Kamal Dev Bhattaral
Nepal President Bidya Devi Bhandari’s state-visit to Bangladesh from March 22-23 is a continuation of high-level exchanges between the two close South Asian neighbours. The visit is expected to boost the bilateral ties which have witnessed a quantum growth in recent years.
Bhandari’s visit to Bangladesh is a reciprocal visit of Abdul Hamid, President of Bangladesh that took place in November 12-15, 2019. After a long gap, President of Bangladesh paid a state visit, infusing a fresh impetus to five-decade long bilateral relations.
Nepal’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Pradeep Kumar Gyawali paid an official visit to Bangladesh on 17-19 February 2020 at the invitation of Dr. AK Abdul Momen, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Bangladesh. Additionally, officials of both sides meet regularly to discuss bilateral issues. This demonstrates that high-level visits between two countries have taken momentum in recent years and both sides are willing to provide continuity to the current pace.
Now, Nepal President Bhandari is visiting Bangladesh who will attend the celebration of the birth centenary of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the Father of the Nation of Bangladesh, in Dhaka.
She will hold talks with her counterpart. Similarly, Bangladesh Prime Minister, senior ministers and high-level government officials will call on Bhandari to discuss bilateral issues. This will provide an opportunity to both sides to review the entire gamut of bilateral relations, and explore the additional areas of bilateral cooperation between the countries. During the visit, officials of both countries are expected to sign some agreements to enhance the cooperation between the countries.
When Bangladesh was created through the war of independence against Pakistan in 1971, Nepal was the seventh country to recognise the new Bangladesh by establishing diplomatic relations on 8 April 1972. Five months after Nepal recognised Bangladesh, then Bangladeshi Foreign Minister Abdus Samad Azad came to Kathmandu, and his Nepali counterpart Gyanendra Bahadur Karki visited Dhaka the same year. Nepal King Birendra also paid a state visit to Bangladesh in 1980. But after that, both sides failed to provide continuity to the bilateral exchanges.
Though bilateral exchanges at the top level were slim, both sides continued to interact at various bilateral platform. An example of close cooperation between the two countries in this period was the founding of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) in Dhaka in 1985. Since then both sides are closely working under the SAARC framework. Nepal and Bangladesh both are members of Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical Cooperation (BIMSTEC), and sub-regional body Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal Initiative (BBIN).
Soon after Bangladesh became independent, both sides had realised and acknowledged the importance of bilateral cooperation. That is why, in 1976, the two countries signed four memoranda of understanding (MoUs), covering trade, transit, civil aviation, and technical cooperation. They also agreed to collaborate on power generation and water resources. Although possible areas of cooperation were identified, little progress was made in subsequent years. And still, there has not much progress on these agenda. Therefore, high-level visits like this should pay attention on these issues. If necessary, both sides should instruct the bureaucracy to settle the remaining issues providing a blue print of solution.
However, there has been some progress on some areas. Top potential area of cooperation between Nepal and Bangladesh is hydropower. On 10 August 2018, both countries signed a much-awaited agreement for energy cooperation. Some Bangladeshi companies have shown interest in investing in Nepal’s hydropower. Of late, there has been some progress when it comes to forging cooperation in hydropower sector.
Last week, Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla said that Nepal can directly export electricity to Bangladesh. Addressing a programme, he said: “Satluj Jal Vidyut Nigam Limited is developing two major hydropower projects, Arun and Lower Arun, in Nepal. A consortium led by GMR is developing the export-oriented 900 MW Upper Karnalihydroelectric project in western Nepal which can supply power to India and Bangladesh.” With India’s green signal, now official of three countries should sit together to hammer out the details of exporting electricity from Nepal to India.
Now, three countries should sit together to settle the technical issues to export Nepali electricity to Bangladesh via India. Similarly, two countries should sign Bilateral Investment Promotion and Protection Act (BIPPA) to facilitate Bangladesh investment to Nepal.
Another area of cooperation between two countries is transit facilities. Following the opening of Kakarvitta-Phulbari-Banglabandha transit route in 1997, Bangladesh has permitted Nepal to use the port in Mongla. Bangladesh has also provided an additional rail transit corridor to Nepal via Rohanpur-Singhabad, but this too has not been adequately utilized. Similarly, discussions are underway to increase air connectivity.
Trade is another area where two countries can do a lot. Trade between two countries increased after Kakarbhitta-Phulbari-Banglabandha transit route came into operation in August 1997. Nepal’s trade deficit with Bangladesh has swollen so that additional measures should be taken. While Nepal readily imports Bangladeshi goods such as industrial raw materials, chemicals, fabrics and textile, jute products and electronic items, Bangladesh is blocking most of our products.
Still, Nepal exports some amount of yellow lentils, oil cakes, large cardamom, wheat, vegetable seeds, handicrafts and pashminas to Bangladesh. Total bilateral trade today stands at some $10 billion. Given Bangladesh’s huge population, there is undoubtedly much scope to export a lot more to Bangladesh. Then there are thousands of Nepali students who are studying in Bangladesh, particularly medicine, and the number is rising.
Tourism is another potential area of cooperation. Yet the number of Bangladeshi tourists in Nepal has been declining. In January-October period this year, a total of 19,279 Bangladeshi tourists visited Nepal, a 1.9 percent decline from the previous year. Over 29,000 Bangladeshi tourists had visited Nepal in 2017.
In sum, visit by President Bidya Devi Bhandari is an opportunity to strengthen ties at the top level which must be continued. Now, both countries should start the homework for bilateral issues of prime ministers of two countries. Both sides should identity the current problems that are creating obstacles to enhance cooperation in all sectors and seek avenues of new areas of cooperation. Both sides should continue the exchange of bilateral visits.
Bhattarai is Kathmandu-based journalist and writer.