The trip to Tripura

Barrister Harun ur Rashid

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's two-day visit to Tripura on January 11-12 was the first by any prime minister of Bangladesh. The visit assumes significance in many respects.

It underscores not only the broadening and deepening of relations with Tripura state but also the desirability of a closer integration of Bangladesh's economy with that of the northeastern states of India.

During the Indian prime minister's visit to Dhaka last September, the chief ministers of Assam, Tripura, Meghalaya and Mizoram accompanied Dr. Singh and supported close engagement with Bangladesh.

Chief Minister of Tripura Manik Sarkar said: "The people of Tripura and the people of Bangladesh have always had close relations at socio-cultural level and these relations are being further strengthened."

We tend to forget that Bengali is also spoken in Tripura. Tripura's Finance Minister Badal Chowdhury (who had his primary education in erstwhile East Bengal, now Bangladesh), drove home this point by saying: "Though 60% of people of Tripura have direct or indirect roots in Bangladesh, the entire population of the state become emotional when they talk about Bangladesh."

Tripura shares an 874-km border with Bangladesh and support and cooperation from Tripura state is required in sharing of waters or fixing boundary on trans-boundary rivers -- Feni, Muhuri, Gumti, Khowai and Manu -- which flow from that state to Bangladesh.

The people of Tripura extended their helping hand during the Liberation War of 1971. According to historian and writer Bikash Chowdhury, Tripura had six to seven camps in four different sectors from where the 'muktijoddhas' (freedom fighters) fought the Pakistani forces in the liberation war.

Sheikh Hasina said: "I was further amazed when I came to know that before this university was set up, this place was a training camp of the Bangladesh liberation soldiers. How can we not remember with gratitude our friends in need in Tripura and India?"

The prime minister was awarded an honourary doctorate degree by the Central University in Tripura. India's Vice-President Hamid Ansari said: "We admire your courage, prime minister, in facing the threats of terrorism and extremism afflicting humanity, your advocacy of pluralism, moderation and tolerance, and the ambitious agenda of economic growth, welfare and social justice that you have planned for and implemented in Bangladesh."

Ansari further added that Bangladesh provided critical links to the economy, ecology and environment of the north-east region. He said India was committed to fashioning economic and trade arrangements, not only for ensuring closer integration of the region with the national economy, but also with the neighbouring economies.

During the visit, Sheikh Hasina urged India to be more generous and liberal in helping to resolve pending bilateral issues such as water management. She also appealed to India to import more from Bangladesh to remove the gap in trade. Indian investors too should make more investments.

She emphasised that connectivity between India and Bangladesh, particularly with the north-eastern states, including Tripura, would generate tremendous economic vibrancy, leading to people's empowerment and region's development.

She urged India, Nepal and Bhutan to make the best use of Chittagong and Mongla ports, which Bangladesh has already opened for these neighbouring countries, to access the sea route for their trade and commercial activities.

Later, at the civic reception accorded to her by the Agartala Municipal Corporation, Sheikh Hasina said Bangladesh was keen to undertake a joint venture project for power generation through utilisation of the vast natural gas reserve in Tripura, and that once the project was realised her country would also buy power from them. She also said that four new border 'haats'[ (markets) would be set up by India and Bangladesh to facilitate trade.

It is noted that the growth of the economy of the region is half of the economic growth of mainland India. It seems that the purpose of such massive plan is to develop the region into a hub of trade and commerce, so as to eliminate deprivation of basic needs and facilities of people in the region, arguably the main root cause of insurgency.

Given the background, New Delhi reportedly allocated Rs.14 lakh crore (over $27 billion) under the Northeast Industrial and Promotion Policy 2007 for a period of 12 years. The amount is being spent for developing infrastructure and encouraging business communities to invest in the region. The growth of the region would rise to 9%, from the current 4%, with huge Indian public investments.

With the availability of connectivity, people-to-people contact is bound to increase and consequently commercial and trade opportunities will receive further boost between Bangladesh and northeastern states.

It is noted that India has put emphasis on the upgrading of border roads and maritime transport along the Kaladan River (from Mizoram) to boost trade between northeastern states and Myanmar. In this connection, India laid the foundation in December 2010 for the construction of port and waterway terminal of a Myanmar-India Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport Project in Sittway (Akyab) township of western Myanmar's Rakhine (Arakan) state, to be completed by 2013.

The visit to Tripura might have served another purpose. It gives a strong signal that Prime Minister Hasina has not been impressed with the strategy of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee of Paschimbanga (West Bengal) on the issue of sharing of Teesta water. The prime minister was invited to receive a doctorate degree from Kolkata University in January but she did not go there.

The writer is a former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva.