With the Teesta pact still a “work in progress”, Dhaka had its hopes pinned on getting some sign of support for the Ganga barrage project, however, even that is unlikely – at least during this visit.
New Delhi: While Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s four-day visit will yield a score of agreements, including a new $500 million line of credit to buy defence equipment, the two countries – that share over 50 rivers – will once again lose the opportunity to find any forward movement on river sharing.
Hasina will arrive on Friday (April 7) and will stay at Rashtrapati Bhawan during her visit. On Saturday, she will hold talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, following which around 25 agreements could be signed.
All eyes, however, will be on the presence of West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, who accepted President Pranab Mukherjee’s invitation for the official banquet and lunch. Banerjee will also attend the ceremony for the launch of three new transport links – bus and train services from Kolkata to Khulna and a rail rake to carry diesel from Siliguri to Parabatipur. These three services will be inaugurated via video by both Modi and Hasina.
In the run-up to the visit, Indian and Bangladeshi officials have, however, made it clear that talks on dispute over sharing of the Teesta river waters are not on the cards. This has dampened many expectations from the visit, keeping in mind the strong popular opinion in Bangladesh for a Teesta agreement.
“It remains a work in progress. The commitment to finalising the interim agreement for water-sharing is there… But, as the PM has also conveyed, India is a federal structure and we need to have full and unstinted support of the state government and that portion is a work in progress. The state has expressed doubts on the implications for the West Bengal people, we have not yet reached closure on it,” said Ministry of External Affairs joint secretary (Bangladesh-Myanmar) Sripriya Ranganathan.
India and Bangladesh were close to signing the Teesta agreement in 2011, but for Banerjee’s last-minute change of mind. She also cancelled her plan to be a part of the official delegation to Dhaka. Since then, the agreement has been hanging fire.
In between, Hasina also courted her persistently, which led to her trip to Dhaka in 2015. During her visit, she apparently conveyed to her Bangladeshi hosts that she may take up the Teesta issue after the West Bengal assembly election.
She was re-elected in the assembly elections, following which the Centre again reached out to her. However, there was no categorical response from her side. The recent bad blood between the BJP and Trinamool Congress has largely dried up those channels as well.
All of this contact has been mostly at the level of bureaucrats, between the MEA and senior officials in the West Bengal government. The political outreach with Banerjee had largely been at the time of bilateral visits, with a similar outreach done this time.
There is, however, no sense of optimism that Banerjee’s acceptance of the invitation from Rashtrapati Bhawan would lead to any breakthrough – either on the Teesta or any other water-sharing proposal.
Bangladesh has been keen that since the Teesta pact is not in the works, there be some other sop in the area of water management, since this is a sensitive issue in Bangladesh.
Dhaka was hoping that the Ganga barrage project would get official support from New Delhi, but the perception here was that it was a non-starter – at least during this visit. A detailed study would be required to decide the feasibility of the project. Besides, the state government’s consent would also be required before the Centre makes any commitment.
The Bangladesh prime minister will also honour families of military personnel involved in 1971 war in a special ceremony on Saturday. The next day, she will visit Ajmer Sharif. The last day of her trip will be dedicated to business deals, with Hasina attending a conference organised by the three apex chambers of commerce.
The number of agreements to be signed range from 20 to 35, but these are some of the agreements that will certainly be inked on Saturday.
$5 billion line of credit for development assistance
India has already extended $3 billion in lines of credit to Bangladesh. In 2010, India offered $1 billion during Hasina’s visit to India. Modi then announced further $2 billion loan during his 2015 trip to Dhaka. As was in the previous occasions, the new line of credit will be the largest soft loan extended by India to a single country. While projects in the first line of credit have mostly started, several proposals under the $3 billion loan are yet to even get the green signal from India.
In the run-up to the visit, the Bangladeshi opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, had vocally opposed the signing of any defence cooperation agreement with India, claiming that it would infringe upon sovereignty. To dance around any objections, the two defence pacts are being designated as memorandums of understanding.
The first one is a framework cooperation, which will institutionalise staff talks, visits of military chiefs, military exercises and disaster management. The second pact will be the ‘new one’ as India will for the first time offer a $500 million line of credit to buy defence equipment. Bangladesh procures nearly 80% of its defence equipment from China – and bringing down Dhaka’s dependency on Beijing for help in this area has been a long-term strategy of Delhi.
India and Bangladesh will be signing a civil nuclear energy pact, which had been previously finalised. India has already been training Bangladesh personnel in nuclear energy for the last two years, in anticipation of Dhaka operating its first Russian-built nuclear power plant. There could be two other MoUs in this area, which include one between Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission and Global Centre for Nuclear Energy Partnership. Another agreement under negotiation is for the two countries to cooperate in nuclear safety and exchange technical information on radiation protection.
Four agreements will be signed to make maritime navigation easier between India and Bangladesh. These include a pact for movement of Indian goods to Mongla and Chittagong ports, and an MoU for passenger cruises on coastal and protocol routes. Besides this, the two sides will sign an agreement to undertake dredging in Kushiyara and Jamuna rivers, which could help to improve cargo movement on transit to Northeast India. Another MoU on aids to navigation will be on lighthouses, beacons and vessel traffic services.
A new agreement on cooperation in judicial sector to be inked on April 8 will be to promote visits, training and academic programmes between the judiciary of the two South Asian countries.
Two agreements for cooperation in the field of mass media and audio-visual co-production are also expected to be signed.