Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Ahead of Zia's visit...

Prime Minister Khaleda Zia's high profile visit to India comes at a time when the relations between the two South Asian neighbours have hit a rock bottom. A whole range of contentious issues relating to security, trade, transit, water and defence exchanges have only added to years of apprehensions and mistrust between the two neighbours. Towing in the analysts' line, the media in Bangladesh too feels that the forthcoming visit is an opportunity to iron out differences over a whole range of issues.

"The visit of Bangladesh Prime Minister must be purposeful and result-oriented. The opportunity must not be missed. The agenda may be kept short, but should contain priority items of cooperation. It is of no use to discuss all range of issues that have no focus," Bangladesh's leading paper Daily Star says. Zia arrives in New Delhi on a three-day visit beginning March 20 during which she is likely to sign three agreements on trade, investment protection and avoidance of double taxation. Since its independence, Bangladesh has signed bilateral general trade agreements with over 30 countries including India, Myanmar, Nepal, Bhutan and North Korea. As regards the trade agreement with India, it is a revised version of the pact concluded in 1980s.

The agreement came into force in October 4, 1980 for a period of three years and it remained effective till October 3, 2001. After that it has been renewed for short interim periods. Calling for a revision of the agreement, Bangladesh wants India to drop a few articles. India on the other hand, says that exports to the country should take place via water, railways and roads. The paper says that such trade agreements, concluded mostly in the 80s, should be scrapped if they don't serve a purpose.

"In the present day context of global trade regime…the trade agreements Bangladesh has, except those with non-WTO member countries, are of little or no practical value for promotion and expansion of mutual trade." Talking specifically of the pact with India, the paper says that "the bilateral trade agreement has failed and proved to be grossly inadequate to redress issues" like huge trade imbalance and illegal border trade. A large trade deficit with India, estimated to be between $1.5 and $2 billion, is one of Dhaka's greatest concerns. "India needs to consider seriously 20 or 30 items duty free to India…the problems could perhaps be redressed only within the framework of a carefully crafted agreement of a custom union containing provisions for economic development… the Daily Star says.

A few of the issues that Khaleda Zia and her Indian counterpart Manmohan Singh need to thrash out include illegal immigration. Illegal crossings have become an every day affair along the porous 4, 200-km-long border between the two countries. "The 1974 Indira-Mujib land boundary delimitation agreement is yet to be implemented…6.5 kms of unmarked land border need to be demarcated," says the Daily Star. This bilateral treaty stipulates that no defence works can be built within 150 metres of the no man's land. Cross border terrorism, drug trafficking are other major issues. The border runs through jungles, hills, villages, paddy and jute fields, which makes infiltration easy. Five Indian states border Bangladesh, including four northeastern states where dozens of militant groups are fighting for autonomy and independence.

(Written on March 16, 2008 for HT)

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