Connectivity accord without any assessment

by Sayed Kamaluddin

Economists and analysts have opined that the recent signing of the 22 agreements for multimodal connectivity and economic development with India during Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Dhaka visit was done without a proper assessment by Bangladesh. They say New Delhi came well prepared and knew what they wanted out of it and talked clearly on the basis of a well-researched document. They knew what they wanted to get out of it and understandably, wanted the Bangladeshi negotiators to articulate their part of the bargain for providing the facilities.

All agreements between any two or multiple of parties lay down in detail about the contracting partys’ do’s and don’ts and their respective obligations for implementing the same. Meanwhile, Finance Minister AMA Muhith’s statement was recorded as the government’s version of Dhaka’s part of the bargain.

He summarily rejected the recommendations submitted by an expert group which has painstakingly gone into the subject of their expertise and done the exercise before suggesting what charges are to be levied on Indian goods to be transported from West Bengal to Northeast through Bangladesh.

Responding to newsmen after rejecting the Bangladeshi expert groups’ report, Muhith said existing World Trade Organisation (WTO) provisions would take care of these arrangements. He did not elaborate what the WTO provisions have to offer Bangladesh and hastily made the comment to get off the hook for any more grilling by the sceptical newsmen at the scene. Sources say, the WTO normally does not get involved in bilateral agreements between two member-states unless they reach a deadlock and refer the matter to it for arbitration.

FREE PORT FACILITIES: Professor Anu Muhammad, who teaches economics at the Jahangirnagar University and a noted social activist, felt that these agreements, by and large, would not be beneficial for Bangladesh. He, of course, referred to the unspoken part of the deal as to what India would pay for carrying their goods through Bangladesh territory. He claimed that the Bangladesh side had no plans about the fees to be levied and said as a result of this unseemly unpreparedness, India has begun to use the port facilities at Chittagong and Mongla free of charge.  Nobody can blame India for taking any advantage of our foolhardiness.

Anu Muhammad told a Bengali daily newspaper that in the name of connectivity, India has gained access to another part of its territory through Bangladesh and is considered a major gain for them for more reasons than one. As a result, cost of carrying Indian goods from one part to the other would be reduced to a fraction and precious time would be saved. Time is of the essence in case of emergency caused by natural and man-made disasters and especially in a warlike situation in the Northeast for decades now. The Indian calculations were based on this as the recent trends reported in media tend to suggest more trouble in store there.

Overall, he says connectivity helps India gain enormously compared to the same with Nepal and Bhutan. Even in this case, Indian investment in Nepal and Bhutan accounts for the lion’s share and the connectivity would also help Indian investors market their products in the Northeast India in direct competition with some of the Bangladeshi products.  Here Bangladesh’s loss has not been under consideration by our negotiators. In fact, the additional pressures that Bangladesh’s existing highway and railway systems has to bear for the Indian users and their maintenance etc remained largely unspoken. Bangladesh will need huge investment to improve the existing railway-highway networks and also build new bridges, roads and railway systems to shoulder this extra burden.

Studies have revealed that Bangladesh will need about $8 billion to improve the existing network and build new ones for maintaining the smooth connectivity but how it would be funded is yet to be decided. While Indian PM Modi during his visit offered $2.0 billion loans, Indian High Commissioner in Dhaka Pankaj Saran told a Dhaka seminar the other day that “only a portion of the loan would be available for infrastructure development.” So development, maintenance, improvement and building of the infrastructure necessary for connectivity would be expensive and the servicing such expenses would also be costly. It is clear that implementation of these agreements may drag on giving rise to divisiveness and unwelcome political issues.

Source: Financial Express