India, Bangladesh to turn a new leaf in history

Border settlement, trade transit, part of basic accord for coming closer.

A comprehensive framework agreement between India and Bangladesh, which lays down a vision, identifies principles and priorities and charts ways for an equal partnership in the coming decades, is expected to be the centre-piece of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s “historic” two-day visit to Dhaka from tomorrow.
An agreement on the sharing of the Teesta waters seemed on the verge of being up-ended by West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee this evening, but officials put on a brave face, saying this would not wreck the “paradigm shift” underway between India and Bangladesh, as well as the rest of the sub-continent.

In line with the Prime Minister’s thinking that economics can pave the way for resolution of the most intractable political problems, India and Bangladesh are also expected to sign a major protocol on land boundary management, as well as carry out an “exchange of letters,” incorporating the existing protocols on transit and opening the door for projects on connectivity through rail, road and water.

The framework agreement would be different from the 25-year treaty on friendship and cooperation signed in 1972. When it expired in 1997, it was not renewed. Sources said the new agreement would “reflect the spirit of our times”.

Trade, land
In a press conference in Dhaka today, Bangladesh foreign minister Dipu Moni confirmed that Dhaka had offered India the use of the Chittagong and Mongla ports for sending goods to the latter’s northeastern states, and that this offer would be part of the document on transit.

He said Nepal and Bhutan would be offered similar use of these two ports and this was being done to enhance “regional connectivity”. “The Indian prime minister’s visit is going to be historic, important not only for India and Bangladesh, but also for the region,” Moni said.

In Delhi, foreign secretary Ranjan Mathai echoed the sentiment. “The last mile is always the best mile,” he said, in response to repeated questions on the importance of the PM’s visit in the wake of Banerjee’s purported refusal to be a part of his delegation. “We see this relationship as being relevant not only to India and Bangladesh, but also to Saarc and beyond.”

Clearly, with the stakes so high, Delhi is treading carefully with Dhaka. Bangladeshi officials told the Daily Star, a prominent Bangladeshi newspaper, that they were unwilling to put a deadline on when India could begin using the Chittagong and Mongla ports, though Delhi was keen that this be done by March 31, 2012.

Moni also confirmed that both sides would also sign pacts on the demarcation of 6.5 km of the 4,000-km boundary, the part remaining since the Indira-Mujib land boundary accord of 1974. And, that a border management protocol would incorporate the resolution of small, intractable issues like adverse possessions and enclaves (162 enclaves, 51 with Bangladesh and 111 with India), 24-hour usage of the major Dahagram-Angarpota enclave through the Tin Bigha corridor by Bangladeshis, as well as a protocol on the protection of the Royal Bengal tiger.

According to the Indira-Mujib accord, India was to keep the southern half of South Berubari Union no 12, as well as adjacent enclaves measuring 2.64 square miles, in exchange for which Bangladesh would retain Dahagram and Angarpota enclaves. India would also lease in perpetuity to Bangladesh an area of 178×85 metres, informally known as the Tin Bigha corridor, which would connect Dahagram with Panbari Mouza (police station Patgram) in Bangladesh. Both sides would also sign a power purchase agreement, with Bangladesh committing to buy 250 Mw of power from India’s eastern grid at prices comparable to what Indian states paid for power, while another 250 Mw could be bought at international rates.

Hasina’s initiative
Top government officials agreed that the unprecedented nature of the visit was only possible when Bangladeshi prime minister Hasina, during her visit to Delhi in January 2010, promised the Indian leadership that Bangladesh would not be found wanting in seeking friendly ties with India. By unilaterally delivering on her promise to end the sanctuary that Indian insurgents had found in Bangladeshi territory, the officials said Bangladesh was also sending a message to other countries in India’s neighbourhood, such as Pakistan.

The first major insurgent to be returned to India was Arabinda Rajkhowa of the United Liberation Front of Asom (Ulfa). Mathai confirmed that during home minister P Chidambaram’s recent visit, Dhaka had affirmed that processes to extradite another major Ulfa insurgent, Anup Chetia, was also underway.

“End the sanctuary for terrorists and India will do everything in its capacity to share in your economic growth, is the PM’s unwritten message to the nations of South Asia,” said the government sources.

Mathai said India was ready to acknowledge the “imbalances” in the bilateral relationship, being determined to address these, whether in trade or elsewhere, and provide greater market access to Bangladeshi goods in India.

Delhi is secretly thrilled that Dhaka’s offer of the use of the Chittagong and Mongla ports will cut the distance for sending goods to the northeast by 60-70 per cent. What makes this offer more exciting is that it is not restricted to Indian goods from Kolkata moving to India’s northeast, but also goods from the world over

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