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Address by External Affairs Minister Shri Natwar Singh at India-Bangladesh Dialogue Organised by Centre for Policy Dialogue and India International Centre

August 07, 2005

Your Excellency Foreign Minister Janab Morshed Khan,

Dr. Rahman Sobhan, Distinguished Invitees, Ladies and Gentlemen.

I am delighted to be in Bangladesh and have this opportunity to address the joint session of the continuing India-Bangladesh dialogue organised by the Centre for Policy Dialogue in Dhaka and the India International Centre in New Delhi. Let me begin by congratulating these two institutions for taking this initiative. I believe it is not a mere coincidence that this joint exercise is called a "dialogue”, for that is what it should be between two neighbours who are as closely bound as we are. I reiterate the obvious importance of a dialogue, because in an era of growing tensions we need to remind ourselves that there is virtually nothing in this world that cannot be resolved through dialogue. We attach considerable importance to this Track-II process which has the potential to come up with creative solutions for seemingly intractable problems.

We have been watching with great satisfaction the impressive strides made by Bangladesh in various spheres, economic and social. I hardly need to say that a stable, prosperous, secular and democratic Bangladesh is not just in the interest of its people but clearly in the interest of India and the region as a whole. Let me also take this opportunity to state that we respect Bangladesh’s sovereignty. I would like to recall the comments of the late Indian Premier Shrimati Indira Gandhi in Dhaka in 1972 which, in my view, still provide a rational basis for conducting our bilateral relationship. She said then: "I trust that, in the coming years, friendship between our two countries will be built not on the basis of the assistance that we might have given to you now but on the basis of the full equality and mutual benefit of two free and sovereign nations.”

Friends, I wish to re-state the obvious, that India attaches the utmost importance to its relations with Bangladesh. There is traditional goodwill for Bangladesh in India and I am convinced the same is the case here. And yet, there is also a unanimous view that relations are far below their potential. This is something for which both countries must take responsibility. India for its part, stands ready to do whatever is possible to take relations to a higher level, be they political or in the economic, social and trade spheres. I am certain you have evolved practical suggestions for possible consideration and implementation by the two governments.

Allow me now to give you a broad assessment of the present state of bilateral relations between our two countries. I am happy that high-level visits are now occurring with the desired frequency that should characterize our two friendly countries. Thus, we had the Foreign Office Consultations in June 2005 in New Delhi. I am here to take stock of bilateral relations and see how to take them forward. We also hope that the Prime Ministers of our two countries will meet sooner rather than later and certainly at the SAARC Summit later this year. You will appreciate that these visits are necessary to provide political impetus to the relationship.

The defining characteristic of our bilateral relationship is the growing people-to-people interaction. The Indian High Commission in Dhaka issues about 500,000 visas every year and over 100 GOI scholarships are granted to Bangladeshi students for study in India. While this cannot but benefit both countries alike, the issue of illegal immigration is a serious issue that needs to be addressed. Similarly, we must ensure that our territories are not allowed to be used for any activities inimical to each other’s interests. In this regard, "border management” assumes importance. Talks on boundary issues between the two countries should be resumed at the earliest. In a similar vein, the Home Secretary level talks have been scheduled for September ’05 to discuss the entire range of issues under their purview. The important issue of sharing of the common rivers will be taken up later this month in the Joint Rivers Commission. What I want to emphasize is that all of the above issues are of utmost importance to both our countries and there is no alternative to sitting together and sorting out whatever differences we have through a process of constructive dialogue.

Let me try and outline India’s approach. First of all, we hope the dialogue can commence in earnest right away. Second, we will try and be as flexible as we can on all these issues subject to our responsibility to safeguard India’s national sovereignty and territorial integrity. Third, both our countries need to evolve positions and action plans to counter the common threats of terrorism and religious fundamentalism that confront our societies. And last, we must make a good faith endeavour to avoid any provocative words or deeds that would inevitably make our bilateral relations and mutual dialogue needlessly more difficult. This then is the framework within which we can try and resolve what I believe are some critical issues facing our two countries.

I am pleased that economic and commercial cooperation between our two countries is progressing satisfactorily. Bilateral trade for previous year was reported to be about 1.6 Billion US Dollars, which though substantial, does not fully capture the potential that exists between our two countries. This is also illustrated by the fact that a huge volume of trade still takes place on an "informal basis”. It is my considered view that both our countries need to take a certain number of initiatives so that the full bilateral trade and economic potential can be realized. I wish to mention some of these for your consideration. First, we must proceed expeditiously to sign, not just a revised Trade Agreement for which there is agreement on both sides, but go a step further and try and conclude a Free Trade Agreement. If the Indo-Sri Lankan experience is anything to go by, this cannot but bring significant benefit to both countries. Second, we must improve road, rail and air links between our two countries because this is the necessary infrastructure which is vital for augmenting the volume of bilateral trade and investment. Third, other supplementary agreements such as the Bilateral Investment Protection and Promotion Agreement also need to be concluded early. Fourth, where there are joint projects of mutual advantage, we should not allow politics to trump sound economics. This relates to issues such as the export of natural gas and the establishment of a tri-nation gas pipeline. On our part, we have offered a US $ 150 million Line of Credit for infrastructure projects, especially railways.

I want to make it clear therefore that insofar as economic and commercial relations are concerned, India will not expect strict reciprocity from Bangladesh. As a bigger country and a country with a larger industrial base, we are ready to offer Bangladesh asymmetric benefits and early harvest. I know the Track-II process is looking closely at the subject of economic and commercial cooperation between our two countries and I look forward to receiving the recommendations in due time.

India has had a "Look East” policy for some time now. This policy, as you all doubtless know, has a strong economic rationale. The success of India’s policy of active engagement with its eastern neighbours involves Bangladesh. India and Bangladesh need to take advantage of the numerous complementarities and synergies in the fields of economy, culture, history, language and society to ensure the coordinated regional development of this region. Let me serve a warning here. Failure to exploit available synergies and complementarities will adversely impact not just India but also Bangladesh. I do hope that this region, rather than be known as the periphery of the Indian subcontinent, would become a thriving, dynamic and integrated economic space with a network of highways, railways, pipelines, transmission lines criss-crossing the region.

India is today one of the most dynamic and fastest growing economies of the world. It constitutes not only a vast and growing market, but also a competitive source of technologies and knowledge-based services. Countries across the globe now see India as an indispensable economic partner and are seeking mutually rewarding economic and commercial links with our emerging economy. Should not India’s neighbours also seek to share in the prospects for mutual prosperity that India offers? I am told that with the possible exception of sub-Saharan Africa, our region of South Asia is the least integrated, economically speaking. This is then the challenge for the intellectuals of SAARC, to convert a least integrated geographic area into a fully integrated economic and trade area. This is no longer a matter of choice that our countries have anymore in the face of glibalization, it is an imperative. We therefore need to impart as much substance as possible into SAARC. India is aware that, as the largest country in the region, it has a responsibility to contribute to the goal of making SAARC an effective economic mechanism and stands ready to play its part. Bangladesh has a vital role, not least as the host, in ensuring that the 13th SAARC Summit in Dhaka in November 2005 takes us closer to this goal.

In closing, I wish your deliberations all success and eagerly await your recommendations to strengthen and further consolidate Indo-Bangladeshi ties.

Thank you.

August 7, 2005


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