India-Bangladesh Relations: Status, Challenges and Way forward

With India being the chair of G20 and serving as a leading voice for the global south, it’s an opportunity for India to highlight issues of common concern, further leading to strong ties between the two countries.

The two neighbours, India and Bangladesh, are organically linked — with their common heritage and shared history, common memories of tragic loss, and the separation of families on a massive scale following the Partition of India in 1947. However, the bilateral relations between the two nations formally started after the Bangladesh liberation war,1971 which had played a key role along with the Mukti Bahini, thus helping East Pakistan (as called then) to separate from Pakistan and emerge as an independent nation. Bangladesh liberation day, 16th December is celebrated as “Vijay Diwas” in India.

India was the first country to recognize Bangladesh as a separate and independent state and established diplomatic relations with the country immediately after its independence in December 1971. India’s links with Bangladesh are civilization, cultural, social and economic. There is much that unites the two countries – a shared history and common heritage, linguistic and cultural ties, and passion for music, literature and the arts. It is also worth recalling that India shares its longest border of 4,096.7 kilometres with Bangladesh, which is also the fifth-longest border in the contemporary world. With the onset of economic liberalization in South Asia, they forged greater bilateral engagement and trade.  

Status of Mutual Ties 

Economic Ties: The geographical proximity of India to Bangladesh has made it one of its biggest trading partners. Bangladesh is the 6th largest trade partner of India. India has provided duty-free quota-free access to Bangladesh on all tariff lines except tobacco and alcohol under the South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) since 2011. The bilateral trade between the two countries has jumped to USD 18.2 billion in 2021-22 as compared to USD 10.8 billion in 2020-21. 6 Border Haats (4 in Meghalaya and 2 in Tripura), have been approved by the Indian and Bangladesh governments.

Sharing of River Waters: India and Bangladesh share 54 common rivers. The Ganga Waters Treaty was signed in 1996 for sharing of waters of the river Ganga during the lean season (January 1-May 31). Most recently, the Kushiyara Pact was signed that will benefit people in Southern Assam and the Sylhet region in Bangladesh.

Connectivity: India and Bangladesh share 4096.7 Km. of the border, which touches Assam, Tripura, Mizoram, Meghalaya and West Bengal. Transit and trade through inland waterways have been governed by a long-standing and time-tested protocol between Bangladesh and India. Agartala-Akhaura Rail-Link will be the first rail route between Northeast India and Bangladesh.

Power and Energy Sector Cooperation: Energy sector cooperation between India and Bangladesh has also seen considerable progress in the last few years. The India-Bangladesh Friendship Pipeline Project, signed in 2018, will connect Siliguri in West Bengal in India and Parbatipur in the Dinajpur district of Bangladesh. India and Bangladesh have also signed the Framework of Understanding (FOU) on Cooperation in the Hydrocarbon Sector.

Tourism: According to the Ministry of Tourism, Bangladesh accounted for the largest share of foreign tourist arrivals in India in 2020, including tens of thousands of people who come to the country for medical treatment. 

Bilateral Issues seeking attention

Teesta River Water Dispute: Teesta river flows from India to the Bay of Bengal through Bangladesh. Almost half a dozen districts in West Bengal are dependent on this river. It is also a major source of irrigation for the paddy-growing Rangpur region of Bangladesh. Bangladesh complains that it does not get a fair share of the water. Since water is a state subject in India, the bottleneck lies in the non-consensus between the state government of Bengal and the central government. Meanwhile, no treaty has been signed yet to resolve the Teesta water-sharing dispute between the two nations.

Illegal Migration: Illegal immigration from Bangladesh to India, which includes both refugees and economic migrants, continues unabated. The large influx of such migrants across the boundary has posed serious socio-economic-political problems for the people of Indian states bordering Bangladesh with serious implications for its resources and national security. The issue was further complicated when the Rohingya refugees originally from Myanmar started infiltrating India through Bangladesh.

Also, the National Register of Citizens (NRC), which is expected to deter future migrants from Bangladesh from entering India illegally has triggered a major concern in Bangladesh.

Drug Smuggling & Trafficking: There have been many incidences of cross-border drug smuggling & trafficking. Humans ( especially children & women) are trafficked & various animal & bird species are poached through these borders.

Terrorism: The borders are susceptible to terrorist infiltration. Several outfits are trying to spread their tentacles across India, such as Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB). JMB is listed as a terror group by Bangladesh, India, Malaysia and the United Kingdom. Recently, The National Investigation Agency has filed a charge sheet against 6 members of the JMB in a special court in Bhopal.

Growing Chinese Influence in Bangladesh: At present, Bangladesh is an active partner in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) (India is not a part of BRI). Also, Bangladesh imports Chinese military equipment, including submarines, in the defence sector which is a major concern for India’s National Security.

Areas of further co-operation

Addressing Teesta River Water Dispute: To establish a consensus towards demarcating the extent of Teesta river water sharing and reaching a mutual agreement, both the Bengal government and the central government should work together with mutual understanding and signal cooperative federalism.

Better Connectivity: There is a need to enhance connectivity in the region through strengthening cooperation in coastal connectivity, road, rail and inland waterways.

Energy Security: As the global energy crisis continues to rise, India and Bangladesh must cooperate in making use of clean and green energy to make South Asia Energy self-sufficient.

India-Bangladesh Friendship Pipeline: This project is being undertaken on the ground and once completed will help in the movement of high-speed diesel to Northern Bangladesh from India. Bangladesh has acknowledged Indian Oil Corporation Limited as a registered government-to-government supply of refined petroleum products.

With India leading the chair of G20 and serving as a voice for the global south particularly to South Asian countries, it’s an opportunity for India to highlight issues of common concern, further leading to strong ties between the countries.

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