Colombo, July 9: Bangladesh will offer Sri Lanka help in a variety of economic areas, particularly disaster preparedness and rice cultivation, during the forthcoming visit of the Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena, the Bangladesh High Commissioner in Sri Lanka, Riaz Hamidullah, said here on Friday.
Speaking to P.K.Balachandran of South Asian Monitor the envoy said that twelve to 13 agreements are expected to be signed during President Sirisena’s three-day visit to Bangladesh beginning on July 13.
Bangladesh has a lot to contribute to Sri Lanka’s economic security by sharing know how on innovative agricultural production techniques to face frequent floods, cyclones and droughts, and also manage and minimize damages due to natural disasters like flood, cyclones and droughts, Hamidullah told South Asian Monitor in an interview.
The growing Bangladesh economy (at the rate of 6% now) offers immense investment opportunities for Sri Lankan entrepreneurs. The expanding Bangladeshi middle class offers a lucrative market for Sri Lankan products, whether made in Bangladesh itself or in Sri Lanka, he said.
“If the Dhaka-Colombo-Dhaka airfare is brought down from the present US$ 720 to a reasonable and competitive level, thousands of Bangladeshis will come to Sri Lanka and spend money here as Bangladeshis are great spenders,” the High Commissioner said.
“And along with tourists will come businessmen and entrepreneurs, some of whom might be motivated to strike business deals here for mutual benefit,” he added.
Taking up disaster management or preparedness first, since it is a pressing issue in Sri Lanka, the High Commissioner said that Bangladesh has been able to greatly reduce human and cattle loss since 1990-91 by putting in an administrative structure which gets activated the moment disaster warnings are received.
The structure, which exists in every district, comprises designated officials as well as identified and trained local volunteers. These swing into action as per very detailed “Standing Orders,” Hamidullah explained.
“Bangladesh remains among the top 20 countries in the list of disaster prone countries. Disasters cannot be stopped. But we in Bangladesh have learned to live with them in a way that we lose the least,” he said.
At the grass root level, local volunteers are given an yellow jacket, a bicycle, and a torch and each volunteer is assigned a certain number of households in a defined area to take charge of. The moment a cyclone of a certain intensity is announced, these volunteers fan out to their designated areas, and urge people to evacuate to pre-built cyclone shelters with separate shelters for men and women.
“If someone refuses to move, the volunteers are allowed to beat them up to get them moving!” Hamidullah remarked to indicate the seriousness with which the task is viewed.
The disaster preparedness system has worked so well that the last cyclone “Mora” resulted only in five deaths in place of the thousands who would perish earlier, he pointed out.
Sri Lankan Interest
It was when cyclone “Mora” hit Sri Lanka and hundreds died, that Colombo began looking to Bangladesh for a model to meet the menace. Colombo had finally realized that “disaster management” is useless in the absence of “disaster preparedness.”
“The Sri Lankan Minister for Disaster Management will soon be visiting Bangladesh’s coastal areas to see how the system based on the Standing Orders works,” the High Commissioner said.
Advances in Communication
The tremendous development of communication in Bangladesh has also helped manage the scourge of cyclones. Bangladesh stands 10 th. in terms of the mobile phone population in the world. And over 60 of the 180 million people are online mostly through smart phones.
The rapid absorption of communication technology plays no small part in meeting disasters and also promoting enthusiasm for economic development, Hamidullah pointed out.
23,000 multi-media classrooms dot the country’s secondary schools and 14,000 more will be set up in the primary schools sector. The rapid spread of ICT has resulted in Bangladesh being among countries with the largest pool of ICT freelancers.
While the youth naturally take to technology, the teachers, belonging to an older generation, may have a tendency to lag behind. But Bangladesh is not allowing this to happen. Around 150,000 secondary and high school teachers are registered with the on-line “Teachers’ Portal” to share 80,000 contents prepared and posted by other registered teachers in a unique distant learning system for adults. The goal is to enroll 900,000 teachers in this portal, Hamidullah said.
Bangladesh has over 4500 Union Digital Centers which supply five million services and has reportedly helped save US$ 1 billion since 2010. There are now 10,000 digital entrepreneurs, many of whom render valuable services to the poor in the rural areas.
The High Commissioner pointed out that disaster preparedness in Bangladesh has had a role in effecting agricultural innovations also.
“Farmers in flood prone areas are now using a variety of rice which can remain submerged without getting damaged for as many as seven days. They also use a rice variety which can withstand drought,” Hamidullah said.
“Since the Northern districts are drought prone, Bangladesh’s rice bowl has been shifted to the Southern districts. Famers in the dry zone are now switching to crops like maize which are edible and can also be used in making cattle feed which helps sustain animal husbandry,” he added.
Bangladesh can help Sri Lanka attain self sufficiency in rice as it has itself done so, Hamidullah said.
Bangladesh’s food production had increased from 10 million tons in 1972-73 to 39 million tons in 2015/16, although arable land had decreased from 9.8 million hectares to 8.27 million hectares due to urbanization and other developments.
Bangladesh has developed saline resistant varieties that could be cultivated in coastal areas, the envoy said.
According to the FAO, Bangladesh is the 5 th. largest producer of horticultural items in the world, and is the 4 th. largest in mango cultivation. In inland fisheries, it is 4 th. or 5 th.
“We have been able to reduce the use of water in rice cultivation by half – from 3500 liters per kg of rice to 1800 liters. This technique can be used in the dry zones of Sri Lanka like the Northern Province. In fact, the Eastern Province is going to send 30 farmers to Bangladesh to study rice cultivation. When former Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga visited Bangladesh in May, she showed immense interest in the agricultural sector and visited our agricultural research institutes,” the High Commissioner said.
Since Sri Lanka is keen on using renewable and environmentally non-destructive sources of energy, Bangladesh could contribute its knowhow and technology in solar energy, as more than 5 million Bangladeshi homes use solar energy, Hamidullah said.
Low Trade and Investment
The low volume of trade and investment in Sri Lanka-Bangladesh relations is worrying, particularly because opportunities are enormous, the envoy said.
Up to April 2017, bilateral trade was only US$ 79.8 million. Bangladesh’s exports to Sri Lanka amounted to US$ 36.6 million, and imports from it was worth US$ 42.3 million.
Bangladesh exports pharmaceuticals, jute products, woven garments, light engineering goods, knit ware, furnace oil, leather, and accumulator batteries. Sri Lankan sends textiles and textile fabrics, mineral products, chemical products, plastic and rubber products, vegetables and live animals and animal products.
“Bangladesh would like to sell more of its well known pharmaceutical products but for reasons unknown, there is resistance to their entry in Sri Lanka. Generally speaking Sri Lankan tariffs are too high for Bangladeshi exporters,” Hamidullah said.
Opportunities in Bangladesh
However, Bangladesh has been a favored destination for many big ticket Sri Lankan investors like Hemas, Hayleys, Aitkin Spence, Laughs, Ceylon Biscuits and Maliban. The Komarika hair oil is very popular there, Hamidullah pointed out.
“Sri Lankans find Bangladesh very welcoming. Over 40,000 Sri Lankans are working there, remitting money back home,” he said.
But he regretted that there is resistance in Sri Lanka to importing Bangladeshi labor even though the construction industry is crying for such imports. He pointed out that developing countries import labor to fill critical shortages.
“They could be brought here on specific, time-bound contracts. Like seasonal migration of agricultural labor, there could be short term migration of industrial labor. But whenever population mobility is taken up in investment negotiations, there is unease on the Sri Lankan side,” the High Commissioner pointed out.
“The possibilities we see are enormous. Regional development organizations have done excellent ground work for cooperation between South Asian countries, and have even won governmental sanction. But when it comes to implementation at the national level, there is reticence about sharing,” he regretted.
(The featured image at the top is that of Riaz Hamidullah, Bangladeshi High Commissioner in Sri Lanka)