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Sikri pins high hope on trade boost

Daily Star, Bangladesh

Sikri pins high hope on trade boost

By Reaz Ahmad and Rezaul Karim

20 March 2006

Indian High Commissioner to Bangladesh Veena Sikri pinned high hope on Prime Minister Khaleda Zia’s India visit beginning today in boosting trade between the two South Asian neighbours.

In a recent exclusive interview with The Daily Star at her office, the Indian envoy expressed hopes that signing of separate accords on trade and investment protection would see the Indo-Bangla bilateral trade grow in years to come.

Khaleda’s three-day visit to India is the first in eight years by a Bangladesh prime minister. She is scheduled to have a summit-level official meeting with her Indian counterpart Dr Manmohan Singh on March 21.

"All high-level visits are very important. We’ve been waiting for this [visit] for a very long time now. We hope this will be very useful," Sikri said, fondly cherishing that there is a great feeling of shared values between the two peoples. "Both of us [Bangladeshis and Indians] value our democratic secular societies."

On trade issues, Sikri noted that the existing agreement between Bangladesh and India, signed first in 1980, has been extended upon expiry every two-three years until 2001. No long-term renewal has been made since then, said Sikri, adding that the agreement has rather been extended on an ad hoc basis for two- or three-month periods.

This time, she said, the trade agreement is expected to be renewed for at least two years and give a boost to the bilateral business.

The two countries signed a separate protocol on water transit in 1999 as part of the trade agreement, which is also in operation presently on an ad hoc basis. "Both India and Bangladesh can gain from increased use of their waterways for shipment of goods. Now there is no shipping line between these two neighbours. We need more Port of Calls, night navigation to increase the trade through water routes," said the Indian high commissioner.

Khaleda Zia and Manmohan Singh are also expected to sign an accord on investment protection that assumes significance as some Indian investors are said to be keen on the textile, steel and hydrocarbon sectors of Bangladesh.

On the question of huge trade gap between India and Bangladesh in the latter’s disfavour, Sikri referred to some positive steps taken by the Indian side in lifting all sorts of para-tariff and non-tariff barriers giving Bangladeshi leather, batteries and cement a smooth export line to India.

"Bangladesh’s export volume to India grew three-fold from $50 million in 2002-03 to $144 million in 2004-05. But I know still the trade gap is way high," she said.

Sikri considers that the potential of minimising trade gap between Bangladesh and India lies with a bilateral free trade agreement (FTA). "Our FTA with Sri Lanka is the testimony. Sri Lanka had an adverse trade balance with India of 1:16 ratio and after Indo-Lanka FTA signing that ratio has gone down to 1:5."

She also pinned high hopes on Khaleda-Singh signing an illegal trafficking of narcotics accord curbing the phensidyl menace.

Mentioning a draft extradition and legal assistance treaty that India gave to Bangladesh, Sikri said things did not progress much for signing a much-needed extradition treaty.

On the issue of rising menace of extremists and militants, the Indian envoy termed the phenomenon serious which did not necessarily remain confined within a national territory rather neighbours also got affected. She expressed India’s readiness to assist Bangladesh in curbing the rise of terrorism.

On the question of India’s fencing more than 4,000km porous boundary with Bangladesh and occasional skirmishes between the otherwise-friendly border forces centring disputes over border demarcation, Sikri said, "India is raising the fences 150 yards inside its territory away from the zero line throughout Indo-Bangla border except some stretches totalling 297km where India requires to do the fencing in between zero line and 150 yards because of geographic peculiarities—difficult terrains, rivers and households fall on those locations."

Sikri claimed that India allowed Bangladesh to raise wall at Hili border within 150 yards of the zero line for practical reasons.

She referred to the contentious issues of border fencing, lands under adverse possessions and enclaves both inside India and Bangladesh to recall that back in March, 2002, India had made a "package offer" on all these at an Indo-Bangla Joint Boundary Working Group meeting. "There has been no headway thereafter. We wanted to have a follow-up meeting of the joint boundary group prior to the Bangladesh premier’s Delhi visit but things did not move in that direction."

Sikri was asked to comment on what could be India’s responsibilities to its developing neighbours as a fast growing economy having much greater geo-political clout in international arena. "India’s growth is linked with peace and growth in Bangladesh. Our president was in Myanmar just the other day. We’re constantly maintaining good relations with all our neighbours," she said.

Claiming that Bangladesh has been enjoying road transit through India to Nepal and Bhutan since 1997, the Indian high commissioner said India wishes to get transit through Bangladesh to the northeastern region of India.

On the contentious issue of water sharing, Sikri observed that "the issue here is water management, not water scarcity." She quoted Asian Development Bank figures to point out that per capita water availability is greater in Bangladesh than in India and said, "India has always showed its readiness to assist Bangladesh in bettering its management of water resources."