Nepal and Bangladesh have many things in common, including food, cultural ethos, geographical conditions and language to some extent. Bangladesh is merely 27 kilometres away from Nepal’s eastern border. Both are the founding members of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and BIMSTEC, the two regional organisations. Relations between the two South Asian neighbours are marked by deep friendship and cooperation extending at the people’s level. In addition, the bilateral ties are manifested in mutual cooperation in trade, cultural exchange and tourism promotion.
RSS reporter Narayan Dhungana talked to Nepal’s ambassador to Bangladesh, Dr Bansidhar Mishra in Dhaka on January 26 on a range of topics. Excerpts of the interview:
How do you assess the relations between Nepal and Bangladesh?
The relations have been warm, cordial and close ever since Bangladesh emerged as an independent nation. Nepal is the seventh country to give recognition to Bangladesh. Bangladesh which attained independence on December 16, 1971 established diplomatic ties with Nepal in 1972. Our two countries have similar culture, food and traditions. Nepali and Bengali languages have many common words. The environment and topography of Bangladesh is also similar to that of Nepal’s Tarai region. Bangladesh is at a distance of just 27 kilometresfrom Nepal’s eastern border. The roadway that is within India is 37 kilometres away. Despite the closeness of our relations, the frequency of exchange of high-level visits has not been to the expected level. The kind of people-to-people relations, the extent of trade and business and other exchanges that should have been there between the two countries has not happened.
The reasons for lack of exchange of visits?
May attention was drawn when I arrived here as to why the exchanges between the two countries which enjoy problem-free ties were weak. When I delved into the reasons for this, my reading is that it is because of the inconvenience related to connectivity. We have regular air connectivity but it is not adequate. Before, there were three or four flights and it became confined to only one after some time. Now, there are two flights daily. How far can two flights enhance the connectivity with a country having a population of 170 million? Air travel is not affordable for all people. So, roadway is important for this category of people but they need Indian visa. There are some problems in this. Bangladeshis get multiple visas to go to India but when they want to enter Nepal from there, their visas are cancelled and they are asked to take transit visa. Because of this, there are instances of many Bangladeshis who want to visit Nepal being turned away from the border by India.
The second problem is related to the ‘motor vehicle agreement’ not coming into effect. Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan and India had agreed in 2016 in Thimpu to ink a ‘motor vehicle agreement’. The programme could not move ahead as Bhutan backed off from this agreement. Now, it is being mooted that three countries except Bhutan should make the agreement and operate motor vehicles. It is hoped this proposal will make some progress. It will facilitate much in bringing tourists to Nepal. There can be no two opinions that the number of Bangladeshi visitors going to Nepal will definitely increase if this agreement was made. Other things should also be taken together with this. The topics of railway and waterway are also important in the present context.
Is there the possibility of linking Nepal and Bangladesh by railway and waterway?
Definitely there is this possibility. The feasibility of railway connectivity should also be pursued. This possibility has also been becoming clear. Jogbani could be connected to Biratnagar. It only remains to be managed. Railway service is being operated from Panchagadh of Bangladesh to Kakarvitta of Nepal via New Jalpaiguri. Railway connectivity could be linked in this way. There are other places like this which are near to Nepal to expand rail connectivity. One can enter Bangladesh and transport goods on a single train. Discussions are on in this regard as well. It is necessary to implement the agreements after signing them.
Besides railway transportation, there is also the possibility of water transport. All our rivers join the Ganges. The same Ganges River enters Bangladesh as the Padma River. India has been conducting its trade using the Ganges and the Padma waterway reaching the Mangla and Chittagong ports. Things will be easy for us as well once we are connected to the Ganges. Likewise, we have been stressing on expanding the regional air connectivity from Biratnagar, Bhadrapur and other areas of Nepal.
What’re your plans on practical implementation of the connectivity network?
We are seriously working for that. Incumbent Railway Minister of Bangladesh was present when we marked the beginning of Visit Nepal Year 2020 here on January 7. He has pledged to send Director of Railway Department to Nepal. Efforts are ongoing; I guess progress will happen.
How is the trend of Bangladeshi visiting to Nepal?
In 2018, only 26,000 Bangladeshis visited Nepal despite such a huge number of population here. The number of visitors is almost similar to that in 2019 as well. That’s too less. In Visit Nepal Year, the government has planned to receive 72,000 Bangladeshi visitors. But, our efforts are to cross the number by 100,000. The number of visitors is low due to problem in connectivity network. Only the high-end tourists prefer to travel by plane but middle-class and others use the road networks. More Bangladeshi tourists can travel from the land routes.
There are almost 40 million people in North-West Rangapur and Rajshahi Division. As Nepal’s eastern region is close to Bangladesh, some can visit Nepal and return home in the same day. The visits will increase if the transportation was eased from such regions.
And, for what purposes Nepalis visit Bangladesh?
In current context, Nepalis arrive in Bangladesh for medical education. The number is 4,000 plus now. After that, Nepalis are here for agriculture and engineering education. Few others come for visit and trade as well.
The visit from Nepal is also less. Nepalis also can make investment in joint venture here. Binod Chaudhary has already started investment in noodles. Likewise, the capitalists from here have huge potentials to invest in Nepal also.
The Visit Nepal is ongoing. What are the steps taken from the Nepal Embassy to send Bangladeshis to Nepal?
We began Visit Nepal Year here in Bangladesh on January 7 and a grand programme was held with the participation of almost 400 people from different walks of life here. We made digital presentation; organized photo exhibition, and performed cultural shows. We have named three esteemed Bangladeshis as the goodwill ambassadors for Visit Nepal Year. One of them is MA Mohit–the first Bangladeshi national to scale Mt Everest. Mohit has climbed Mt Everest twice. Mohit visits Nepal twice a year in group. And, the other is a famous singer Meharin and the last one is a very popular cine artiste of Bangladesh.
We have planned to organise events in different places with their participation. Also, we have planned to hold speeches and other competitive tournaments. We also arranged a goodwill trip for 10 Bangladeshi journalists to Nepal. They have been writing about Nepal in their respective media outlets. Likewise, we have planned to make short documentaries about Nepal and screen them.
Bangladeshi President Mohammad Abdul Hamid made official visit to Nepal in last November. How the Bangladesh citizens have taken it?
The citizen of Bangladesh have taken the visit very important and positive as the visit of the Head of the nation of Bangladesh was made after 37 years. President Hamid visited different places of Nepal including Pokhara and Bhaktapur that has made great impact to Bangladesh. President’s Nepal visit has helped to increase Bangladeshi people’s desire to visit Nepal and attract towards Nepal. Such-type of visit should be held continuously. Minister for Foreign Affairs, Pradeep Kumar Gyawali is visiting Bangladesh in February in this connection. The Speaker has been invited to participate in birth anniversary ceremony of Father of the Nation of Bangladesh. There would be high-level visit due to this and such visit would take our relations to a new height. We have to move ahead in order to make a stride by resolving some exiting problems.
There are four things we have to do now. Connectivity is the first thing and trade is the second one. Energy is in the first number in the trade. We can give ‘green energy’ to Bangladesh. Providing renewable energy means hydropower. Third one is tourism. Organising publicity programmes by resolving problems of visa and connectivity is the main issue. It is necessary to exchange visit and relations between Nepal and Bangladesh in a regular basis. We should utilize the technology as Bangladesh is very fast in it and has made very long journey on it. The fourth thing is good trade. We can supply coffee, tea, ginger, cardamom, fruits, vegetables and acrylic yarn to Bangladesh. There is a high demand of acrylic yarn here.
What is the progress about the issue of purchasing Nepal’s energy by Bangladesh?
The highest progress made between Nepal and Bangladesh is the energy sector. In the past, problem had surfaced how to bring power via India. Now the problems have been resolved after India agreed to use its land to bring power, produced in Nepal, to Bangladesh, which is the big achievement. Bangladesh has signed agreement to invest in Nepal’s hydropower sector and purchase the power. Similarly, Bangladesh has already made written agreement to buy 500 Megawatt power from power project of Nepal, which is being constructed by Indian hydropower company.
Is there a situation Bangladesh can use power produced in Nepal from this year?
There is no situation to guarantee this but what I can say is that Bangladesh has been using some amount of power that is produced by different hydropower projects of Nepal. This has made it possible.
Nepal organised the Investment Conference last year. Was the event helpful in attracting business community in Bangladesh to invest in Nepal?
The Investment Conference has created/ enabled a positive atmosphere which needs publicity. At present, Nepal offers an atmosphere for investment: both on joint venture or at personal level. We have got words for support to boost up the investment level in Nepal. Possibilities are felt close. I have sensed interests of business community to invest in Nepal. Trade is expected to rise.
What is the sector of priority of Bangladesi business people for investment?
First, they seem more attracted towards the hydropower sector. Second, some (probable investors) are still in the study phase. They have expressed interest in juice, biscuits and agro-based productions as well. They have yet to decide the area of investment in Nepal. But, energy seems to be of their priority.
Some students met here have complained of difficulties in bringing money from Nepal, how much are you aware of it?
Some issues remain. We are discussing about it. There are problems in sending money here from Nepal by tour operators and in money exchange through a banking system. We are serious about the problem. Efforts are going to find out a solution to the issue. Similarly, the visa issue is also our concern. In the past, (Nepali) students were given visa only for six months in Bangladesh. Now, there is no situation. Talks are going to give a four-year visa once. Besides that, some minor problems persist. Efforts are on to resolve them.
In your views, what should Nepal learn from Bangladesh?
This is the important question. Once upon a time, Bangladesh was hit by famine. The deaths of people due to hunger were frightening. Floods and hurricanes are common phenomena in Bangladesh. A separate ministry has been formed to deal with the disaster management and response issues. The country has been self-sufficient on food production and has started exporting food. It has already moved upward to the status of a middle-income country from a least developed country. These are the things that Nepalis should learn from here. Maize crop can be grown in three seasons here. Why this is not possible in our country? It may be possible in Tarai. If we visit the Nepal-Banlgadesh transit points right now, we see the export of maize and potatoes to Nepal on a large scale. How did they (Bangladesh) make a stride in agricultural prosperity should be our learning. They do fishing and vegetable farming at the same plot. The use of technology has been highly promoted as the slogan for ‘digital Bangladesh’ has been internalised. They have now their own satellite (Bangabandhu-1). It has introduced a law to make television channels obliged for using the domestic satellite. We can learn about a role of applied technology in bringing social changes here. Exchanges at the educational and research level would be helpful in mutual learning. (After returning from Dhaka)
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