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#4394, 21 April 2014

Dhaka Discourse

India-Bangladesh: Enhancing Ties through a ‘Power Corridor’
Delwar Hossain
Department of International Relations, Dhaka University

The issue of a ‘power corridor’ has sparked a new debate in Bangladesh-India bilateral relations. Bangladesh has agreed in principle to provide India a ‘power corridor’ to help its neighbour link its north eastern and north western parts with electricity transmission lines passing through Bangladeshi territory. Bangladesh and India reached agreements on this issue during the seventh meeting of the Joint Steering Committee on Power Sector Cooperation between the two countries. It is expected that India would transmit around 6000 MW of hydro-electricity from Arunachal Pradesh to Bihar.

This is the third concrete step between the two nations to strengthen energy cooperation since the Awami League-led Grand Alliance government came to power in January in 2009 in its last term. The first inter-country power grid in South Asia was commissioned in October 2013 between Baharampur (India) and Bheramara (Bangladesh) to facilitate the transmission of 500 MW electricity from India to power-deficit Bangladesh. The second initiative came in 2013 when under a joint venture, Bangladesh and India set up a 1320 MW coal-fired power plant at Rampal Upazila in Bagerhat district.The Ramphal project was opposed by different sections in Bangladesh particularly the environmental activists who argued that the project would inflict permanent damage to the forests of Sundarbans in the nearby area.

Now with the announcement of a ‘power corridor’, Bangladesh and India have taken the issue of bilateral energy cooperation to a new level. Though it will take time to implement the project, the rationale behind the decision has been questioned in different circles. Why has Bangladesh agreed to sign this agreement? There has not been any official statement from the government about the need for signing the agreement. The Bangladeshi Power Secretary mentioned that the electricity transmission is a part of the government’s plan of promoting regional connectivity. Besides, as a proposed concrete gain for Bangladesh, India has agreed to provide 30 MW of additional electricity to ensure the import of 500 MW of electricity from India – currently, Bangladesh is able to get only 470 MW due to transmission losses under the current contract. India has also agreed to provide 100 MW of electricity to Bangladesh from Paltana power project in Tripura. It may be mentioned that Bangladesh facilitated the transportation of heavy equipment to build the Paltana plant. A 450 metre-long embankment-cum-road across the Titas River was erected to dispatch over-dimensional cargo (ODC) carrying heavy equipment to Paltana power station in Tripura from Kolkata via Brahmanbaria. It vertically cut across the river, navigation through the point snapped and a serious decline in the river flow caused silting. This caused a huge hue and cry in Bangladesh leading the matter to the apex court of Bangladesh.

One can certainly belittle Bangladeshi gains from the proposed power corridor project by comparing them to the total volume of transmission of electricity through the corridor. It is reported that the network will be able to transmit some 6,000-7,000 MW of electricity to India with huge potential for the future. As the Indian Power Secretary asserts, “Arunachal Pradesh alone has a 50,000 MW of hydroelectricity potential.” Considering the growing demand for electricity India needs to tap the unexplored natural resources of its Northeast. Bangladesh has the potential to offer multiple electricity corridors for transmission. It is highly unlikely that the government of Bangladesh would be able to justify its stance on the deal with the possibility of buying only 130 MW of electricity, which may jeopardise the entire project.

Predictably, the opposition political parties particularly the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Jamat-e-Islami criticised the initiative. In a senior BNP leader’s words, “The government’s actions show that it is incapable of negotiating with India to protect the interests of the country.” He demanded that the basis of the agreement be made public. Another senior leader of BNP argued that India would deploy its army in Bangladesh in the name of guarding its power corridor. The acting Secretary General of Bangladesh Jamat-e-Islami called upon the government to reassess its decision. The BNP and its 19-party alliance have staged protests against the decision and termed it a ‘self-suicidal move’. There is a mixed reaction in civil society. Some argue that the idea suffers from the lack of India’s political will to resolve the outstanding bilateral disputes with Bangladesh, notably water and border conflicts. It touches upon the bilateral trust deficit despite a significant improvement in relations under the Hasina regime in Bangladesh and Dr Manmohan Singh’s government in India.

Despite the reservations of the opposition political parties and flaws in the deal, the issue of a ‘power corridor’ opens up a new vista of cooperation between Bangladesh and India. The possibility of sub-regional energy cooperation could also become a reality given that a joint meeting between India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan would be held in New Delhi in May 2014. It can be a genuine step towards regional connectivity in the power sector. It also clearly demonstrates that India’s Look East Policy in its true sense would cause fault-lines with adverse consequences on the bilateral and regional fronts without having Bangladesh on board. 

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