Narendra Modi
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The latest country to take part in India’s virtual diplomacy outreach is Bangladesh. Bound by historical, cultural and people-to-people linkages, Bangladesh is one of India’s most important partners in Neighbourhood First Policy. In March, the Indian Prime Minister was scheduled to be part of (the) centenary celebrations of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Bangladesh’s Father of the Nation. Due to the fear of COVID-19, the celebrations were postponed and the two parties met behind a screen instead. The virtual summit took place on 17th December, a day after Bangladesh celebrated its Victory Day over anti-liberation forces, inking seven Memorandum of Understanding (MoUs) in varied domains.

The Joint Statement released by the Ministry of External Affairs highlights the areas of cooperation between the two neighbours. Keeping in mind with the effects of COVID-19 on their respective population and economy, the summit reiterated the highest priority India attaches to Bangladesh under India’s Neighbourhood First Policy as “Prime Minister Narendra Modi assured that vaccines would be made available to Bangladesh as and when produced in India.” Bangladesh has sealed an agreement with Serum Institute of India to supply 30 million doses of Oxford’s vaccine candidate AstraZeneca.

Source: PMO/Twitter

One of the most promising initiatives was prospects of launching a bilateral Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA). Bangladesh receives a Duty-Free Quota-Free (DFQF) access under India’s concessions given to all LDCs, and is its greatest trade partner in South Asia with bilateral trade touching US$ 9.4 billion in 2019. There exists a trade surplus of around US$ 6 billion in India’s favour and major goods exported include cotton, mineral fuels, capital goods and automobiles. There was an 11% decline in Indian exports compared to 2018-2019 meanwhile imports from Bangladesh grew by 21%. Meanwhile, China has recently given tariff concessions to 97% Bangladeshi goods indicating its intention to claw its way into the Indian neighbourhood.

Connectivity was an important agenda on the table with talks to restart pre-1965 rail links. The 3.5km Haldibari (India) and Chilahati (Bangladesh) rail link will be operationalized and given ease in COVID-19 restrictions. Other important rail links include Agartala-Akhaura, Mahishashan-Shahbazaar and Feni Bridge connecting Tripura with the Chittagong port enhancing trade, travel and people-to-people ties. An inland waterway route from Daundkandi (Bangladesh) to Sonamura (India) is proposed to be operating soon in sync with the Inland Water Transit and Trade Protocol that provides transit access.

The statement also mentions “Bangladesh’s expectation to see India assist in the repatriation of the forcibly displaced Rohingyas back to Myanmar.” Recently, Bangladesh began to transfer the refugee population in numbers of a thousand to the low-lying flood-prone Bhasan Char island in the Bay of Bengal at the entry point of River Meghna.

India and Bangladesh are not only important bilateral partners but also engage on various multilateral forums including SAARC, BIMSTEC and Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) to which Bangladesh will assume the chairmanship in 2021. While the summit concluded with agreements on conservation of elephants, agriculture and solid waste disposal, some outstanding issues remain regarding the Teesta Water Sharing Treaty, removal of non-tariff barriers and border security and killings that need to be resolved on an urgent basis.

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