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Regional Bangladesh

September 2, 2015

Reaping the benefits of more and better regional cooperation

South Asia is well known as a region of conflicts, poverty and poor governance. While the rest of the world has found ways to cooperate, South Asian countries remain suspicious of each other and keep old wounds alive. There are disputes relating to land territories, border crossings, water sharing, air space and ocean space. Owing to lack of cooperation, water shortages, energy shortages, natural disasters and high transport and trading costs lower the development potential of this high-prospect region. Needless spending on military and security apparatus encroaches on the already constrained public resources, which prevents adequate spending on human development and social protection.

These issues affect all South Asian countries and Bangladesh is no exception. Yet, of late, some signs of political maturity to move towards a more cooperative solution to development have emerged in the North Eastern corridor of South Asia involving Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Bhutan. In this regard, Bangladesh deserves credit for pushing this initiative. The ice was broken in January 2009 when Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina visited Delhi and reached a far-reaching agreement with the then Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on economic cooperation. Further efforts since then have sought to widen this cooperation by bringing in Nepal and Bhutan into the umbrella.

This effort to reach a cooperative solution on a range of economic challenges including trade, transit, energy and water sharing is a very welcome development. Common citizens often wonder whether there are concrete benefits of regional cooperation for Bangladesh or these initiatives are only rhetoric and concessions to India.

The potential benefits are best appreciated by looking at geography. Bangladesh has two natural locational advantages: open access to the sea in the South; and providing a bridge between East Asia and the rest of South Asia leading on to Central Asia and Europe. By opening up existing ports and further investment in new ports, Bangladesh can tap a dynamic source of revenue and economic growth. The true potential of this is illustrated by the development performance of internationally renowned sea ports of Rotterdam, Singapore and Hong Kong. Similarly, through better land, air, rail and sea connectivity Bangladesh can become an Asian commercial hub.

The other aspect of geography that has not been well appreciated in policy discussions in Bangladesh is the locational aspects of poverty. Of the 30 border districts, some 29 districts are a part of the lagging regions in Bangladesh. The lagging districts share a number of common characteristics: these are mostly border districts; the labour force is mainly engaged in low productivity agriculture; connectivity with growth centres is limited; human indicators are weak; and high income jobs are scarce.

Growth and investment in the lagging regions will benefit tremendously from reducing cross-border restrictions on trade, transport and investment. Removal of these restrictions will also facilitate agglomeration economies and production sharing arrangements as in East Asia under Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) plus 3.

A third dimension of geography is the prospect of easing the energy constraint in Bangladesh through trade. Nepal, Bhutan and some of the North-eastern Indian states bordering Bangladesh have tremendous untapped hydro-power potential. Through proper grid connectivity and transmission lines, the scope for power trade to relieve the Bangladesh energy constraint is huge.

A fourth dimension of regional cooperation concerns water security and climate change. On the negative side of geography, the location of Bangladesh makes it especially vulnerable to climate change and natural disasters as it lies at the bottom end of the flow of the three mighty rivers Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna. Importantly, all three rivers, especially the Ganges and the Brahmaputra, flow through upstream India. Other countries that are also upstream and have an impact on water flows are China and Bhutan (Brahmaputra) and Nepal (Ganges). Yet, this vulnerability can only be addressed through regional cooperation. It is obvious from geography that the only viable long-term solution to Bangladesh’s water problems and vulnerability to climate change is through a cooperative solution with upstream neighbours (India, Nepal, Bhutan and China).

Opportunities for taking better and greater benefits from regional cooperation

The potential benefits of more and better economic cooperation in the North Eastern corridor of South Asia involving Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Bhutan are substantial. Previously, the realisation of this potential was prevented by political constraints. With the removal of these constraints there should have been a fairly rapid emergence of policies and actions to implement the

regional cooperation initiatives in, at least, the agreed areas. The record unfortunately is less encouraging than possible.

Progress is most advanced in the area of energy trade. Bangladesh has imported some 500 MW of power from India. Over the longer-term, this should move up to over 1000 MW. Importantly, grid connectivity with India opens up possibility for power trade with Nepal and Bhutan. Additionally, opening up of power trade is facilitating new investments from India’s private sector into Bangladesh for power as well as primary fuel. The full range of energy trade options must be explored quickly to support the progress of Bangladesh to upper middle income.

Some progress has been made on the trade front. While India is the second largest source of imports for Bangladesh after China, exports from Bangladesh to India are rather small. This is partly the outcome of lack of diversification of Bangladeshi exports that are concentrated in ready made garment (RMG) and the market for Bangladeshi RMG is mostly outside India.

But there are some nagging concerns. India has allowed Bangladesh duty-free access to its market (barring a few products on the negative list), but a range of non-tariff barriers relating to rules of origin, quality and health standards that are based on overly restrictive implementation arrangements, adversely affect the flow of exports to India. A speedy resolution of these barriers is essential to preserve the true spirit of cooperation. Another non-tariff barrier is the land port customs clearance facilities. There are serious capacity, efficiency and governance issues related to land ports that need urgent attention and resolution.

In the area of transit and transport, India’s demand for transit access though Bangladesh inland transport network to its Eastern States and also for Bangladesh sea-port services is huge. The response from Bangladesh has been constrained by serious capacity constraints of the inland transport network as well as the absence of agreed protocol on transit including transit fees. There is an active dialogue but progress is slow.

More recently, during the June 2015 visit of the Indian Prime Minister Modi to Bangladesh, the two countries renewed the Protocol on Inland Water Transit and Trade and agreement was reached to allow India access to the Chittagong and Mongla sea-ports of Bangladesh. A hugely positive development is the Motor Vehicles agreement (MVA) reached in Thimpu in July 2015 for seamless movement of people and goods through roadways by Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and India. With proper implementation, this could provide a major break-through for regional connectivity.

Yet, protocols alone will not be adequate. Major investments are needed to upgrade and expand the road and bridges network. The financing requirements are large while implementation capacity constraints in Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan are considerable. India as the senior partner and the larger beneficiary of connectivity should play a leadership role in giving both concessional financing and technical assistance in upgrading the road transport network. It should also adopt a positive approach to paying the appropriate transit fees as per international norms.

The area where progress has been most slow is on water cooperation. Even though difficult, with careful design and investment water cooperation can be a win-win for all. The Indus River Treaty and the Nile River Basin Agreement are good examples of how with sustained efforts even warring nations can be brought together to share water equitably. Strategically, cooperation in other three areas (trade and investment; transport; and energy) can set the basis for more considerate and equitable resolution of water disputes. All riparian can benefit through enhanced productivity (irrigation, fisheries, and navigation/access) and reduced costs (floods, droughts, cyclones). Benefits are maximized if the best technical options can be adopted regardless of national boundaries; financial costs and output benefits are shared equitably; and cooperation focuses on bundling opportunities linked to water management (institutions, infrastructure etc.).

Both the Ganges and the Brahmaputra have tremendous technical potential for upstream multipurpose infrastructure to cap flood peaks, raise dry season flows for irrigation, reduce saline intrusion in vulnerable ecosystems (e.g. the Sundarbans); increase hydropower availability and clean energy source; and enhance navigability/access. Data exchange can enhance disaster preparedness.

One specific policy action to help build regional water cooperation in the short term is to initiate joint water resources management initiatives/ investment projects. There are two possible projects. First is linking Northeastern India and Bangladesh (including the Brahmaputra basin institution building). The second is linking the Indian state of West Bengal and Bangladesh (restoration of the Ganges Dependent Areas to support endangered livelihoods/ fragile Sundarbans ecosystems).

Over the medium to long-term, broad regional investments on the Ganges and/or the Brahmaputra could be explored. This will entail joint equity, ownership and management – including the bundling of institutional development, legal framework, and infrastructure investments.

Regional connectivity and Bangladesh

South Asia, described as one of the least economically integrated regions of the world, is also one of the most disconnected regions where political boundaries essentially serve as physical barriers to trade, and movement of vehicles and people. Despite having a forum for regional cooperation, cross-country regulation and logistical barriers greatly detract trade and investment in a region that constitutes around 9.0 per cent of the global economy.

For the past 25 years, notwithstanding the liberalisation efforts in trade under South Asia Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA), intra-regional trade has not inched higher than 5.0 per cent of total trade of the region with the rest of the world. In addition, intra-regional investment is miniscule at under 1.0 per cent. Most empirical evidence highlights the fact that trade logistic costs are more of a trade barrier than tariffs.

South Asia is characterised by two completely land-locked countries (Nepal and Bhutan) and largely land-locked regions, such as North East India (NEI). Lack of transit through India prevents the landlocked countries of Bhutan and Nepal from accessing Bangladeshi seaports. Similarly, India faces serious constraints in establishing a proper road network and smooth flow of cargo and passenger traffic with its northeastern states as Bangladesh stands in the middle, with the virtual absence of modern internationally recognised protocols for movement of passenger and cargo across borders. Currently, the narrow Siliguri Corridor (also known as Chicken’s Neck) serves as the connection between mainland India and NEI.

All that could become a thing of the past thanks to the signing of the recent Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and India Motor Vehicle Agreement (BBINMVA). This agreement paves the way for closer economic integration of a region that has hitherto remained disintegrated with fragmented road and rail infrastructure defined by political boundaries rather than economic necessities. With this agreement, it is expected that there will be free movement of goods and passengers among these four countries that will not only facilitate trade but also foster better economic and political relations.

Although freedom of transit has been chartered by several international conventions, there are obvious challenges and concerns for the host country. Since goods in transit cannot be subjected to customs duties, there is always a possibility of these goods being diverted to the market in the host country without being duly taxed. This requires security measures to be put in place which often hinders the flow of transit traffic. Managing cross-border corridors, especially with limited capacity of officials and lack of automation processes poses an immense challenge. Then there is the question of infrastructure. Heavy transit traffic can potentially damage roads, bridges, and other physical infrastructures. There are also externalities of transit traffic in the form of increased probability of accidents, congestion and environmental damage.

Preliminary estimates, however, suggest that the benefits from the BBINMVA are likely to be substantial for Bangladesh. In addition to enhanced connectivity, Bangladesh will benefit from a much better utilisation of its port facilities, reduced trade costs with India, Nepal, and Bhutan, resulting in higher volume of trade, and an opportunity to upgrade its transport network financed by user charges. Despite these benefits, the issue of user charges usually takes precedence over other pertinent issues during talks of transit in the socio-political sphere. Most of the discussion and debate is based on confused thinking about rent-seeking behaviour owing to location and geography and disregard for international conventions. As Bangladesh, along with the other countries, prepare multilateral protocols and formalises the MVA, it is important to gain a clearer understanding of user charges in relation to transit and explore the different possibilities.

Fees based purely on providing transit are prohibited by international conventions. However, there are genuine administrative and auxiliary costs for the host country that stem from providing transit facilities. As such, user charges to recover these costs are sanctioned. The imposition of user charges for transit is not unprecedented. Several countries in Western Europe have introduced transit charges that yield a sizeable revenue which are subsequently used for improving infrastructure. Some countries have imposed charges based on emissions and size of transit vehicles as measured by the number of axles. Many Asian countries such as Vietnam and Thailand also levy toll charges on transit traffic, which is directly connected to distance travelled. The widespread levy of transit charges provides numerous examples for Bangladesh to draw from.

Before user charges can be calculated, an estimation of the volume of transit traffic is in order. Various studies have explored this issue, coming up with different figures. Experts conclude that even with a downward bias, volume of transit traffic to and from NEI via Bangladesh would initially be about 17.39 million tonnes, with a 2.0 per cent annual growth rate. The opening up of Mongla and Chittagong seaports along with newer road and rail routes will further increase transit flow.

Such a large volume of traffic has enormous revenue implications for Bangladesh. In order to capitalise on transit, road user charges should be imposed to recover costs of administration and use of services. These charges will cover various external costs associated with transit that were mentioned earlier. Although Bangladesh has instruments for road transport taxes and charges, they do not contribute to the efficiency of road use because the cost recovery is not linked to road usage. This is because heavy vehicles like trucks and buses, which cause the most damage, are not charged accordingly. This underlines the need to implement proper road user charges consistent with efficient management and proper maintenance of road infrastructure. An efficient charging system should also differentiate between heavy vehicles based on loaded mass and axle configuration.

Several studies have attempted to estimate road user charges for Bangladesh transit. A report by strategic advisors Castalia to the World Bank in 2010 calculates transit cost for a truck over the 495 kilometres (km) of the Asian Highway 1 route that starts from the Benapole border in Paschim Bangla and ends at the Tamabil border in Sylhet (Table-1).

The transit fee includes charges for capital, operation and maintenance costs. Capital charge covers the cost of acquiring the right of way and civil works. The operating and maintenance costs include routine maintenance, periodic maintenance, rehabilitation, and traffic control and enforcement. Incorporating all these costs, the total transit fee comes to around $56 per trip. The study also estimates costs avoided by Indian trucks as they avail transit opportunities. Taking into account the transit fee and related tolls, savings could amount to a significant $102 per trip. Although administrative expenses and border processing will reduce some of those savings, transit traffic would still be left with a substantial amount of savings.

In the light of these benefits accrued by countries availing transit facilities, there have been calls to implement user charges that reflect a share of the benefits. However, such charges are akin to pure transit fees prohibited by international convention. International conventions also define rights and obligations in matters of sharing common resources, such as water, air, land and sea routes to prevent rent-seeking behaviour based on favourable geography. Even though the issue of transit charges generate heated political debates, Bangladesh should abide by international best practices and implement user charges that reflect genuine costs of providing transit facilities.

BBINMVA thus opens up numerous opportunities for Bangladesh in the form of increased connectivity, higher utilisation of seaports, and potential revenue gains. As the world moves towards greater economic integration, the initiation of the MVA is a step forward for the economies involved. The onus is now on the concerned authorities to devise protocols and transit charges to maximise gains from this agreement. With the formalisation of the MVA, it is expected that trade transaction costs will be significantly reduced in this sub-region, thus working as a catalyst for stimulating intra-regional trade and investment.

Regional connectivity and economic integration in EU and ASEAN

Freedom of movement and ease of trade amongst EU-28 countries and within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have shown substantial progress since the 1980s, leading to a greater economic integration amongst member countries. Regional economic integration creates scope for greater cooperation between countries by creating an open environment for trade and investment. Such integration may involve easing of movement of people and goods, such as under the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Framework Agreement on the Facilitation of Goods in Transit (AFAFGIT), or complete abolition of borders under the Schengen Agreement of the European Union (EU).

The Schengen Agreement in 1985 was termed as a break-through where multiple state governments came to common terms and abolished interstate border controls. This allowed EU citizens to move and reside freely within the territory of member states and established an internal market that ensured free movements of goods, services and passengers. In addition to the Schengen Agreement, the Convention of International Road Transport (TIR) has also accelerated the movement of goods across borders. The 1975 TIR Convention was a multilateral treaty that simplified the administrative formalities of international road transport. The system is currently operational in 58 countries and is based on a common customs document, known as the TIR Carnet.

As can be seen in Table 1, extra-EU trade (EU trade with rest of the world) in goods and services has been increasing since 2004 underlining the growing economy of the Member States. EU’s ability to create jobs and maintain trade relations with the greater world highlights the strong foundation built by the single market regime. Traditionally, the EU as a whole has traded goods more within the Member States than with countries outside the EU. Intra-EU trade, which was at 62 per cent of EU global trade in 2013, reached as high as 80 per cent of the total trade for members like Luxembourg, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. In contrast, the largest players in extra-EU trade in 2013 included Germany, France and Italy respectively. Table 2 indicates minor changes in cross border passengers and goods traffic of EU. Although intra-EU distance travelled per passenger has increased over the years, a fall in the movement of goods within the Member States was also observed between 2004 and 2013. The fall in cargo traffic could be attributed to the Global Financial Crisis that occurred in late 2007, and its aftermath.

The AFAFGIT, beginning in December 1998 in Hanoi, Vietnam, also aimed at simplifying and harmonising the structure of the transport system of the ASEAN community. Similar to the TIR, the agreement follows a mutually recognised vehicle inspection certificate, curbing administrative procedures involved in holding separate transit certificates for each trading partner. As shown in Table 3, ASEAN experienced an impressive growth in total exports and imports of cargo by road over the years. The share of intra-ASEAN trade in overall ASEAN trade has been on an increasing trend starting from 22.0 per cent in 2000 to 24.2 per cent in 2013. The agreement also brought about significant rise in the movement of people within the ASEAN community.

However, unrestricted flow of people across borders brings about issues relating to illegal immigration, ethnic conflicts and cross-border criminal activities such as money laundering and terrorism. The risks associated with minimum or no tariff restrictions and differing enforcement abilities can also deteriorate the competitiveness of the local producers by making imports cheaper. Free movement of goods therefore requires constant monitoring of trading partners’ behaviour in order to curb unfair trade practices.

Drawing on the experience of EU and ASEAN, implementing a similar regional integration may benefit the South Asian region as well. Although a transformation into a structure exactly similar to that of the European Union (EU) might not be considered to be pragmatic but an appropriate policy mix and a deep structural reform can help strengthen the economies of the South Asian community by boosting competitiveness, trade and tourism. By maintaining cohesion between economic, political and social environment, these countries can benefit from each other’s strengths and progress towards a stable and prosperous community.




  1. masud karim permalink

    Friendship is a flowing river: Sheikh Hasina writes for The Hindu

    If our commitments are honest, India and Bangladesh can achieve many things that are beneficial to our people

    Maintenance of good relations with the neighbours, friendship to all, malice to none — is the policy I pursue throughout my life. My only desire in my political thought is to build a society for common people where none will suffer from the curse of poverty while their basic needs will be met. In other words, they will get the opportunity to have the right to food, clothing, shelter, medicare, education, improved livelihood and a decent life.

    I received the teaching of such sacrifice from my father. My father, Father of the Nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, did his politics with a motto to change the lot of the people. Wherever there was an injustice, he would protest it. This was the policy of Bangabandhu and he was always vocal for establishing the rights of the people. And, for that reason, he had to embrace imprisonment time and again and endure persecution. But he remained firm on the question of principle. Bangladesh earned its independence under his leadership.

    The support and cooperation of neighbouring and friendly countries had accelerated our goal to earn the independence of Bangladesh. Among those, India played the leading role.
    India’s helping hand

    The Pakistani military junta started a genocide launching armed attacks on the innocent Bangalees on March 25, 1971.

    In the 1970 general elections, people of Bangladesh voted for Bangladesh Awami League and made it the majority party. This is for the first time that Bangalees had got the mandate to rule Pakistan. Although the population of East Bengal constituted the majority in Pakistan, the Bangalee nation was subjected to oppression and subjugation all the time, and deprived of its rights. The nation was about to lose its right to speak in the mother tongue. It was unthinkable to the military rulers that the Bangalee nation would ascend to state power and that was why they imposed the uneven war on Bangalees.

    With the people’s mandate, the Father of the Nation declared the independence of Bangladesh and directed the people to carry on the war of liberation. Responding to his call, the people of Bangladesh took arms and the liberation war began. The Pakistani rulers and their local collaborators engaged in committing genocide, rape, looting, arson and attacked the innocent people of Bangladesh. The world woke up. People and the Government of India stood beside the oppressed humanity. They gave food and shelter to nearly 10 million refugees of Bangladesh. They extended all-out cooperation in our great liberation war and played an important role in creating global opinion in favour of Bangladesh. This helped us to earn victory and the country was freed from enemy occupation.

    We are grateful to the friendly people of India. The Indian government had played an important role even in getting Bangabandhu released from the Pakistani prison. Shrimati Indira Gandhi had played the leading role in earning our independence, freedom of Bangabandhu and bringing him back to his beloved people. We got her government, political parties and above all the people of India beside us during our hard times.

    The killers brutally assassinated the Father of the Nation on August 15, 1975. I lost 18 of my family members, including my mother, three brothers and sister-in-laws. I, along with my younger sister Rehana, survived as we were abroad. In our bad days, India again stood beside us. I could not come back home for six long years. The Bangladesh Awami League elected me its president in my absence. I returned home with the support of the people.
    In Bangabandhu’s foosteps

    On my return, I started a movement for the restoration of people’s basic rights and democracy. We formed the government in 1996 after 21 years. I got the opportunity to work for the people. I devoted myself to the task of welfare of my countrymen not as a ruler but as a servant. My father got the opportunity to build the war-ravaged country for only three and a half years. And I got the chance to serve the people after 21 years.

    During that time, the people of Bangladesh realised that the objective of a government is to accomplish the task of people’s welfare. We signed the Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Treaty ending the two-decade-long conflict. We brought back 62,000 refugees from India and rehabilitated them in the country. We signed the Ganges Water Sharing Treaty with India. The country’s image brightened in the outside world.
    Two steps back

    A five-year period is too short for the development of any country. We couldn’t win the election of 2001. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party-Jamaat-e-Islami assumed state power and destroyed all our achievements. Again, the country’s progress suffered a setback. Militancy, terrorism, corruption and misrule made people’s life miserable. The country became champions in the corruption index five times. The minority community became victims of torture. The country’s socio-economic development had been stalled. The Awami League leaders and workers became targets of persecution. Bangladesh once again fell under emergency rule. We demanded restoration of democracy. We faced jail, torture and false cases. But finally, people triumphed.

    The national election was held after seven years in 2008. Winning the election, we formed the government. We started implementation of a Five Year Plan and 10-year-long Poverty Reduction Strategy Plan. We have been working to turn Bangladesh into a middle-income country by 2021 and a developed one by 2041. The people of Bangladesh started getting the benefit of it.

    Bangladesh is marching ahead. We earned over 7.1% GDP growth. Inflation is contained within 5.28% and the poverty rate has been reduced to 22%. At this moment, on many socio-economic indicators, Bangladesh’s standing is better than many other South Asian nations whereas a few years ago our position was at the bottom. But we still have a long way to go to ensure prosperity of the people. And we are working towards that end.

    My objective is to fulfil the dream of Bangabandhu through building a hunger- and poverty-free Golden Bangladesh being imbued with the spirit of the War of Liberation.
    Regional cooperation the key

    I always refer to poverty as the main enemy of this region. A large number of people of Bangladesh and India suffer from malnutrition. They are deprived of their basic needs. Lack of nutrition is impeding the growth of a huge number of children. They don’t have proper medicare and schooling. We have to change this scenario. We have the ability. The only thing we need is to change our mentality. I think eradication of poverty should be the first and foremost priority of our political leaders. And, in today’s globalised world, it is difficult to do something in isolation. Rather, collaboration and cooperation can make many things easier. That is why I always put emphasis on regional cooperation and improved connectivity.

    I believe in peace. Only peaceful co-existence can ensure peace. There are some issues between us. But I believe that any problem can be resolved in a peaceful manner. We have demonstrated our willpower through the implementation of the Land Boundary Agreement. There are some more issues like sharing of waters of the common rivers (the Teesta issue is currently under discussion) that need to be resolved. I’m an optimistic person. I would like to rest my trust on the goodwill of the great people and the leaders of our neighbour. I know resources are scarce, but we can share those for the benefit of the people of both countries. We share the same culture and heritage. There are a lot of commonalities (at least with West Bengal). We share our Lalon, Rabindranath, Kazi Nazrul, Jibanananda; there is similarity in our language, we are nourished by the waters of the Padma, Brahmaputra, Teesta; and so on. The Sundarbans is our common pride. We don’t have any strife over it. Then, why should there be any contention over the waters of common rivers?

    Our foreign policy’s core dictum is: ‘Friendship to all, malice to none.’ The Father of the Nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, defined the policy. We are also inspired from his words: “The very struggle of Bangladesh symbolised the universal struggle for peace and justice. It was, therefore, only natural that Bangladesh, from its very inception, should stand firmly by the side of the oppressed people of the world.” At international forums, we support all international efforts towards building a just and peaceful world.

    In recent years, especially after 2009, when my party assumed office, cooperation between Bangladesh and India has been bolstered manifold. Rail, road, and waterway connectivity boosted. Trade, commerce and investment maximised. People-to-people contact also got momentum. Such mutual cooperation is definitely benefitting our people. Relations, at a personal or national level, largely depend on give-and-take measures. Mexican Nobel Laureate Octavio said ‘Friendship is a river’. I think that the friendship between Bangladesh and India is like a flowing river and full with generosity. This is the spirit of the people of the two neighbours. I think if our commitments are honest, we would be able to achieve many things that are beneficial to our people. On the eve of my four-day visit to India, I myself, and on behalf of my countrymen, would like to convey the heartiest greetings to the people of India. I hope that the cooperative relations between Bangladesh and India would reach a new height through my visit.

  2. Graduation from LDC
    Foreign minister bets big on BIMSTEC
    Bloc ‘could counteract trade benefit losses’

    The multi-sectoral sub-regional grouping needs a big push to meet its original goals of facilitating cross-border trade and connectivity, foreign affairs experts said Tuesday.

    The experts, however, voiced their dismay over the low-visibility of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) in the regional trade landscape.

    The views came at an international conference on ‘BIMSTEC at its 20: Towards a Bay of Bengal Community’ held at the BIMSTEC secretariat in Dhaka.

    If the potentials of this sub-region could be harnessed, it will help accelerate the economic growth of the member countries, they said. The BIMSTEC houses 1.7 billion people or one-fifth of the global population.

    Founded in June 1997 through the Bangkok Declaration, the BIMSTEC is a regional organisation comprising seven member states lying in the littoral and adjacent areas of the Bay of Bengal constituting a contiguous regional unity.

    Among its seven member states, five come from South Asia such as Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar and Thailand from Southeast Asia.

    Foreign minister Abul Hasan Mahmood Ali, ambassador of Nepal Chop Lal Bhusal, representative of Indian foreign minister Piyush Srivsatava, and secretary-general of the BIMSTEC M Shahidul Islam addressed the inaugural session of the seminar.

    In his speech, the foreign minister said that the loss of benefits for four BIMSTEC member countries including Bangladesh and Myanmar resulting from their graduation from the LDC status could be offset through enhancing trade within member countries.

    Noting that the platform has failed to make any “visible progress” in the last two decades, he said the member countries should gear up their efforts to make this platform more effective and dynamic.

    He said that though BIMSTEC envisages raising intra-regional trade to 21 per cent, it is only 7.0 per cent now.

    The minister said the BIMSTEC, which bridges the South Asian and Southeast Asian countries, has a common space in promoting development and security but “much remains to be done as the potentials remains unexploited.”

    Nepal’s ambassador said the BIMSTEC had not yet made any visible progress in advancing the concrete cooperation among the member countries.

    He said immediate measures were required to boost cross-border movement of cargoes, trade and energy cooperation in the region.

    Representative of Indian foreign minister Piyush Srivastava said India gave BIMSTEC “huge importance” as it can contribute to the economic development of his country, especially its North-eastern states.

    He expressed the hope that member countries would gear up their efforts to improve regional transport connectivity aimed at jacking up regional trade.

    M Shahidul Islam said as the BIMSTEC process entered the third-decade of its existence, it is “high time we charted out the future course of the organisation”.

    Initially, the economic bloc was formed with four member states with the acronym ‘BIST-EC’ (Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka and Thailand Economic Cooperation).

    Following the inclusion of Myanmar on December 22, 1997 during a special Ministerial Meeting in Bangkok, the group was renamed ‘BIMST-EC’ (Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand Economic Cooperation).

    With the entry of Nepal and Bhutan to the sixth Ministerial Meeting in February 2004, the name of the grouping was changed to the BIMSTEC.

    বিমসটেকের প্রচারে নজর দেওয়ার পরামর্শ তৌফিক ইমরোজ খালিদীর

    বঙ্গোপসাগর উপকূলবর্তী সাত দেশের জোট বিমসটেককে কার্যকর করতে সরাসরি মানুষের সঙ্গে যোগাযোগ বাড়ানোর জন্য প্রচার কৌশলে আরও নজর দেওয়ার পরামর্শ দিয়েছেন বিডিনিউজ টোয়েন্টিফোর ডটকমের প্রধান সম্পাদক তৌফিক ইমরোজ খালিদী।

    মঙ্গলবার ঢাকায় ‘রোল অব মিডিয়া ইন প্রমোটিং বে অব বেঙ্গল আইডেনটিটি’ শীর্ষক এক আলোচনায় তিনি বলেন, বিমসটেক কী বা কেন, তা ব্যাখ্যা করা খুবই কঠিন, কেননা এক বাক্যে এ সংস্থার বিষয়ে পরিচিতিমূলক কোনো বিবরণ এখনও তৈরি হয়নি।

    তার ভাষায়, বিমসটেক যদি যোগাযোগ বাড়াতে আগ্রহী হয়, তাহলে গণমাধ্যম এই সংস্থাকে নতুনভাবে সংজ্ঞায়িত করতে সহযোগিতা করতে পারে।

    কিন্তু বিমসটেকের ভাবনায় যদি সারবস্তুর অভাব থাকে, সুনির্দিষ্ট পদক্ষেপের যদি ঘাটতি থাকে, যে জনগণের প্রতিনিধিত্ব এই জোট করে, তাদের জীবনে কোনো ইতিবাচক পরিবর্তন যদি আনতে না পারে, তাহলে গণমাধ্যমের খুব বেশি কিছু করার থাকবে না বলে মন্তব্য করেন তিনি।

    বে অব বেঙ্গল ইনিশিয়েটিভ ফর মাল্টি সেক্টরাল টেকনিক্যাল অ্যান্ড ইকোনমিক কোঅপারেশন বা বিমসটেকের প্রচারে এগিয়ে আসতে সংবাদমাধ্যমগুলো যাতে উৎসাহী হয়, সেদিকেও নজর দিতে বলেন বিডিনিউজ টোয়েন্টিফোর ডটকমের প্রধান সম্পাদক।

    জোটের সাত দেশের গবেষক, কূটনীতিবিদ, আমলা, ব্যবসায়ীসহ বিভিন্ন অঙ্গনের প্রতিনিধিরা উপস্থিত ছিলেন বিমসটেকের ২০ বছর পূর্তিতে আয়োজিত দিনব্যাপী এই সেমিনারে।

    বাংলাদেশ, ভারত, শ্রীলঙ্কা ও থাইল্যান্ড ১৯৯৭ সালে ব্যাংকক ঘোষণার মধ্য দিয়ে এ উদ্যোগের সূচনা করে। পরে মিয়ানমার, নেপাল ও ভুটান বিমসটেকে যোগ দেয়।

    গত দুই দশকে এই জোটের সাফল্যের বিষয়গুলো তুলে আনার পাশাপাশি ভবিষ্যতের কর্মপন্থা নির্ধারণই ছিল এ আয়োজনের উদ্দেশ্য।

    আলোচনার উদ্বোধন করে পররাষ্ট্রমন্ত্রী এ এইচ মাহমুদ আলীও সব সম্ভাবনা কাজে লাগাতে বিমসটেককে ফলাফলমুখী একটি সংস্থা হিসেবে গড়ে তোলার ওপর জোর দেন।

    ভৌগলিকভাবে দক্ষিণ এশিয়াকে দক্ষিণ-পূর্ব এশিয়ার সঙ্গে যুক্ত করেছে বিমসটেক, কাজ করছে সার্ক ও আসিয়ানভুক্ত দেশগুলোর মধ্যে আন্তঃআঞ্চলিক সহযোগিতার একটি সেতুবন্ধ হিসেবে।

    বিশ্বের প্রায় ২১ শতাংশ মানুষ বিমসটেকভুক্ত দেশগুলোতেই বসবাস করেন। বাণিজ্যের ক্ষেত্রে এই জোটের রয়েছে অপার সম্ভাবনা। কিন্তু জোটের দেশগুলোর নিজেদের মধ্যে বাণিজ্যের পরিমাণ একেবারেই কম।

    এর মূল কারণ হিসেবে সদস্য দেশগুলোর মধ্যে যোগাযোগ ও অবকাঠামোর দুর্বলতা এবং আঞ্চলিক অর্থনীতিতে সমন্বয়ের অভাবকে দায়ী করেন বিশেষজ্ঞরা।

    ভৌগলিক নৈকট্য, অভিন্ন ইতিহাস আর সাংস্কৃতিক সাযুজ্যের পরও বিমসটেক এখনও সদস্য দেশগুলোর মধ্যে সহযোগিতার মজবুত একটি ক্ষেত্র তৈরির পথে দৃশ্যমান কোনো অগ্রগতি দেখাতে পারেনি।

    এই জোটের মহাসচিব রাষ্ট্রদূত এম শহিদুল ইসলাম অবশ্য বলছেন, সাম্প্রতিক দুটি অগ্রগতির ফলে বিমসটেকের একটি সফল আঞ্চলিক জোট হয়ে ওঠার আশা নতুন করে জেগে উঠেছে।

    এর একটি হল ২০১৪ সালে ঢাকায় এ জোটের স্থায়ী সচিবালয় প্রতিষ্ঠা। এবং দ্বিতীয়টি হল ২০১৬ সালের গোয়া সম্মেলনে বিমসটেককে শক্তিশালী ও কার্যকর একটি জোটে পরিণত করতে সদস্য দেশগুলোর নেতাদের একসঙ্গে কাজ করার অঙ্গীকার।

    ভারত ও পাকিস্তানের মধ্যে উত্তেজনা বাড়ার প্রেক্ষাপটে ২০১৬ সালে ইসলামাবাদ সার্ক সম্মেলন বাতিল হয়ে যাওয়ার পর গবেষকদের কেউ কেউ বিমসটেককে সার্কের বিকল্প হিসেবে ভাবতে শুরু করেন।

    কিন্তু আঞ্চলিক এই জোট যে এখনও মানুষের কাছাকাছি যেতে পারেনি, সে কথা উঠে আসে ব্যাংককের চুলালংকর্ন ইউনিভার্সিটির ইন্ডিয়ান স্টাডিজ সেন্টারের পরিচালক সুরাত হরিশাইলকুলের কথায়।

    আলোচনায় তিনি বলেন, থাইল্যান্ডের সাধারণ মানুষ আঞ্চলিক এই জোটের কথা বলতে গেলে জানেই না।

    বিমসটেক ফুড ফেস্টিভাল, ফিল্ম ফেস্টিভাল, শিক্ষার্থী বিনিময় এবং ‘মিস্টার অ্যান্ড মিসেস বিমসটেক’ খেতাব দিয়ে কীভাবে ব্যাংককে এই জোটকে পরিচিত করার চেষ্টা চলছে, তা তুলে ধরেন এই গবেষক।

    বিমসটেককে আরও ফলদায়ক করতে জোটভুক্ত দেশগুলোর আইনপ্রণেতাদের আরও উদ্যোগী হওয়ার ওপর জোর দেন বাংলাদেশের সংসদ সদস্য মাহজাবিন খালেদ।

    ব্র্যাক ইনস্টিটিউট অব এডুকেশনাল ডেভেলপমেন্টের এমিরেটাস অধ্যাপক ড. মনজুর আহমেদ জোর দেন সদস্য দেশগুলোর মধ্যে বিশ্ববিদ্যালয় পর্যায়ে সহযোগিতার ওপর।

    ‘বে অব বেঙ্গল কমিউনিটি’

    বিমসটেক কীভাবে বঙ্গোপসাগরীয় সম্প্রদায় বা ‘বে অব বেঙ্গল কমিউনিটি’ বিষয়টিকে সামনে নিয়ে আসতে পারে, সে বিষয়ে বিস্তারিত আলোচনা করেন বিডিনিউজ টোয়েন্টিফোর ডটকমের প্রধান সম্পাদক তৌফিক ইমরোজ খালিদী।

    তিনি বলেন, সবার আগে দরকার ‘বে অব বেঙ্গল কমিউনিটি’কে সংজ্ঞায়িত করা।

    বঙ্গোপসাগরের তীরবর্তী এবং আশপাশের স্থলবেষ্টিত দেশগুলোই কেবল এ আলোচনায় আসবে, নাকি ঐতিহাসিকভাবে যে দেশগুলো বাণিজ্যিক এবং সাংস্কৃতিক কারণে এই ভূখণ্ডকে তাদের যোগাযোগের পথ হিসেবে ব্যবহার করে আসছে, তারাও এর অন্তর্ভুক্ত হবে- সেই প্রশ্ন রাখেন তৌফিক ইমরোজ খালিদী।

    তিনি বলেন, এ অঞ্চলের দেশগুলো যে জোট গড়তে এবং তার মধ্য দিয়ে কার্যকর সহযোগিতার ক্ষেত্র তৈরির কাজটি ভালোই পারে, আসিয়ান তার প্রমাণ।

    তবে তিনি সার্কের বিষয়ে নিশ্চিত নন, কেননা এ জোট ইদানীং সম্মেলনের আয়োজন করতেও ব্যর্থ হচ্ছে।

    বিডিনিউজ টোয়েন্টিফোর ডটকমের প্রধান সম্পাদক বলেন, আসিয়ানের দেশগুলোর নিজেদের মধ্যে বাণিজ্যের পরিমাণ যেখানে ৩০ শতাংশ, সেখানে বিমসটেকে তা যে তিন শতাংশের কম, সেই পরিসংখ্যান সংবাদমাধ্যমে আসবেই। আর বিমসটেকে দেশগুলোর ব্যর্থতা দেখাতে চাইলে এ ধরনের তথ্যের অভাবও নেই।

    “তাই আমার প্রথম কথা হল, গণমাধ্যমের একার কাজ এটা না। আমি মনে করি, এই সংজ্ঞায়িত (বে অব বেঙ্গল কমিউনিটিকে) করার প্রক্রিয়ায় বা সেই সংজ্ঞা কেমন হওয়া উচিত- সেই ধারণা তৈরির চেষ্টায় সংবাদমাধ্যম কেবল একটি ভূমিকা পালন করতে পারে।”

    তিনি বলেন, যারাই এর সঙ্গে সম্পৃক্ত, তাদের সবাইকেই এটা নিয়ে ভাবতে হবে। সরকারি আমলা আর কূটনীতিবিদ- যারা এই জোটের বৈঠক বা অনুষ্ঠান আয়োজনের দায়িত্বে থাকেন, রাজনীতিবিদ আর মন্ত্রী- যারা জোটের লক্ষ্য ঠিক করে দেন এবং রাষ্ট্রনেতা, যাদের হাত দিয়ে জোটের অধিকাংশ সিদ্ধান্ত অনুমোদন পায় এবং কিছু ক্ষেত্রে মূল নীতিমালাগুলো তৈরি হয়, তাদের সবাইকে এ প্রক্রিয়ায় আসতে হবে।

    “তারা যা যা করবেন, সংবাদমাধ্যম কেবল তাতে সাড়া দিতে পারে। তাদের সেই বার্তা গণমানুষের কাছে পৌঁছে দিতে পারে সংবাদমাধ্যম।… হ্যাঁ, সংবাদমাধ্যমে মন্তব্য আর সমালোচনাও আসবে। তবে তা আসবে আপনাদের আলোচনার মধ্য থেকে, যেমনটা আপনারা আজ করছেন।”

    কিন্তু সেই আলোচনা যদি হয় অন্তঃসারশূন্য, বাস্তবায়নের সুনির্দিষ্ট কোনো পদক্ষেপ যদি না থাকে, মানুষের যদি তাতে কোনো উপকার না হয়, তখন যে সংবাদমাধ্যমের করার তেমন কিছু থাকে না, সে কথাও মনে করিয়ে দেন তৌফিক ইমরোজ খালিদী।

    তিনি বলেন, “যারা রাষ্ট্র পরিচালনা করেন, সেই রাজনীতিবিদদের কাছ থেকেই প্রথম পদক্ষেপটি আসতে হবে। অবশ্য সব দেশ যে রাজনীতিবিদরাই শাসন করছেন তাও নয়। এমন নজিরও আছে, যেখানে রাজনীতিবিদরা উর্দিধারী সরকারি কর্মচারীদের অধীন।”

    বিমসটেককে মানুষের কাছে নিয়ে যাওয়ার জন্য কার্যকর যোগাযোগের পথ তৈরির যে বিকল্প নেই, সে কথাও বলেন তৌফিক ইমরোজ খালিদী।

    তিনি বলেন, “কারও কারও শুনতে খারাপ লাগতে পারে, কিন্তু আমি বলব, এই নিউ মিডিয়ার যুগে যোগাযোগের চ্যালেঞ্জ মোকাবেলার জন্য বিমসটেক সচিবালয় এখনও প্রস্তুত নয়। আমার মনে হয়, লোকবল আর অর্থবলের অভাব রয়েছে এখানে।“

    এর ব্যাখ্যায় বাংলাদেশের প্রথম ইন্টারনেট সংবাদপত্রের প্রধান সম্পাদক বলেন, আজকের দিনে তথাকথিত মূলধারার গণমাধ্যমের বাইরেও প্রচারের অনেক পথ আছে। সোশাল মিডিয়া ব্যবহার করে সেই কাজটি করতে গেলে কিছু শ্রমশক্তি আর অর্থ সেদিকেও ব্যবহার করতে হবে।

    আর যে কোনো পদক্ষেপ নেওয়ার আগে সংবাদমাধ্যমের বাইরের যে জনগোষ্ঠী, তাদের মতামতও বিবেচনায় নেওয়ার পরামর্শ দেন তৌফিক ইমরোজ খালিদী।

    তিনি বলেন, “আমরা গণমাধ্যমকর্মীরা কখনও কখনও সঠিক পরিপ্রেক্ষিতটি বুঝে নিতে ব্যর্থ হই…। বার্তা কক্ষে বসা সম্পাদকরা প্রায়ই পাঠক-দর্শকের চোখ দিয়ে পরিস্থিতি না দেখে পরিস্থিতির বিচার করেন নিজেদের মত করে। সে রকম যাতে না হয়, সেই চেষ্টা আমরা করি না বা পারি না, তা নয়। তারপরও সব জায়গাতেই এটা ঘটে।”

    বিডিনিউজ টোয়েন্টিফোর ডটকমের প্রধান সম্পাদক বলেন, বিমসটেককে আগে ঠিক করতে হবে, যাদের নিয়ে তাদের কাজ, সেই সাত দেশের মানুষের সঙ্গে তারা কীভাবে যোগাযোগ করতে চায়। অর্থাৎ, যোগাযোগের কৌশল নিয়ে তাদের বিনিয়োগ বাড়াতে হবে।

    ভারতের প্রধানমন্ত্রী নরেন্দ্র মোদীর টুইট কীভাবে একই সঙ্গে মূল ধারার গণমাধ্যমের সংবাদ উৎস হচ্ছে এবং সরাসরি সাধারণ মানুষের কাছে বার্তা পৌঁছে দিচ্ছে, সেই উদাহরণ টানেন তৌফিক ইমরোজ খালিদী।

    তিনি বলেন, নরেন্দ্র মোদীর চার কোটি ফলোয়ার সংখ্যার বিচারে যে কোনো সংবাদমাধ্যমের একক প্রচার সংখ্যার চেয়ে বেশি।

    “প্রেসিডেন্ট ট্রাম্পকে আপনি পছন্দ করেন বা না করেন, টুইটের মাধ্যমে তিনি নিজেকেই প্রকাশ করেন। তার টুইট তাকে আর তার ব্যক্তিত্ব ও চিন্তার ধরন বুঝতে আমাদের সাহায্য করে।”

    রাষ্ট্রনেতাদের টুইটার ব্যবহারের কথা বলতে গিয়ে তৌফিক ইমরোজ খালিদী জানতে চান, বিমসটেকের কোনো টুইটার অ্যাকাউন্ট আছে কি না, যেটা তিনি ফলো করতে পারেন।

    মূল আলোচনায় ফিরে তিনিও বলেন, বিমসটেক আসলে কী, তা ব্যাখ্যা করা আসলেই কঠিন। এমনকি যে শহরে বিমসটেকের সচিবালয় রয়েছে, সেই ঢাকাতেও বিমসটেককে পরিচিত করা সহজ কাজ নয়।

    “কেবল একটি বাক্য দিয়ে আপনি বিমসটেককে ব্যাখ্যা করতে পারবেন না। এটা সার্ক না, আসিয়ান না, তাহলে এটা কী?

    “নাম বদলে ফেললে অনেক সময় কাজ হয়। অবশ্য এরই মধ্যে একবার নাম বদলানো হয়েছে। নামের সংক্ষিপ্ত রূপ তাতে বদলায়নি। সংক্ষিপ্ত রূপ দিয়েও সব সময় চেনানো সহজ হয় না। তবে নামের সংক্ষিপ্ত রূপ হিসেবে ‘ইউনিসেফ’ বেশ কাজের। একটা উদাহরণ দিই। ফুটবল স্ট্রাইকার লিও মেসিকে সম্ভবত বিমসটেকের চেয়ে কয়েক লাখ গুণ বেশি মানুষ চেনে, তার জার্সিতেও লেখা থাকে- ইউনিসেফ।

    তৌফিক ইমরোজ খালিদী বলেন, ইউনাইটেড নেশনস ইন্টারন্যাশনাল চিলড্রেনস ইমার্জেন্সি ফান্ড এত বড় একটি নাম যে মানুষ একে আগে জাতিসংঘ শিশু তহবিল বলত, এখন সরাসরি ইউনিসেফ বলে। বলা বা প্রচারের সুবিধার জন্য বড় নামকে ছোট করে নেওয়ার এরকম অনেক উদাহরণ আছে। বিমসটেকের ক্ষেত্রে কী করা যায়, তা এখন ভেবে দেখা যায়।

    “যেমন ধরা যাক, বিমসটেককে বর্ণনা করা হল ‘বে অব বেঙ্গল কমিউনিটি’ হিসেবে। আমরা সাংবাদিকরা তখন হয়ত লিখতে শুরু করব এভাবে- বে অব বেঙ্গল কমিউনিটি হিসেবে পরিচিত বিমসটেক এবার তাদের ২০ বছর…।”

    দিনব্যাপী এ সেমিনারে বিমসটেকের বাকি ছয় সদস্য দেশের তুলনামূলক কম উপস্থিতির বিষয়েও দৃষ্টি আকর্ষণ করেন বিডিনিউজ টোয়েন্টিফোর ডটকমের প্রধান সম্পাদক।

    তিনি বলেন, “অন্য ছয় দেশের প্রতিনিধিদের যে উপস্থিতি, তা খুব বেশি উৎসাহব্যঞ্জক নয়। ফলে আমরা যারা সংবাদমাধ্যমের প্রতিনিধি, বিমসটেককে নিয়ে উচ্চকণ্ঠ হওয়ার মত যথেষ্ট উৎসাহ আমরা এখানে পাব না।”

    আলোচনার এই পর্বে সভাপতিত্ব করেন ইনস্টিটিউট অব কনফ্লিক্ট ল অ্যান্ড ডেভেলপমেন্ট স্টাডিজের (আইসিএলডিএস) চেয়ারম্যান রাষ্ট্রদূত মোহাম্মদ জমির।

  3. Bangladesh to be regional transport hub: PM

    Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has said that Bangladesh can emerge as a hub in South Asia due to its geographical location.

    “Bangladesh can be a bridge between the East and West and we have a plan to connect Bangladesh with the rest of the world,” she said.

    Sheikh Hasina made the remarks while replying to a supplementary question during the Prime Minister’s question-answer session in the parliament on Wednesday.

    The Prime Minister also said her government would give priority to connectivity if it comes to power next time, reports BSS.

    “Connectivity network including construction of a deep sea port, an international airport and connecting Bangladesh with Asian Highway and Trans Asian Railway would get priority if we can come to power in the next term,” she said.

    The government has also a plan to construct a nuclear power plant in country’s southern part, she said.

    “The government has already taken steps for construction of the deep sea port and it would do it,” she said.

    Sheikh Hasina said her government has attached importance to rural areas. The government wants to build every village as a town with all civic amenities, she said.

    The Prime Minister said steps would be taken for setting up agro-based industries across the country, creating employment opportunities and boosting up agricultural production.

    Rail line would be constructed from Padma Bridge to Barisal and it would be a mega project, she said adding that the rail line from Chattogram to Cox’s Bazar would be completed.

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