On one side, you are promoting regional cooperation in which Bangladesh plays a big role; on the other, the country is portrayed in a negative light for ‘infiltration’ & ‘religious persecution’
We all know that the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) is an international organisation comprising of seven countries of South and Southeast Asia, working on multilateral free trade, connectivity development, counter-terrorism, etc, to boost regional growth and commerce.
There is no point elaborating on that. We all know how the Northeast is supposed to be benefited by this organisation and since 2000 there has been a liberal dose of hope sprinkled over us.
Bolstered by that hope, which we all here in the room share, I had gone the extra mile, and actually had driven a car all the way from Bangkok to Guwahati to know the region first hand and explore the possibility of doing business as well as to encourage my friends and my viewers that the whole of Southeast Asia is in in our hands.
It was a seamless drive from Bangkok to Imphal. Anyway, after Imphal, it was tough, indeed very tough as the national highway is being expanded. Hopefully, shortly the construction work will be completed, and it will be a beautiful drive from Guwahati to Bangkok and the true meaning of BIMSTEC shall emerge.
I am confident that tourism sector will surely prosper as the visa regime has also been relaxed. At the Myanmar side, the immigration facilities are in better position than India as they have realised that India is going to be a very big market as places like Bagan, Inle and Mandalay are going to attract huge crowds from the Northeastern region sooner than later.
But I am concerned about Bangladesh. You like it or not, they are our most important neighbour, and there are vast similarities between both the countries for the natural progression of trade and commerce.
I always feel that both the countries with such long border and having similar language and lifestyle must have a much higher business, relationship and both the states must draw strength from each other and prosper.
But for decades, an antiBangladeshi domestic rhetoric has been allowed to go shriller, turning Bangladesh almost into an enemy state in the public narrative by the power that be.
Bangladesh and Northeast India share a 1,939-kilometre-long international border, including 262 km in Assam, 856 km in Tripura, 180 km in Mizoram, 443 km in Meghalaya.
But I always ask myself, have we given justice to Bangladesh in our own mind? Are we not passively placing the country and its people in the neurons of our brain something of a negative source of energy?
Are we not being raised with the daily diet of how land-hungry Bangladeshis are trying to come into Assam, Northeast India or rest of India for their survival?
Bangladesh surpasses India
On February 15, Karan Thapar wrote in Hindustan Times: “First, Bangladesh is growing at a rate that we in India can only envy and hope to achieve two or three years down the road. Whilst we slip below 5%, Bangladesh is racing ahead at 8%.”
Secondly, while Nirmala Sitharaman desperately strives to attract investment leaving China by offering 15% rates of corporate tax, Bangladesh is one of the two countries where it’s actually going. Consequently, high streets in London and New York are brimming with clothes made in Bangladesh, but very few produced in Ludhiana and Tirupur.
No wonder Bangladesh’s merchandise exports grew in double digits in fiscal 2019; India’s fell sharply.
Just look at the facts. Life expectancy for males and females in Bangladesh is 71 and 74, respectively. In India, the corresponding figures are 67 and 70. When you break down this big picture, the difference becomes even more striking.
First, take children. Neonatal mortality in India is 22.73 per 1,000 live births; it is 17.12 in Bangladesh. Infant mortality is 29.94 in India versus 25.14 in Bangladesh. Our under-five mortality is 38.69; theirs is 30.16.
Now, come to women. In Bangladesh, 71% of women above the age of 15 are literate, while 66% are so in India. In Bangladesh, female labour participation is 30% and rising; ours is 23% and has fallen by 8% in the last decade.
Narrative of infiltration & frustration in Bangladesh
After covering the region for more than three decades and wasting my entire professional life chasing only major issue -- Bangladeshi infiltration -- now I look back the whole body of narrative on infiltration after Assam accord with much suspicion, as it does not stand any empirical study.
Again, I find the whole BIMSTEC narrative very frustrating. On one side, you are promoting regional cooperation where Bangladesh plays a pivotal role; on the other, the government of the day of India leaves no stone un-turned to put up the same country in negative light for ‘purported infiltration’ and 'religious persecution'.
I see the same frustration in the eyes and minds of Bangladeshi leaders because of the anti-Bangladeshi sentiment inside India and more importantly, the populace of Northeast India.
This has been admitted by the Bangladeshi minister for trade Tipu Munshi personally to me. He and the delegation were clearly upset when they visited Assam in the month of October and Munshi made no hesitation to hide the environment of anti-Bangladesh in Northeast India, or in the whole country, when he was talking to me.
It seems someone, somewhere between New Delhi and Dhaka, does not want Northeast India to do business with Bangladesh and want to keep Bangladesh and Bangladeshis as negative source of energy, he told me.
The great hope
Still there's hope. In December last year, speaking to Indian Express correspondent of Agartala Debraj Deb, secretary-general M Shahidul Islaam said a transport connectivity Master Plan was drafted.
It has several added features compared to a similar study from 2014, which identified 167 projects involving $50 million across the BIMSTEC partner nations.
According to him, this draft master plan has been prepared and they were hoping to have a working group meeting in New Delhi next year for charting the connectivity area. The Master Plan would be finalised there.
Speaking on new components of the Master Plan, he said it talks about connecting multilateral projects like Trilateral Highway involving India, Myanmar and Thailand and East-West Corridor.
A number of major routes connecting these nations will go through Northeast India. A road from Dawki-Tamabil Indo-Bangla border at Meghalaya would go all the way to connect all continental ASEAN countries.
One of the other routes passing through Bangladesh and India has Agartala city as a crucial junction; it would connect a long way through Southeast Asia.
At least three major Indo-Bangla connectivity projects are currently in progress in Tripura. These include Feni bridge, Agartala-Akhaura rail route and inland waterways port at Sonamura in Sipahijala district.
These all sound good, and hopefully, someday it would be all operational.
The public narrative against Bangladesh
But today standing anywhere in North East India, will you be comfortable of planning business with Bangladesh under the ongoing public narrative in any of the 14 priority sectors the BIMSTEC has offered?
Will any normal public believe that Bangladesh is way ahead than India in all indicators and it is good for us to do business with Bangladesh?
They will not because nearly quarter century after the formation of BIMSETC, India-Bhutan-Nepal and Bangladesh are still struggling to make a seamless truck or goods movement functional.
On February 9, 2020, there was a meeting in Kathmandu of the representatives of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal (BBIN) to discuss the implementation of Motor Vehicles Agreement that had been signed more than four years ago.
Can you believe that four years after signing of the BBIN agreement on the vehicle movement, the official release of February 9, 2020, said that the meeting is likely to gain momentum with the signatories showing consent during a multilateral meeting in New Delhi, India on Saturday to take it forward.
What does it mean?
The truck movement agreement was signed in 2015 and in 2020 the countries are still discussing how to implement it.
Now the question is - What do they want to do with the BBIN meeting?
The motor vehicles agreement seeks to facilitate seamless movement of cargo and passengers across borders between the countries.
Mind it: this was the second meeting since the accord was signed on June 15, 2015. During the last meeting held in Bengaluru, India in January 2018, the four countries had discussed on two protocols of the multilateral agreement.
Can we hope?
But can we now hope that by the end of this year a trader of Kokrajhar can send truck laden with stone from Bongaigaion-Bijni area all the way to Bangladesh without transshipment and come back laden with textile products from Dhaka?
Most of my businessmen friend are clueless.
But is this not surprising and shocking that even after a quarter-century of forming BIMSTEC, this is still being discussed.
My focus is that anti-Bangladesh narrative of North East India has to change and the Government must act on that. You can not keep an entire region of eight states in perpetual tension with a prospering neighbouring country on a subject which is mostly in inter-subjective reality.
Considering all these factors, I just want to draw two simple questions.
1. Can a family of a Bangladeshi near Sylhet, quickly do an e-visa and drive into Tamabil to do a quick weekend holiday around Shillong?
2. Can an ordinary youth of rural Assam, working in the fishery sector, go via the same route to Myemensing to collect fishlings of Pabho and Magur for breeding?
Both the countries should have been talking e-visa but we are talking CAA.
Has successive governments, who came to power on anti-Bangladeshi rhetoric, allowed an environment to grow amongst the ordinary people of the region to think of doing normal business with Bangladesh.
The answer is an emphatic NO.
Anti-Bangladeshi public narrative
I find that general anti-Bangladeshi public narrative in the Northeast has tremendously negated the general effort of BIMSTEC and the successive government in New Delhi has also not shown any effort to rectify the situation.
In the region, there is no such environment present today that any person can think of doing new business with the next-door neighbour Bangladesh even if there are so many opportunities. That is why the time-tested business coal, limestone and fish still dominate the cross-border trade.
However, economic performance is only one part of the growing difference that separates India from Bangladesh. The other is more telling. To put it bluntly, life in Bangladesh appears a lot more attractive than in India.
The ‘Pabho’ story
Let me tell you that I have been associated with the second question. I encouraged one of my research associate of the Nanda Talukdar Foundation, to leave our organisation and open bio-floc fishery in Gohpur.
This is an Israeli technology, and we arranged some hands-on training in Bihar and set up the first bio-floc fishery of Assam near Gohpur. For layman's language, it is just broiler fishery, raising the fish in a controlled environment, in a faster period with a higher yield.
After six months, we realised that money in bio-floc fishery will come with the value addition. Which means, stable supply of high demand fishes like Pabho, Prawan or Magur.
Now how to get the fish lings? Where is breeding technology?
We found that in the whole of Assam and the North-Eastern region, there is no artificial breeding technology for the high demand fish varieties like Pabho or Magur.
We found the answer in Mymensingh of Bangladesh.
The breeding technology of Pabho, Mahur and Prawn are with fishermen of Mymenshing. You have to learn the breeding technique on the ground from there and manage some 'jugar' and get some fish lings all way from Mymensingh to Gohpur through Tamabil.
That is where the issue is. My junior wants to go to Mymensingh and learn the Breeding technology hands-on in April next. But he is unsure whether he will be able to meet the farmers and technique can be exchanged or not?
Nor he is not sure whether the immigrant authorities will allow him to carry an oxygen-filled plastic bag full of fish lings to India or not?
The timing is very crucial. In less than 4-5 hours, the fish lings have to be transported to a facility inside the Indian border, and than with another stopover somewhere around Raha, the same can reach Gohpur.
But do we have a social atmosphere for a youth from Gohpur individually try such a venture which can change the very face of the fishing industry in Assam?
Perhaps no, because for us Bangladesh is not a country of business opportunity but a country of political opportunity because it has ensured a steady stream of politicians in half of the Northeastern states and Bengal besides helping to create a narrative that helps power that be to capture Delhi.
Compulsion of domestic politics
The compulsion of domestic politics of India may not have allowed BIMSTEC to take its full shape in India as the government of India has always encouraged public narrative to keep Bangladesh in a negative light.
When I was discussing with Bangladesh trade minister Tipu Munshi two months ago, he wanted to bring in the textile industry into Assam and the Northeast. He was confident that aggressive pricing and quality of the Bangladeshi textile industry have a great market and potentialities in Northeast India.
When my friend Satyen Mahanta encouraged by those words tried to explore the textile business he found tough going. He realised that rhetoric apart at this moment there is no such environment for an Assamese or Khasi youth to open new business with Bangladesh.
CAA and BIMSTEC
By bringing in Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and then drumming up the Hindu Bangladeshi narrative, the government might have won brownie points in the domestic politics, but it has caused serious harm to the BIMSTEC as it eroded the public confidence to do business with Bangladesh
“Half of Bangladesh will be empty (vacant) if India offers citizenship to them,” said minister of state for home, G Kishan Reddy. Apart from the fact that he was undiplomatic and offensive, Reddy also revealed that he’s ignorant of the true state of Bangladesh.
Worse, he doesn’t know that, in comparison to India, Bangladesh is performing far better on many, if not most, of the indices that determine quality of life.
Socially too Bangladesh is not what we Indians love to believe.
By giving an impression that Hindus of Bangladesh are unsafe, India has not only caused damage to the constitution of our country but institutionalised ‘a suspicion’ which is on the ground far from true inside Bangladesh.
This in my view has diminished the very basic environment between two counters to expand the trade and break the artificial boundaries and be a citizen of the global villages, drawing energy from both sides and to prosper.
This has helped me to conclude that domestic compulsion of immigration politics of India will not allow BIMSTEC to achieve its desired height.
(The author is a senior journalist and writer. Views expressed are his own. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)