jointly commemorating the birth centenary of Bangladesh's founding father Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

India announced that they would release a commemorative stamp on Bangabandhu during this Mujib Barsho.