While welcoming the growth in Indo-Bangla bilateral trade, Chambers of Commerce sources are hopeful that growing economic ties between the two countries could well ensure the success of the Look East program: by way of comparison. Indo-Myanmar bilateral business, largely because of the volatility of Myanmar’s domestic politics, has not progressed smoothly in recent years. Thanks to improved regional connectivity and growing bilateral interest, the volume of trade between India’s Northeastern states and Bangladesh has gone up significantly in recent years. Present trends are positive enough to generate optimism among analysts about medium-term prospects of North East India-Bangladesh bilateral trade; they feel that the foundation of a new trade/business hub dominated by imports and exports, has finally been laid. The present phase of growth is the outcome of consistent efforts made by both Indian and Bangladeshi authorities during the past decade to explore new ways for expanding bilateral trade. The exercise fitted in well with India’s own regional Look East initiative, seeking to extend its diplomatic/economic outreach.
On the other hand, Bangladesh, faced with a growing trade imbalance, feels India could be more helpful. However, with industry and manufacturing picking up in Bangladesh in recent years, its exports have grown gradually more sophisticated. Recent Assam-based media reports indicate that the Northeastern states imported from Bangladesh taka 367 crores worth of items during 2019-20, a sharp increase from the year before when the figure was Taka 40 crore! (One Bangladeshi taka equals about 85/90 paise of the Indian rupee). The NE states exported Taka 472 crore worth of goods in 2018-19 and goods worth Taka 390 crore during 2019-20. With India granting Bangladesh transit rights to access Nepal and Bhutan through its territory, experts are hopeful that the volume of regional trade as a whole would expand gradually. As both India and Bangladesh have agreed to use rivers, roads, and railways linking both countries mutually, travel and easier movement of goods, involving the saving of both travel time and costs, has become possible.
Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina during her meetings with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had suggested that NE-based industrialists/entrepreneurs could use the Chittagong and Mongla ports for their export trade, which were geographically much nearer than the Kolkata port. The use of the Mongla port could ease the congestion and delays often experienced at Chittagong. Mongla port could earn more revenues, while Indian users could profit by saving travel time and costs, not to mention the occasional congestion at Kolkata port. India has started dispatching engineering goods and food grains to Agartala from Kolkata port, using the river routes within Bangladesh. In Bangladesh, efforts are on among entrepreneurs to ascertain the possibilities of expanding trade with Nepal and Bhutan. Travel operators and agencies are confident of a rapid expansion in tourism and related activities. Bangladesh is also keen to import power from both Nepal and Bhutan, to meet its growing domestic demand. At present, the country receives fuel supplies through a pipeline from the Bongaigaon refinery complex running through North Bengal. This may be a great opportunity for India to improve its trade ties with its Eastern and Northeastern neighbours. Given the interest of the union government in Northeast and West Bengal, this is the definite time for seeing more developmental activities in the region pushed in from the centre.