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Dhaka on Delhi’s free-trade radar

New Delhi, Oct. 19: Encouraged by its success in Southeast Asia and closer home in Sri Lanka, India is now planning to enter into a free trade agreement with Bangladesh.

The first round of discussions between the two sides is to begin in Dhaka tomorrow.

Last week, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee signed two separate framework agreements for a free trade area with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and Thailand. India’s pact with Sri Lanka, signed a couple of years ago, is also working fine.

Although Dhaka has agreed to start negotiations on trade, it has not yet responded to Delhi’s proposal for joint patrolling of the 4,900-km border between the two countries.

Agency reports quoted BSF director-general Ajai Raj Sharma as saying “Bangladesh is yet to respond to our draft on the modalities of the patrolling”.

The proposal was to be implemented from July 1 according to an agreement reached at a meeting of director-generals of the BSF and the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) early this year.

The draft was sent to the BDR in June, but so far there has been no response from Dhaka. The proposed joint patrolling was aimed at ending friction between the neighbours over illegal immigration, which India claims is posing a serious threat to its security.

India-Bangladesh relations have gone through several highs and lows ever since the two sides established diplomatic relations in the early 1970s. But of late, there have been more lows than highs, particularly on infiltration into India and Delhi’s proposed project to interlink the Ganga and the Brahmaputra.

Trade is yet another thorn in bilateral relations with the trade surplus being heavily tilted in India’s favour.

Tomorrow’s talks will be the first between the two countries on free trade agreement and though it is an important beginning, not much is expected to emerge from the exercise which is being described as a preliminary round. The talks will be held at the joint secretary level.

Bangladesh has made it clear that negotiations — likely to be long drawn — can only be meaningful if India honours some of its earlier commitments, particularly those relating to freer access for Bangladeshi goods to the Indian market.

At the meeting of the Joint Economic Commission between the two sides in Dhaka between July 14 and 15, Bangladesh had expressed “deep concern over the chronic and huge trade imbalance”. That was also the time when the proposal for a free trade agreement was mooted by India. Bangladesh had given its assent but had repeated its request for duty-free access to all its “products of export interest” and had handed over a list of 118 items they wanted covered “under the concept of early harvest”.

Dhaka strongly believes that the proposed free trade agreement will allow Indian goods to dominate the Bangladeshi market and give Delhi a stronger edge than it already has on economic and trade-related issues.

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