Bay of Bengal deals, a cynosure for SL – Riaz Hamidullah
By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan
High Commissioner of the People's Republic of Bangladesh, Riaz Hamidullah, speaks to Ceylon Today on various issues, common to both countries. A passionate person on development diplomacy, previously holding posts in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and the European Union (EU), engaging in economic and regional development, he tells Bangladeshis are self-designed and culturally don't compete with other countries. However, Bangladesh has identified the potentials that both countries could share like never before, and is geared to strike new 'Bay of Bengal' trade deals and MoUs when President Maithripala Sirisena visits Bangladesh on 13 July 2017. 'All is possible,' he says stressing that the island nation 'must' consider lowering its tariffs and enhancing the incentives offered to investors, and adds that compared to other regional players, Bangladesh is pushed to a corner with high tariffs and he is clueless as to why.
High Commissioner of Bangladesh Riaz Hamidullah notes that it's time for Sri Lanka to wake up to do business with them.
He also points out that it's time for Sri Lanka to come to a mutual understanding with Bangladesh as they are the home for 40,000 Sri Lankans who are currently living in Bangladesh, doing business.
There are numerous areas to work on and this includes important subjects such as energy, transport and commerce, he notes.
After Sri Lanka ended the war, Bangladesh has been a silent supporter and even at the UNHRC, they abstained from voting when it came to resolutions against Sri Lanka. Yet, they have not reached Sri Lanka to tap its potentials and trade offers in a big way. He says that is because Bangladeshis are willing to support only when they are embraced too.
They don't like doing business undercutting or at others' expense. "It has been our culture and nature and we don't like competing or running a race with other countries as we know the market dynamics and we move with it."
The obstacle the Bangladeshi investors have in terms of doing business is that the exports and the tariff structure Sri Lanka offers them is steep compared to its offers to India and Pakistan.
What is extended to them is subjected to a higher tariff, the envoy says.
He adds that they are holding discussions on having a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) and will decide whether it would be the traditional FTA or adopting a new form.
Noting that a large Sri Lankan community is doing business in Dhaka and this number may grow manifold, he hints that it is all the more necessary that the two countries look at the spectrum of tariff and other facilitation in order to take business to another level.
Once these are done, Sri Lankan consumers could get quality products at competitive prices he said and assured that market will automatically take its course.
Sri Lanka is strategically positioned in the East-West sea route, and Bangladesh has also held talks to deepen maritime connectivity.
In terms of geography, the connectivity between Sri Lankan and Bangladeshi ports (Chittagong) is vital.
Currently, almost the entire Dhaka transshipment is done through Singapore.
"Our thinking is that if we get the right kind of incentives and facilitation we can ask our exporters and importers, to shift their cargo to a very logical port like Colombo."
According to him, at this point, 20 per cent of Bangladeshi transshipment cargo, particularly bound to the West, is calling on Colombo Port, which means it is about 8 per cent of the cargo handled in Colombo.
He says they are close to concluding a Coastal Shipping Agreement during President Sirisena's visit and says that once that is signed, there will be an MoU between Sri Lanka Shipping Corporation and Bangladesh Shipping Corporation. He also points out that once the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) is done, vessels will come in line to share a large part of the economy.
He also notes the maritime connectivity would be a game-changer.
He says talks were held with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe on converting the Bay of Bengal zone of growth.
He explains that the Bay of Bengal has a criss-crossing maritime economy in the whole Bay, and that project is a new kind of production economics creating a new kind of supply route. He points out that India is also engaged in the Bay of Bengal.
Bangladesh has annual foreign trade earning of about US$ 60 billion and exports till June 2017 was US$ 35 million, with 80 per cent of it being garments.
He says they are not 'pushing' Sri Lanka, but urges the island nation to "think of the gains as we know the math".
He notes that if more shipment comes though Sri Lanka port then it's a new beginning.
The two governments are set to sign 15 major MoUs and he notes that it should not be limited to a piece of paper as they have experienced in the past where major MoUs with Sri Lanka had drained down with no action.
This time they are also looking into the areas of digital technology, higher education, agricultural sector, and maritime interests including coastal shipping agreements under which they would sign agreements on Customs cooperation, double tax avoidance and investment promotion protection agreement. "These three will lay the foundation for a support of a FTA or a deeper economic cooperation."
Bangladesh is also looking at connecting the two Boards of Investments (BoIs) and the Central Bank to focus on the future of the economy.
Braving natural disasters
Bangladesh is rather well-known for natural disasters, mainly the cyclonic conditions they face now and then that have not only swept away the country's economy but also killing millions of people.
They have come to terms with this to live with them and adopted several sustainable measures. They have lately noticed their neighbouring country Sri Lanka facing a similar situation with natural disasters.
High Commissioner Hamidullah says they are beginning to understand the core issues related to natural disasters that Sri Lankans face and there are ways and means to deal with them to reduce the impact.
Recalling, how in 1970, over half a million people were swept away in the worst cyclone in the world history and by 1987 they learnt how to live with it.
Bangladesh is the last active delta with three rivers that carry over 20 per cent silt of the entire world river systems in a year, he notes.
The World River Institution has collected the satellite images of the nature of the challenge where silt flowing from the Himalayas through Nepal and India plunges heavily into the Bangladeshi rivers. The worst hit is the cattle, the livelihood of the Bangladeshis. The envoy notes they have time to react to floods, watching the floods recede, but that is not the case with the cyclones.
When the recent cyclone hit Bangladesh nearly half a million people who could be directly hit by it, were safe and the High Commissioner notes that the risk areas spotted in Sri Lanka are hardly densely populated.
"What we do is send a strong notice on the radio which goes viral and signals used to highlight the risk coming closer. Then from nowhere around 60,000 volunteers appear in the coastal areas in luminous jackets, urging people to vacate the place immediately. Some even use baton charge to evacuate people. The old and the weak are carried away by the volunteers to safe places already earmarked. "Purely dedicated volunteers do it out of zeal."
Stressing that for the last 30 years they have used prototype cyclone shelters which are put up on stilts which are primary schools and only when cyclone hits, these are turned into shelters and even cattle heads can creep in. Such deep mobilization helps save lives, he notes.
These are possible when government works with local governments and NGOs. "It's a community project and a similar training is what you need first."
Pointing out that Bangladesh has observed and understood their socio economics and topography, they know the dynamics and what to do next.
"The 72-hour mobilization is an easy way for Sri Lanka to adapt to challenges of sudden busts of rainfall during the monsoon."
The other steps he notes are that the disaster prevention and management, the immediate post disaster rehabilitation should be pre-planned.
Sri Lanka is at the moment hit by public health challenges after the great floods and destruction to the agri-business but has not been prepared to face it. "Challenges begin when there is no livelihood."
The diplomat has urged Foreign Minister Ravi Karunanayake to visit the country to have a firsthand experience about meeting challenges. He notes that people need to know and live with it and learn to make them understand natural catastrophes.
He also mentions about community radio that helps transmit the message faster.
"It's a modest investment that has a catchment of 225 square km, an area where one million people live in Bangladesh," he notes.
He says Bangladesh's story accounts to agriculture and they have focused not only on large agricultural farmers, but innovative small-scale farmers who are around 70 per cent. "The success story lies with them and they have sustained well and are adventurers in innovations transforming traditional farming practices that are scaling upwards now in Bangladesh and that's' what is now paying off to mitigate poverty," he notes.
Variety of rice
Bangladesh has rice varies that can withstand salinity, a rice that can sustain without water for 15 to 20 days and also rice that could sustain floods and be submerged in the floods for nearly seven days. The genetics of these rice varieties is still not known.
To the question why haven't Bangladesh approached Sri Lanka like other countries to do business, he notes that they are focussed on domestic affairs and want more success stories for their people.
Currently Bangladesh agriculture growth is higher than the population growth and he notes, "That development grew silently."
"None helped us in the rice research, but Minister of Agriculture Duminda Dissanayake has come up with a comprehensive cooperation with us."
He notes that President Sirisena will be visiting the agricultural farms and calls it a 'game-changer' for Sri Lanka if deals are struck.
Human Rights issues
Similar to Sri Lanka, Dhaka too has been cautioned about Human Rights violations by the global community and the High Commissioner says the terms abduction, torture camp, missing persons and attack on media are terms hardly used in Bangladesh and against their culture. However, these terms are used only in the vernacular or English media, he notes.
"We have a strong print and electronic media and we wonder if they are sort of responding in a responsible way."
What he says is that the leadership of the country and society should correct the wrongdoings and any of those claims revealed by the media, there is no government intervention.
"Two decades of democratic governance prevails and it is simply not possible to have such atrocities committed."
According to him, the media are buttressed by the civil society, but there are some great civil societies in Dhaka too. He minces no words pointing out that they also sometimes cross their lines, but still there is no imposition and not possible to carry out extrajudicial killings or abductions.
"Dhaka has been acting responsibly at every wrongdoing and use the public machinery to get to the bottom of it."
The National Human Rights Commission, Information Commission and the Anti-Corruption Commission back each other and no one can get away from the law of the land, he points out.
Expressing his views on Sri Lanka's human rights issues he notes the circumstances and scenario are different and both countries appreciate each others' challenges.
To him no country should suggest what is desirable for a country. In socio-economic terms we can appreciate them, but never on domestic affairs, he notes.
The killing of the Dhaka blogger by suspected religious extremists, he notes that they are monitoring the area and points out that various bloggers are mushrooming with nasty reactions projected and the people have expressed their displeasure.
"There should be free speech, but with responsibility. Some people tend to creep into others' domain hurting their beliefs. We do not think one can be killed or condemned to death. Over the incident society responded bitterly and it's the same in other parts of the world", he said.
"Religious extremism is a new challenge. We need to interact with schools, colleges, and families on this issue and remain engaged with the youth," he said.
On the attack last year by ISIS-linked group he says they were shell-shocked. The group was indoctrinated, but he disavowed the claim that Bangladesh is a hub for religious fanatics as the US points out.
The wide spread accusation is that ISIS grouping in Bangladesh is protected by the ruling party, but the High Commissioner points out that there is no ISIS base in Bangladesh. Their modus operandi has taken roots in Dhaka. "We have no evidence and the enforcement agencies across the border in the region are on the vigil. We along with the partners from the West sense that there are remnants of that radical and extremist group which may have some sort of friendship with others who are regrouping themselves, encroaching Bangladesh and that is a continuous challenge."
The top diplomat says a few months back when the National Security Advisers of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) that met in Goa, India stood with the member countries to combat extremism and terrorism.
Bangladesh is going to host the next BIMSTEC and will not allow anything to be swept under the carpet, he notes.
He says that intelligence sharing countries have never seen eye to eye, but now they have put aside those old norms. Now there is openness and commitment and BIMSTEC has illustrated it.
To him appreciating each other has transcended to the whole South Asian region and unlike before, no country across the border remains silent watching their neighbours suffer.
Dhaka, he says, has occasionally heeded to requests and assured to offer legal assistance in extraditing criminals, nab them whenever requested despite the absence of instruments and mechanisms to facilitate such requests. On exceptional basis they are ready to do it, he points out.
Is SAARC dying?
High Commissioner Hamidullah questions whether the South Asian identity is lost and wonders whether we have that tag yet. He notes that the South East Asia despite having differences has come of age.
He spoke at length about why SAARC is seeing a 'natural death' or on the verge of disappearing.
Bangladesh High Commissioner says SAARC during its hay day between 2005 and 2011 suddenly started playing a blame game. What are we blaming about? SAARC has been about political leadership on the line of ministries, foreign affairs and SAARC Secretariat and it means cooperating with each other on skills and other areas of interest in the region.
He points out that there should be understanding in business and for investors have open arms welcoming them so that all would benefit. "We must learn to appreciate the complexities in food and culture and still be connected."
(Pic by Manjula Dayawansa)
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