Modi hails Bangladesh as pillar of India’s ‘neighbourhood first policy’; Sheikh Hasina stresses need for Teesta water-sharing pact in virtual meet

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India and Bangladesh sealed seven agreements on various fronts — hydrocarbons, elephant conservation, sanitation, and agriculture, and restored a cross-border rail link which was in operation till 1965

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bangladesh prime minister Sheikh Hasina held a virtual meeting on Thursday where a broad range of issues were discussed, including the Teesta water-sharing agreement, a trade pact and COVID-19 vaccines.

At the virtual summit, India and Bangladesh sealed seven agreements on various fronts — hydrocarbons, elephant conservation, sanitation and agriculture, and restored a cross-border rail link which was in operation till 1965.

Modi termed Bangladesh a major pillar of the ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy during the meet.

“From the very first day, strengthening and development of relations with Bangladesh has been a special priority for me,” he said after the bilateral meeting.

Meanwhile, Hasina invited Modi on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Bangladesh’s Independence and 50 years of Bangladesh-India diplomatic relations in March next year, which he accepted.

Both the sides also laid stress on simplifying the movement of people between the two countries.

“Bangladesh side requested for early implementation of India’s commitment to remove remaining restrictions on entry/exit from land ports in India for Bangladeshis travelling on valid documents in a phased manner, beginning with checkpoints at Akhaura (Tripura) and Ghojadanga (West Bengal),” a statement by the Ministry of External Affairs said.

Apart from expressing concern over the loss of civilian lives at the border and the aiming at their reduction to zero, the leaders also agreed to facilitate completion of border fencing at all pending sectors at the international border at the Tripura-Bangladesh sector.

Both sides also agreed to hold an early meeting of the Joint Boundary Conference to prepare a new set of strip maps along the stretch of the Icchamati, Kalindi, Raimongol and Hariabhanga rivers from Main Pillar 1 to Land Boundary terminus.

Modi said that the two countries have practised cooperation in a challenging time of the the COVID-19 pandemic. “It is a matter of gratification that India and Bangladesh had good cooperation in this difficult time. Whether it be medicines or medical equipment, or working with health professionals. We are also having good cooperation in the field of vaccine. We will also take special care of your needs in this regard,” he said.

The prime minister further recognised the “immense potential” of bilateral economic and commercial ties and said, “This year our special partnership has been steadily advancing in other areas as well. We reduced hurdles in land border trade, expanded connectivity between the two countries, and added new means. All this reflects our intentions to further strengthen our relationship.”

Modi also directed officials to expeditiously conclude the ongoing joint study on the prospects of entering into a bilateral Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA).

Hasina said both the countries can move up the “global and regional value chains” by further integrating their economies taking advantage of available synergies.

“We happily recognise the growing mutual dependency of the economies of Bangladesh and India. A good number of Indian nationals are employed in the manufacturing and service sector of Bangladesh and are remittance earners for India. On the other hand, India receives its highest number of tourists and medical patients from Bangladesh,” she said.

India and Bangladesh also announced the setting up of a joint CEOs forum to increase investment in each other’s country. Both Modi and Hasina highlighted the need to make progress in terms of greater trade and business ties under the framework of SAARC and BIMSTEC.

Bangladesh Prime Minister also voiced interest in the India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway project and sought India’s support for enabling Bangladesh to connect with this project with a view to enhance connectivity between the regions of South and Southeast Asia. In the same spirit, the Indian side requested Bangladesh to allow connectivity from West Bengal to Meghalaya via Bangladesh, the joint statement said.

Both sides noted with satisfaction the commencement of a temporary Air Travel Bubble between the two sides to facilitate the urgent requirements of travellers on both sides during the COVID-19 pandemic. Bangladesh side also requested the Indian side to resume regular travel through land ports at the earliest.

India urged Bangladesh to have at least one land port with minimal negative list between the neighbouring states of India and Bangladesh, beginning with Agartala-Akhaura so that maximum amount of goods can be traded through the border. Bangladesh in turn proposed that its trucks can use the Feni Bridge, which is under construction at present, connecting India and Bangladesh for transportation of goods from Chattogram port to India’s Northeast region.

The MEA also said that the “Bangladesh prime minister highlighted the need for early signing of interim agreement for sharing of the Teesta waters, as agreed upon by both the governments in 2011. Prime Minister Modi reiterated India’s sincere commitment and continued efforts of the Government of India in that regard”.

Dhaka wants 50 percent share of the Teesta’s water for the December-March period as the flow of the river to Bangladesh becomes lean in this period.

The two leaders also underscored the need for an early conclusion of a framework of interim agreement on water sharing of six rivers – Manu, Muhuri, Khowai, Gumti, Dharla and Dudhkumar, the statement said.

Modi “appreciated the generosity of Bangladesh in sheltering and providing humanitarian assistance to the 1.1 million forcibly displaced persons from the Rakhine State of Myanmar”. Both Prime Ministers reiterated the importance of their safe, speedy and sustainable return, with Hasina expressing Bangladesh’s expectation to see India, which recently got elected as a United Nations Security Council member, “assist in the repatriation of the forcibly displaced Rohingyas back to Myanmar”.

The leaders also inaugurated a digital exhibition on Mahatma Gandhi and Bangladesh’s founder Sheikh Mujibur Rehman. The joint statement said that the filming of a biopic on Bangabandhu would begin under the direction of Shyam Benegal in January 2021. The document also pledged to name the road from Mujib Nagar to West Bengal’s Nadia as ‘Shadhinota Shorok’. It was in Mujib Nagar that a government in exile was formed in 1971.

The leaders paid solemn tributes to the martyrs of the Liberation War of Bangladesh, the Muktijoddhas and the Indian soldiers, for their great sacrifices in 1971. They vowed to “uphold and protect the cherished values of democracy and equality in line with the aspirations of the people” of the two countries.

Hasina also talked about India’s role in the liberation of Bangladesh and particularly highlighted how Indian Army’s Major Ashok Tara rescued her family including her mother and sister from Pakistani forces.

“December 17 is a special day for me as it was the day when Ashok Tara, a Major at that time rescued my mother, my sister, my brother from the hands of Pakistani forces… Bangladesh was freed on 16 December but we were free on 17 December,” Hasina said.

With inputs from PTI

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