Indian high commissioner Riva Ganguly Das had come to Dhaka almost two decades ago on diplomatic posting. In March last year she returned, this time as the High Commissioner of India to Bangladesh. She is quite impressed by the changes that have taken place over the past 17 years. She will shortly be ending her stint as high commissioner in Dhaka and will return to Delhi to take up a senior position in the foreign ministry there. In an interview with Prothom Alo, she talks to Ayesha Kabir about continued cooperation between India and Bangladesh during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Teesta agreement, border killings, implementing the line of credit, the Rohingya problem, future relations between the two countries and more. The interview was taken at the residence of the high commissioner on 3 August.
The global outbreak of COVID-19 has had a serious impact on the lives and economy of the entire South Asian region, including India, as on the rest of the world. In the South Asian context, how is India tackling this unprecedented challenge?
The world at present is going through unprecedented challenges because of COVID pandemic which has impacted all countries in the world including India and Bangladesh. COVID has forced us to adapt to what we are now calling the new normal. Besides the extremely serious health challenge that the COVID pandemic poses to all governments, it has also had extremely devastating impact on most economies with supply chains being disrupted all over the world. The impact has been felt by everyone. Governments have had to take hard decisions when the choice of lives versus livelihoods has been put before them. India has not remained unaffected by COVID. While the impact has been felt in all parts of the country, the government of India has, by taking some policy action, been able to take prompt, decisive and early steps in the very initial stages of the pandemic that have ensured a low death rate and high rate of recovery in the country. India’s COVID-19 strategy broadly rests on the three pillars of testing, contact tracing and strict containment measures.
The government of India, in close coordination with the state governments, has massively scaled up the country’s health infrastructure on a war-footing. Augmentation of the number of hospital beds and Intensive Care Units is constantly progressing with innovative methods being adopted to convert community centres, hotels and other large spaces into COVID-19 care facilities.
To arrive at a comprehensive nationwide picture, the Indian Council of Medical Research or ICMR, India’s premier medical research body, has adopted a testing and tracing strategy involving widespread serum surveys. From being PPE-scarce in the early stages of the pandemic, India has become a PPE kit manufacturing hub within a few months. Oxygenation equipment and ventilators too have been procured in large volumes. Testing has been ramped up as domestic manufacturing of kits has increased significantly.
Notably, an Indian vaccine, Covaxin, developed by Bharat Biotech in collaboration with ICMR and National Institute of Virology, has already begun trials and Indian vaccine manufacturers are likely to be producers of choice, as and when a vaccine emerges.
Despite its population, India has shown a robust recovery rate of nearly 65.77% with about 12 lakh recoveries in total. Active cases in India remain around 5 lakh, while fatality rate hovering at 2.1% is much lower than the over 5% globally.
India has proactively worked to tackle the unprecedented humanitarian and economic crisis in the aftermath of COVID-19. In order to protect both lives and livelihoods, India launched one of the world’s largest food security projects, the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana that aims to ensure nutrition for the most vulnerable sections of the society. At an estimated cost of Rs.1.5 trillion (or US$ 20 billion), its extension up till November 2020 follows a Rs. 21 trillion (or US$281 billion) economic stimulus package which includes a range of policy reforms and financial support programmes to aid economic growth and empower the citizens. Even in these difficult times, India’s role as a dependable and responsible country in reaching out to its friends around the world has been widely acknowledged.
Overall, India’s response to this unprecedented pandemic has been timely, effective and comprehensive. What truly stands apart is that such an extraordinary political and administrative effort has been made successful within the framework of a democratic, federal polity through extensive consultation and coordination at all levels.
Being a woman, I always notice what women are doing. And women are doing phenomenally well here. I met so many women, in senior positions, in all levels of the police, in the civil service, in the army and all professions. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a meeting where there has not been more than one lady officer around.
Immediately after the outbreak of COVID-19, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi held a virtual conference with top leaders of South Asia. He took initiative to form a common SAARC emergency fund. Bangladesh and other countries of the region have received assistance from this fund. How successful has this SAARC initiative actually been in tackling the virus?
At the initiative of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a video conference of SAARC leaders on combating COVID was organised on 15 March. Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina participated in this event. India announced an initial contribution of US$ 10 million to this fund to mitigate the risks associated with the pandemic. Subsequently, Bangladesh also announced a US$ 1.5 million contribution to this fund. Three tranches of medical assistance comprising of 30,000 surgical masks and 15,000 head covers on 25 March, 50,000 sterile surgical gloves and 100,000 hydroxycholoroquine tablets on 26 April and RT-PCR Test Kits capable of doing 30,000 tests on 5 May, has been given by India to Bangladesh besides which, several doctors and medical professionals have benefitted from various online courses offered by India under the ITEC programme including one exclusively for Bangladesh in Bengali.
On 23 March, SAARC health officials also participated in a video conference to share best practices and share knowledge. On 9 April a video conference of senior trade officials of SAARC countries was held to discuss the impact of travel restrictions and the larger COVID-19 situation on intra-regional trade and measures to maintain supply chains.
We recently even had mini trucks come in by train. Seeing the success of the movement of rakes and mini rakes, the two railways quickly upgraded this cooperation to start container and parcel train services between our two countries.
Many meeting and trips that had been scheduled between India and Bangladesh have been held up over the past four months due to the COVID-19. Have these stalled interactions had any effect on relations between the two countries?
On the contrary, I feel that interactions between our two countries have remained steady. Of course due to the constraints of not having flight connectivity, actual physical meetings have not taken place. But that has not prevented us from moving ahead to deal with issues that require attention. I have myself attended more than 25 webinars. Chambers of Commerce from both sides have interacted intensively to ensure that supply chain disruptions are minimised. In fact, you would have seen from press reports that we have seized an opportunity out of the challenges posed by COVID-19 pandemic and have been using the rail connectivity between India and Bangladesh to the optimum.
Immediately after the start of pandemic, we took a number of initiatives to engage Bangladesh ministries of commerce, railway, foreign affairs and the National Board of Revenue as well as stakeholders like ASSOCHAM, FICCI, CII, FBCCI, IBCCI, Chittagong Chamber of Commerce & Industry, etc. It was soon clear that out-of-the-box thinking was required to tackle the supply chain disruptions that had taken place because of COVID and confidence of the business community had to be restored. Within a matter of days, Bangladesh Railway and Indian Railways were able to start smooth movement of railways all the way from various points in India to Petrapole-Benapole and the first priority was of course to ensure that there would be no shortage of essential commodities in Bangladesh through the month of Ramadan and subsequently during the festival of Eid.
We recently even had mini trucks come in by train. Seeing the success of the movement of rakes and mini rakes, the two railways quickly upgraded this cooperation to start container and parcel train services between our two countries. This has been of immense benefit to small importers who are otherwise totally dependent on the land ports and have been facing several challenges due to health concerns related to COVID.
The existing four railway links at Petrapole-Benapole, Radhikapur-Birol, Gede-Darshana and Rohanpur-Singhabad have emerged as critical infrastructure for hassle free operations across the border. Starting from 9 May around 242 freight trains loaded with essential commodities like onions, chillies, ginger, sugar, rice seeds, turmeric, spices, paper, bleaching powder, de-oiled cake, maize, cotton bale, duplex papers, stone and fly ash, etc have been transported to Bangladesh. Recently railways from both the countries have introduced Parcel Train Service and agreed to operate side door container trains for value added goods in addition to the BCN wagons which are running at present. The inaugural container train service arrived in Bangladesh on 26 July 2020. It is a great opportunity for traders importing/exporting smaller quantities as well as value added goods. The new initiatives taken by both the railways are going to boost the trade and business between India and Bangladesh substantially.
Once it was realised that COVID was here to stay for much longer than we had perhaps thought initially, intense consultation and discussions took place with the FMCG sector and those who bring in material in bulk from India as inputs for the extremely important RMG sector of Bangladesh. Our hard work paid off and on 27 July, the first container service with 40 containers of FMCG cargo from Proctor and Gamble and 10 containers from Arvind and Vardhman mills reached Bangladesh. In addition, 11 Tata mini trucks have also arrived in Bangladesh by train. In short, one can say that trains are slowly changing the way we do business with each other. Not only is this saving costs, it is good for health and hygiene, reasons which we have to be careful about through the pandemic. Trains also have much lower carbon footprint.
Likewise, the success in the rail sector was replicated in the shipping sector. The 2nd Addendum to Protocol on Inland Waterways Trade and Transit (PIWTT) was signed on 20 May. With this, two additional routes between Sonamura-Daudhkandi and Rajshahi-Godagir-Dhulian with extension up to Aricha and five additional Ports of Calls have been included. This makes the total Ports of Calls 11, extended ports of calls 2 and PIWTT routes, 10. Recently 45 container consignment carrying 1,100 tonnes of sponge iron equal to 55 trucks had sailed on PIWTT route 1-2 from Garden Reach Kolkata for its destination to Pangaon Container terminal and had reached successfully in a span of 7 days. Clearly COVID has opened opportunities while also posing huge challenge to us.
The first trial movement of transit cargo under the agreement on the use of Chattogram and Mongla ports, was successfully conducted between 16-23 July 2020. This reinvigoration of the historical waterway connections between India and Bangladesh is a mutual win-win for both the economies.
Cooperation between the two countries has expanded in many sectors over the past decade. Cooperation has even started in the fields of defence, space and the nuclear sectors. In just a matter of 10 years, around 30 sectors of cooperation have increased to over 60. How does India evaluate this multidimensional cooperation?
As our external affairs minister has said, very few countries in the world share such close fraternal ties as those of ours. Our partnership today stands out as a role model in the region for good neighbourly relations. Our two countries continue to script the ‘sonali adhyay’ (golden chapter) guided by the vision of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. India and Bangladesh are countries with similar development challenges and share aspirations to provide better livelihood for their citizens. We have plenty to learn from each other, share knowledge and collaborate on various areas. As close neighbors with shared history and value system such mutual development cooperation is natural.
Over the past 10 years, implementation of the Land Boundary Agreement has been significant among the major achievements between the two countries. However, the Teesta water sharing deal has not been signed as yet. In recent times, India has been placing importance on basin-based water management. Does that mean further delay in signing the Teesta agreement?
Protocol to the Land Boundary Agreement was ratified in 2015 and it was a historic bilateral achievement and this year is its fifth anniversary. Our two governments while working on it were driven by the humanitarian approach of addressing the needs of their people. It has demonstrated that with right intentions and mutual trust, most complicated issues can be resolved amicably. India is committed to an early and mutually acceptable conclusion of an agreement to share the waters of the Teesta River. We know this is an emotive issue on both sides of the border, but our commitment stands on this issue. Given our federal system, the agreement can only be finalised on the basis of consensus among all stakeholders. However, in the meanwhile, we can proceed on sharing the waters of our other shared rivers, so that there is progress for people on both sides to benefit from our close partnership.
Under the line of credit (LOC), so far India has provided Bangladesh with USD 8 billion in assistance, that highest amount given by any single country. Implementation of this agreement started a decade ago, but it is said to be progressing at a slow pace. What are the obstacles to implementing the agreement? What steps have the two countries taken to remove these obstacles? As part of defence cooperation between the two countries, India provided Bangladesh with a USD 500 million loan for the procurement of arms from India. How far has the procurement of arms progressed?
Reports on slow pace of implementation of Indian LOCs are not factually correct. We need to objectively analyse the disbursements for these LOCs and execution of these projects before arriving at conclusions. At the outset, these projects were chosen by the Bangladesh side according to their development and infrastructure requirements. The first Indian LOC of USD 862 million was announced in 2010 and 12 out of 15 projects under this have already been completed. The second LOC of USD 2 billion was announced in 2016 and 2 out of 15 projects were completed and the remaining are at advanced stages of completion. Finally, the third LOC of USD 4.5 billion was announced in 2017 and 16 projects of this are at various stages of implementation like DPP preparation, tendering and awarding of contract etc.
Regarding the defence LOC, both sides are at various stages of negotiation. I do not foresee any problem in timely disbursal of funds from India to any of these ongoing projects.
To ensure smooth coordination in implementation, both countries have established a Joint LOC Review mechanism to expedite the pace of implementation of these projects and started the sectoral review to understand various issues being faced by the project authorities. In the past one year, both countries have ironed out many issues related to LOCs implementation and the results will be visible soon.
We firmly believe that fencing of the border will help reduce the vulnerable patches frequently used by cross border smuggling gangs and will go a long way to alleviate the border situation.
Over the past few years the number of deaths of Bangladeshis on the border between the two countries had increased. But over the past few months, the number has been going up again. The two countries had committed to bring the border killings down to zero. The Indian border security force had decided not to use lethal weapons. The border security forces of the two countries are working in accordance with an integrated joint management plan, but still the border deaths have not stopped. What should be done to halt these killings?
Every death inside Indian territory, be it of an Indian or a Bangladeshi national, is unfortunate. While our border is essentially peaceful and tranquil, there are also criminal elements that operate on two sides. Due to effective functioning of our joint integrated border management plan, fencing and robust cooperation between BSF and BGB, the criminal elements on both sides are now getting desperate. As a result, there have been increasing incidents of fence breach and violent attacks on the BSF jawans. In 2019 alone, 83 BSF personnel were injured and one was even killed. All these incidents happened well within the Indian territory, and particularly in the wee hours as criminals on both sides take advantage of darkness. The smugglers have now increasingly started using sharp edged weapons to attack BSF jawans including dah, hunting sickles and even country-made guns. Last year 12 Indian nationals died while BSF prevented attacks on itself and Bangladeshi nationals also died in these unfortunate incidents.
The complex issue needs to be addressed by educating the border population to raise awareness about the sanctity of the international border so that they desist from venturing into Indian territory for illegal activities and also instruct both border guarding forces, BSF and the BGB to closely coordinate with each other to ensure maintenance of a peaceful border. We are committed to bring down the incidents of border deaths to zero as outlined in various bilateral joint statements provided the syndicates of cattle and drug smuggling desist from violently attacking the BSF personnel inside the Indian territory and the law enforcement and border guarding agencies of Bangladesh also equally takes measures to prevent the smuggling gangs from entering the Indian territory.
In the year 2019, the High Commission of India in Dhaka along with our assistant high commissioners in Rajshahi, Sylhet, Khulna and Chattogram have issued 16.19 lakh visas, the highest by any Indian mission in the world.
India has decided to erect barbed wire fencing along its border with Bangladesh in order to reduce cross-border crime. How far the barbed wire fencing advanced?
India and Bangladesh share 4096.7 km border and it is the fifth longest land border in the world. It runs through forests, rivers, villages and agricultural fields and management of such a complex border is a major challenging task for border guarding forces of both countries. The government of India has erected fence in about 3000 km of the border and the fencing work is on going in the remaining area. We firmly believe that fencing of the border will help reduce the vulnerable patches frequently used by cross border smuggling gangs and will go a long way to alleviate the border situation.
A very positive change is that when I travel outside Dhaka, even in the most remote areas, you come across little girls playing football, hordes and hordes of boys and girls going to school, walking or by bicycle. That visual shows how far Bangladesh has moved on the social indicators.
Over the last few years, the Indian visa process has been made very easy for Bangladeshis. Among all the countries of the world, the most visitors to India every year are from Bangladesh. Is India thinking of any further steps to make it even easier for Bangladeshis to travel to India?
The government of India’s untiring efforts to enhance people-to-people contact has resulted in gradual liberalisation of the visa issuance system in Bangladesh. Since 2014, we have migrated from an appointment based system to walk in system, where any applicant can apply for a visa any day in any of the Indian Visa Application Centres in Bangladesh. These steps have led to increase in the number of visas issued from around 6.5 lakhs in 2014 to 13.8 lakhs in 2017 and 14.47 lakhs in 2018. In the year 2019, the High Commission of India in Dhaka along with our assistant high commissioners in Rajshahi, Sylhet, Khulna and Chattogram have issued 16.19 lakh visas, the highest by any Indian mission in the world. To further serve the needs and facilitate access of Indian visas to Bangladesh nationals residing in far-flung and remote areas of Bangladesh, in the month of January 2019, we opened six new Indian Visa application centres across Bangladesh. Today, any applicant from anywhere in Bangladesh can submit their applications in any of these 15 IVACs irrespective of their place of residence.
In line with India’s commitment to increase people to people contact and simplify travel requirements for Bangladesh nationals travelling to India, all restrictions on existing land ports will be lifted in a phased manner starting with Agartala-Akhaura and Ghojadanga-Bhomra land ports.
As you are aware, certain places in India, which were earlier restricted to foreigners, have been opened up and we are happy to see that a large number of our friends from Bangladesh visit Sikkim regularly. Besides this, during festive seasons of Eid or other major festival, we keep our Indian Visa Application Centres open beyond official timings to facilitate smooth delivery of passports. Further, keeping in view any case of urgent medical need, we have facilitated emergency delivery of visa to the patient and their attendants.
Ever since the arrival of Rohingyas in 2017, India has been providing humanitarian assistance to Bangladesh. Three years into the problem, it is obvious now that only a political solution will resolve the crisis. What are India’s plans in this regard?
As a neighbour of both Bangladesh and Myanmar, we have highest stakes in the issue. There are sometimes uninformed speculations about our position on the humanitarian crisis in the Rakhine state of Myanmar and its impact upon Bangladesh. India is deeply appreciative of the humanitarian spirit that has motivated Bangladesh to offer shelter to nearly one million displaced people. We fully recognise and empathise with the enormous burden that you are facing. As your friend and your neighbour, we remain committed to offering our fullest support for any mutually-acceptable solution that will enable the earliest return of displaced persons to their homes in Rakhine State and to a life of dignity. This should be done in a manner that is safe, secure and sustainable. To strengthen your efforts, we have provided five tranches of aid to the camps in Cox’s Bazar area through the Government of Bangladesh, and are committed to do more. We are also investing in the socio-economic development of the Rakhine area, including housing, power, education etc so that there is an incentive for people to return at the earliest.
We have also remained consistent in our interventions with the government of Myanmar at all levels, on the importance of closing IDP camps, facilitating socio-economic development projects, and in offering a conducive environment to encourage displaced persons to return to their homes in Myanmar from Bangladesh. In other words, there is no difference between India and Bangladesh, on the way forward in addressing this major humanitarian problem. The need to have practical and pragmatic solutions, bearing in mind that the priority is finding a fair and dignified humanitarian outcome, is the need of the hour.
Bangladesh will be celebrating 50 years of the Liberation War. And given our relationship with the Liberation War, this will be an opportunity for us also to showcase how unique this relationship is. I don’t think there are any two countries in the world which share that sort of a relationship.
On 5 August 2019, the government of India abrogated Article 370 of the Indian constitution and subsequently, the state of Jammu & Kashmir has come under rule of the central government. What changes has this brought about in the lives of the people there?
This one year period has witnessed several socio-economic development activities in the Union Territory of Jammu & Kashmir and these measures firmly put the region on the path of development on par with rest of India. Several beneficial acts including the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act 2009; Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act 2005, Protection of Human Rights Act 1994 and Right to Information Act 2005 were extended to the Union Territory for the first time. Similarly, several archaic laws were repealed including payment of income tax of the chief minister by the state exchequer. In this one year, the government has established 50 educational institutions with 25,000 vacancies and two new All India Institutes of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), seven new medical colleges, five new nursing colleges and a cancer institute were established in Jammu & Kashmir. The Union Government has extended over half a million different scholarships to the students of Jammu & Kashmir. Over three lakh households have been provided access to electricity for the first time in these seventy years. The government has restored reservation of all government jobs for the residents of the Union Territory. Youth and the women of the Union Territory are the biggest beneficiaries of these development initiatives and several such measures are addressing the long felt needs of the people.
People have actively participated in the local elections to have a say on their development needs and priorities. The elections of Block Development Councils, tier-2 of local government, were held for the first time in October 2019 and had witnessed a voter turnout of over 98 percent. Again for the first time, women benefited from the reservations in these elections helping them to enter in politics leading to their empowerment.
After about a decade and a half, you returned to take up responsibility here. What changes did you see in Bangladesh when you came this time? What would you say about the changes?
I left Bangladesh in 2001. From then to now, when I came here in March 2019, I was surprised by the changes. Half of Dhaka I could not recognise. It was tough for me to even locate my old house which is now a food court in Dhanmondi!
It is quite evident that Bangladesh is doing extremely well economically. It is evident from the buildings that have come up, the quality of the roads. Dhaka is a very dynamic city.
A very positive change is that when I travel outside Dhaka, even in the most remote areas, you come across little girls playing football, hordes and hordes of boys and girls going to school, walking or by bicycle. That visual shows how far Bangladesh has moved on the social indicators.
Being a woman, I always notice what women are doing. And women are doing phenomenally well here. I met so many women, not only in senior positions, but in all levels of the police, in the civil service, in the army and all professions. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a meeting where there has not been more than one lady officer around.
So in terms of women’s empowerment, in terms of education, in terms of health, Bangladesh has achieved a lot and as a close neighbor, we feel very proud of these achievements. We see a lot of opportunities and areas for us to cooperate and collaborate.
What are your expectations about future relations between Bangladesh and India?
In future India and Bangladesh will come closer, our friendship will strengthen further. We look forward to next year, 2021. Bangladesh will be celebrating 50 years of the Liberation War. And given our relationship with the Liberation War, this will be an opportunity for us also to showcase how unique this relationship is. I don’t think there are any two countries in the world which share that sort of a relationship. So next year is very important because Bangladesh will celebrate 50 years of the Liberation War and thereafter it is 50 years of the establishment of its diplomatic relations with India.
Thank you for your time.