Home Neighbours Bangladesh ‘Breakfast In Agartala, Lunch In Dhaka, Dinner In Kolkata’

‘Breakfast In Agartala, Lunch In Dhaka, Dinner In Kolkata’

South Asia has lagged behind in building, leave alone strengthening connectivity both internally and externally, believes Ambassador Shamsher M Chowdhury, former foreign secretary of Bangladesh.

In this discussion on India’s Act East Policy and how that applies to Bangladesh and beyond, he gives us an insider’s view of the opportunities and challenges involved.

“Connectivity should have been the first item on the agenda after India helped Bangladesh become independent from Pakistan in 1971,” he says. But that was not the case.

However, of late, connectivity between the two nations has grown exponentially in terms of road, rail, air. Maritime connections were slow to pick up despite the rivers and the Bay of Bengal that connect the two nations, he says.

But is it seamless? Not quite. He then cites the example of a frail 70-year-old woman having to drag her own suitcase to cross over into India for medical treatment. While the facilities on the Indian side are “far, far better,” Bangladesh still needs to put in some work, he says. But he is optimistic that given the political will, things will improve.

He then takes the conversation beyond the bilateral frame. “If one can go from Copenhagen in northern Europe to southern Germany or even to Greece, why can’t I go to Thailand from Bangladesh, or from India?” he wonders.

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“The current obstacle is the situation in Myanmar,” he says. Describing the situation there as “troublesome” would be an understatement, he points out that officials in Thailand who he spoke to recently, had described Myanmar as a “mountain” that stood between Thailand and Bangladesh, and then on to India. There’s security issues, the Rohingya crisis, and the growing conflict between the ruling military junta and the rebels.

Accepting that the situation there would not change overnight, he says that maritime connectivity might help bridge that gap. “From Chittagong, Dhaka or Kolkata on to Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia…” It would help grow tourism, and fits in easily with India’s Look/Act East policy.

The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, or BIMSTEC an international organization of seven South Asian and Southeast Asian countries established in 1997, hasn’t moved much, he argues, before making a case for countries along the Bay of Bengal to join hands to build a maritime route, which could “move all the way down to Singapore and on to Australia.” This would also give nations along the route a fresh outlook towards the Indo-Pacific, he argues.

“I look forward to a day in my lifetime when I can have breakfast in Agartala, a Hilsa lunch in Dhaka, and a late dinner in Kolkata on the same day,” he says.

But right now, he laments, the public perception in Bangladesh is that India doesn’t deliver what it promises. “China, on the other hand, pledges something today and delivers it yesterday. Partly, this is because unlike China with its deep pockets, there is more accountability in India.” The Bangladeshi perception about India is also linked to the issue of river water sharing, he says.

To understand what can be done to change some of these perceptions in both nations, and to exploit connectivity in a way that everyone benefits, watch the full interview.

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In a career spanning three decades and counting, I’ve been the foreign editor of The Telegraph, Outlook Magazine and the New Indian Express. I helped set up rediff.com’s editorial operations in San Jose and New York, helmed sify.com, and was the founder editor of India.com. My work has featured in national and international publications like the Al Jazeera Centre for Studies, Global Times and Ashahi Shimbun. My one constant over all these years, however, has been the attempt to understand rising India’s place in the world. I can rustle up a mean salad, my oil-less pepper chicken is to die for, and it just takes some beer and rhythm and blues to rock my soul.