This year marks a new beginning for India and Bangladesh, not least with the two countries signing a series of agreements to manage their common border. The March agreement on the non-use of lethal weapons by the Border Security Force (BSF), the Coordinated Border Management Plan signed in July, and the Protocol to the Agreement Concerning the Demarcation of Land Boundary signed in September are a few of the accords that are expected to transform the India-Bangladesh border from a border management nightmare to a zone of peace and prosperity. All these agreements are the result of a cooperative framework – the cornerstone of India’s approach to managing its borders.
One of the most important initiatives undertaken as part of this framework was the setting up of bilateral institutional interactions to address and resolve various challenges along the borders. These interactions take place at the national, regional and local levels between ministers and officials of the concerned ministries, as well as between officers of the border guarding forces, at regular intervals. As far as the India-Bangladesh border is concerned, these interactions have been effective not only in sensitizing each country to the perceived threats and challenges posed by the other, but also in providing a platform to discuss various measures for improving management practices. Several delicate and intractable issues, which had been a source of tension between India and Bangladesh, are in the process of being resolved through this cooperative framework.
One recurrent issue had been the BSF personnel’s firing upon, and the resultant deaths of, Bangladeshi citizens transgressing the border. While the Bangladeshi side used to argue that BSF personnel were killing innocent people, the BSF would assert that its personnel were firing at smugglers and hostile illegal migrants. After much discussion and deliberation, common ground was found in the form of the BSF agreeing to use non-lethal weapons to warn potential illegal migrants or smugglers twice before resorting to the use of firearms. The implementation of this agreement has reduced the number of people killed along the border. According to the BSF, so far this year only seven people have been killed in such incidents, in contrast to the 55 deaths in 2009.
Another significant outcome of the cooperative framework was the signing of the Coordinated Border Management Plan on July 30. The aim of this plan is to ‘enhance the quality of border management as well as ensure cross-border security’ by addressing challenges to the peace and sanctity of the border posed by human and drug trafficking, gun running and cross border crimes. Under the plan, India and Bangladesh have agreed to conduct joint coordinated patrols in areas susceptible to trafficking and other crimes based on shared intelligence inputs. Such joint coordinated patrols by the border guarding forces of the two countries have already started in select areas along predetermined routes.
Rampant smuggling along the border is yet another border management challenge that both countries are seeking to curb by agreeing to reopen border haats (marketplaces). Before 1972, border haats used to help people residing on either side of the border to trade their surplus produce in return for essential items. But these haats were shut down during Bangladesh’s war of liberation, which not only led to economic hardship for the people, but also fuelled widespread smuggling across the border. Realising the need for border haats, India and Bangladesh decided to re-open two such haats as part of a pilot project. The first of these opened at Kalaichar-Baliamari (West Garo Hills-Kurigram) on July 23. It will be held once a week, and it is expected that trade in this haat alone will total $20 million a year. A second border haat will be opened at Ballat-Lauwaghar. If the project proves successful, more such haats will be opened.
The most significant of the challenges facing ties, namely the border dispute, has also been resolved through consultations. India and Bangladesh had established Joint Boundary Working Groups I & II in 2001 in order to discuss the issue of undermarcated areas and enclaves and adverse possessions. These groups met four times over ten years and came up with a mechanism to resolve the dispute, culminating in the Protocol to the Agreement concerning the Demarcation of Land Boundary between India and Bangladesh on September 6 of this year.
Although the intent was to resolve all outstanding border disputes, as well as deal with various challenges to border management, through consultations and deliberations, intermittent strains in the relationship and political uncertainties in Bangladesh had precluded a resolution. However, with the change in political leadership in Bangladesh, bilateral relations returned to an even keel and created a conducive atmosphere for resolving outstanding border disputes.
The new initiatives taken by India and Bangladesh have ushered a new beginning in the bilateral relationship as well as in the management of their common border. Yet, these are only baby steps. The success of the initiatives and projects undertaken so far will depend entirely on the way in which they are implemented on the ground. In addition, the agreement on the demarcation of the land boundary has generated protests in Assam against the alleged surrender of territory to Bangladesh.
All this means that much will depend on how successfully the Indian government implements the demarcation agreement. But growing trade and commerce between India and Bangladesh will inevitably result in the large scale circulation of goods and people across the border, which will demand a border that is soft, yet properly regulated and backed by sound infrastructure. India and Bangladesh need to cooperate to create a border that not only enhances trade efficiency, but that is also secure.