Modi must pump ‘energy’ to save friend Hasina

| | in Oped

Knowing fully well that hiking gas prices could prove politically detrimental for the Awami League in the next election, the Hasina Govt did increase the gas price. It only indicates the precarious nature of energy crisis in Bangladesh. It is now crucial for India to ensure the pro-India Hasina Government survives the poll battle; and therefore, it should make Bangladeshis feel that the energy crisis will evaporate soon

It is a well-known fact that during Bangaledesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s forthcoming visit to New Delhi next month, the Teesta Water Treaty is set to top the agenda during discussion with her Indian counterpart. If a deal on Teesta  gets struck, it has been observed by several analysts that it would indeed help in further consolidating India-Bangladesh bilateral relations.

It has also been noted by experts that if a deal on Teesta successfully concludes, it may help Hasina to fare well in the next general elections in 2018. Considering the fact that Hasina has taken genuine efforts to take India-Bangladesh relations to a newer level, for many in India, it would perhaps be a welcome development to see the ruling party in Bangladesh to continue in power post 2018.

But it needs to be noted that mere conclusion of the Teesta Treaty is not enough. There are quite a few pressing issues in Bangladesh, which, if continued, can potentially cast a big shadow over Awami League’s electoral fortunes despite a successful Teesta deal. If one goes by media reports emanating from Bangladesh for the last few days, it is apparent that Hasina is currently receiving enormous flak from Opposition parties and the people in general due to her recent decision to increase the gas prices.

One need not be a political expert to arrive at a conclusion that hiking prices of essential goods such as gas in the run up year to elections could prove politically detrimental for the Awami League. But, knowing fully well the consequences of such actions, the Government of Bangladesh still went ahead with the decision, thereby indicating the precarious nature of energy crisis currently being faced by Bangladesh.

It is precisely at this juncture that India must consider stepping into the picture. Apart from discussing issues that Hasina may like to put across the table during her visit, India must offer its full-fledged assistance to Bangladesh in overcoming its current energy crisis.

To begin with, it would perhaps be pertinent for India to jointly announce some big ticket investments in Bangladesh’s energy sector during Hasina’s visit to New Delhi. It is the right time for India and Bangladesh to significantly scale up the levels of energy cooperation by expeditiously implementing the initiatives in the energy sector as originally identified in the joint statement between the two countries during Narendra Modi’s visit to Bangladesh in 2015.

By doing so, it may help in reassuring the people of Bangladesh that the current energy crisis is merely a short-term phenomenon and the country is on the verge of energy security in the coming years.

In addition to these initiatives, in the short-run, India must consider pro-actively intervening to help ease the burden on Bangladesh following the current energy crisis. As reported in The Economic Times dated July 18, 2016, there are new proposals being explored by both countries to enable India to scale up the volume of power exports to Bangladesh. At this juncture, it would be worthwhile for India’s Power Ministry to consider activating this mechanism.

Another report in Assam Tribune dated March 4, 2017, had indicated that Tripura too has plans to consider increasing the supply of electricity to Bangladesh from its gas fired power plants. India on its part must also carry forward the construction of an integrated grid at a war footing to enable export of additional volumes of electricity to Bangladesh.

These initiatives in the energy sector will assure the public in Bangladesh that India truly cares for the people of Bangladesh in times of its need. On the other hand, it would perhaps be worthwhile to explore for India to also consider extending monetary support to help Bangladesh bear the burden of the energy crisis. Such monetary support in turn could be utilised by Bangladesh to subsidise power and ensure lesser burden on its consumers. Additionally, if technically feasible, India must consider supplying fertilisers to Bangladesh to ease the burden on farmers in Bangladesh.

The stakes are too high for bilateral relations at this juncture. If the goodwill and cooperation is to remain on a steady course, it becomes pertinent for both India and Bangladesh to work on pragmatic issues. There is a great degree of convergence among policymakers on the roadmap for energy security in both India and Bangladesh. Energy security needs to become an important cornerstone of our bilateral relations with Bangladesh. At the policy level, this crisis must also serve as a lesson to both Bangladesh and India to think about evolving technical mechanisms and putting necessary infrastructure in place to respond to such short term contingencies.

With more focussed cooperation between India and Bangladesh, it is possible to convert these agreements into tangible outcomes in the energy sector.

(The writer is a Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Mumbai)

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