Going beyond a phone call

One of the first things that Biplab Kumar Deb did even before taking oath as the new chief minister of Tripura was make a phone call to Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and seek her cooperation for the development of the landlocked northeastern state.

Indian states share land borders with six countries—China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar—and relations with other countries lie largely in the domain of the external affairs ministry. But the fact that the chief minister-designate of one state called up the head of government of a neighbouring country before starting his journey as the top administrator of the state clearly underlines the very special relationship between Tripura and Bangladesh. It was this relationship which Sheikh Hasina pointed to when she mentioned how Tripura helped Bangladesh’s emergence as an independent country in 1971 by sheltering thousands of refugees and providing arms training to freedom fighters during the liberation war.

The telephone conversation between Biplab Kumar Deb and Sheikh Hasina goes beyond symbolism of a talk between two next-door neighbours. It is BJP’s first stint in power in Tripura and the 46-year-old Tripura chief minister is a green horn in administration. Deb has a great challenge at hand in terms of giving top priority to development of the state—especially setting up of job-generating projects—that has remained neglected for much of the 25-year rule of the CPI(M)-led Left rule.

Deb is acutely conscious of the fact that the tardy pace of development and lack of new jobs for the youth were some of the main reasons for the defeat of the Left in recent assembly elections in Tripura. So Deb needs to deliver on the development front, particularly since the development narrative was the main component of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s campaign in the run-up to the elections to corner the Left. Understandably, the expectations, especially of the youth of Tripura, are very high from the BJP government.

The geography of Tripura makes the state’s development and security intimately linked to cooperation with Bangladesh, especially in terms of road, rail and waterway connectivity. Deb’s predecessor Manik Sarkar realised this. He, along with the federal Indian government, succeeded in enlisting the help of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government to use the territory of Bangladesh and bring in machinery and overhead equipment for the Palatana power project in Tripura in much shorter time. In return, 100MW of electricity flowed in from that project to power-starved Bangladesh.

Last monsoon when Tripura’s abysmal road conditions cut the state off from the rest of India, it was Bangladesh which had responded positively to India’s request for land transit to ferry emergency food and medicine supplies to the landlocked state. Again, it was the Sheikh Hasina government’s dispensation that helped India get fast internet connectivity through Tripura for the entire northeastern part of India some years ago. That was an event inaugurated by both Narendra Modi and Sheikh Hasina through video conferencing, opening up a new vista of cooperation in the digital sector. But Bangladesh’s gesture cannot be a substitute for Tripura’s own efforts for internal progress. The new state government must, therefore, focus on toning up the physical infrastructure and attract investments in the information technology sector.

Although Sarkar failed to address the issue of infrastructure within Tripura and also unemployment which BJP exploited to the hilt electorally, he must be given credit for ending the insurgency problem in the state and ensuring peace for the last two decades—realising security must precede development.

Geography severely constricts Tripura’s ability to get private entrepreneurs from mainland India in the industrial and services sectors. As a result, the state has remained agrarian and economically distressed. Lack of industries and services sector progress means that the state’s revenue generation through taxes and duties has remained very small—not enough to go for major investments from the state government in any area. Over the years, it has not been able to mobilise resources internally to expand its physical infrastructure and the services sector.

Modi, who attended the swearing in of Deb as chief minister, has promised help to meet Tripura’s needs. Now that BJP is in power both at the Centre and in the state at the same time, the latter must seize the opportunity to prioritise development and ensure flow of funds from the Centre.

If Tripura’s geography has remained a limitation as far as its connectivity with mainland India is concerned, the same has given it an advantage in another area: its position as a gateway to southeastern Bangladesh, especially Chittagong and Mongla ports, and Southeast Asia. This would fit in well with India’s growing outreach to Southeast Asia through the India-Myanmar-Thailand highway project, the Asian highway and the multi-modal transport project being undertaken by India in Myanmar. That is why strengthening road, rail and river connectivity between Tripura and Bangladesh should brook no further delay. A passenger bus service between Agartala and Kolkata is operational and the ongoing Agartala-Akhaura rail link project should be expedited.

Tripura also has an abundance of natural gas reserves which can be shared with Bangladesh and brought to other parts of India through a pipeline opening up opportunities for investment, including possibly from third countries, in upstream and downstream sectors of the energy sector. It is not merely grandiose but a highly achievable vision given the political will on both sides of the border. There is no reason why this cannot happen given the excellent relations between India and Bangladesh at present. Because enhanced cooperation between Tripura and Bangladesh is a win-win proposition for both.