Colombo, June 13: Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena is currently on a path breaking visit to Bangladesh. The three-day visit promises to refresh a lack luster relationship, add vigor to it, and also signal a paradigm shift in South Asian economic ties, writes P.K.Balachandran in Daily Express.
Indications are that Sri Lanka will grasp the many things Bangladesh has to offer in agriculture, especially rice cultivation under adverse climatic conditions, disaster preparedness, and the use IT for education and economic growth.
Sirisna is accompanied by a 73-member delegation including representatives of 40 private sector companies. He will oversee the signing of ten agreements on a variety of areas.
Bangladesh officials said that the agreements relate to cooperation in coastal shipping; agriculture; education; investment; information and communication technology; and cooperation between the two Central Banks, foreign service institutes, think-tanks – Bangladesh Institute of International Strategic Studies and Sri Lanka’s Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute of International Relations and Strategic Studies KIIRSS. There will be agreements relating to radio, TV and films also.
Agreements for cooperation between two standards testing institutions, news agencies, Chittagong BGMEA Fashion Institute and Sri Lanka Textile and Apparel Institute, are also envisaged. Sirisena will attend a business dialogue before leaving Dhaka on Saturday.
The bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina will take place on Friday.
The two-way trade is only US $80 million, but there is potential to expand the market. Bangladesh is in talks with Sri Lanka for a free trade agreement or FTA.
The Bangladesh High Commissioner in Colombo M Riaz Hamidullah earlier in a media interview suggested Sri Lankan investors look at Bangladesh. He said since Sri Lanka is a small country with a population of only 20 million, expansion of businesses here is difficult. Therefore, Sri Lankan businessmen and entrepreneurs should look to invest in a bigger country like Bangladesh.
What Bangladesh Has To Offer
Ties between Sri Lanka and Bangladesh have thus far remained at a low level because both had been struggling to contain internal political problems and build their economies. At any rate, intra-South Asian trade has been extremely poor except for bilateral trade between India and individual South Asian countries.
Nevertheless, even as far back as the 1980s, some Sri Lankan firms like the Kundanmals moved some of their investments to Bangladesh, where the security situation was better than in Sri Lanka and labor too was cheaper.
Although those Sri Lankan firms which set up business ventures in Bangladesh subsequently did well, the movement of capital from one country to the other and bilateral trade remained at a low level mainly because of the economic and security situation in Sri Lanka.
However, the end of the Tamil insurgency in Sri Lanka in 2009 bought about a sea change. But Colombo gave priority to massive infrastructural development with Chinese help, leaving other sectors of the economy undeveloped. Trade and investment did not boom.
Meanwhile, Bangladesh had taken the path of rapid all-round economic development embracing all sectors – agriculture, industry, power and infrastructure.
With the result, today, Bangladesh has a lot to give Sri Lanka in terms of agricultural know how, disaster management and preparedness, pharmaceuticals manufacturing, use of solar power, and IT education and use.
At long last, Sri Lanka is seeing Bangladesh as an economic partner and as an economic opportunity. Accompanying President Sirisenaon his three day visit to Bangladesh are representatives of 40 top Sri Lankan companies in diverse fields. And Sirisena himself will be visiting a renowned Agricultural Research Institute.
Unlike Sri Lanka, Bangladesh has reached self-sufficiency in food, including rice, having increased food production from 10 million tons in 1972-73 to 39 million tons in 2015/16, although in the same period, arable land had decreased from 9.8 million hectares to 8.27 million hectares due to urbanization.
Bangladesh can now join countries like India, Pakistan and Thailand in selling rice to Sri Lanka in times of urgent need.
Like Sri Lanka, Bangladesh experiences droughts and floods frequently. But Bangladesh has found ways to overcome the challenges posed by such natural disasters through what the Bangladesh High Commissioner in Sri Lanka, RiazHamidullah calls “climate adaptation techniques.”
“Bangladeshi farmers in flood prone areas are now using a variety of rice which can remain submerged for as many as seven days without getting damaged. They also use rice varieties which can withstand drought and salinity,”he told this correspondent.
“In tackling drought, 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,” Hamidullahadded.
But with its population galloping by two million a year, Bangladesh has to increase productivity in its farms from the present 3.47 tons of rice per hectare to 3.74 tons/ha.
“To step up production, Bangladeshi farmers are given subsidies for fertilizer, fuel and electricity. Agro-machines sold with a subsidy of 50 to 70%. Farmers are also entitled to relief and rehabilitation in case of crop loss due to natural disasters,” the envoy said.
“Production of rice has galloped because of the adoption of High Yielding Varieties (HYV). But these require extensive irrigation and heavy input of chemical fertilizers. Irrigation had increased from 12.46% in 1980-81 to 78% in 2014-15,”he said.
However, Sri Lanka will face a snag in regard to the use of chemical fertilizers. There is opposition in the island to the use of chemical fertilizers, which are said to cause Chronic Kidney Disease in certain parts of the island, especially in President Sirisena’s North Central Province.
But alternatives could be found by joint Bangla-Lankan research.
“It is significant that President Sirisena will be visiting one of our rice research institutes. Former President Chandrika Kumaratunga also visited one of our reach centers when she went to Bangladesh in May,” Hamidullah said.
Bangladesh can also share know how about other crops. According to the FAO, it is the 5 th.largest producer of horticultural items in the world, and the 4 th.largest in mango cultivation. In inland fisheries, it is 4 th.or 5 th.
Bangladesh is keen to share with Sri Lanka its disaster preparedness system, which it has “assiduously and painstakingly worked out since 1990-92 through the trial and error method,” as the High Commissioner put it.
“We have been able to greatly reduce human and cattle loss 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. “
“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 acertain 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!” Hamidullahremarked 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,” the envoy pointed out.
Bangladesh is excelling in the use of Information Technology. There are 23,000 Multi-Media class rooms, and 150, 000 teachers are part of the Teachers’ Portal which has put across 80,000 contents to help teachers improve their teaching. The aim is to post 900,000 contents on line.
Though unlike Sri Lanka, Bangladesh is not against the use of coal power, it is way ahead in the use of solar energy, with 5 million households already using solar power.
Travel, Tourism and Business
High Commissioner Hamidullah said that both Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan business are aware of the possibilities of increasing trade, investment and tourism in each other’s’ countries, but certain factors are hindering trade and investment.
“The Dhaka-Colombo-Dhaka air fare is US$ 720. This is much too much for a large and constant flow. Bangladeshis are fond of travel and great spenders. They will come in their thousands if the fares are made competitive. And along with tourists will come potential traders and investors sniffing for opportunities which will be good for both countries,” the envoy said.
“Sri Lanka’s high tariffs are another block to trade. Besides that there are unknown factors hindering trade. Bangladesh’s pharmaceutical products are much appreciated in Sri Lanka butthat is not reflected in imports,” he pointed out.
Sri Lanka, which is short of labor, can make use of Bangladeshi labor, but there is reluctance in the government to allow import of labor, Hamidullah said.
“If Sri Lanka is apprehensive about foreign labor settling down permanently,it could issue short term, project related work visas. Countries with a labor shortage import labor in order to develop. If they don’t import they will be left behind,” the High Commissioner pointed out.
(The featured image at the top shows Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena being welcomed by Bangladeshi children on arrival at the Dhaka airport on Thursday)