NEW DELHI, INDIA —
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has sealed a landmark agreement with Bangladesh to exchange tiny enclaves where thousands of people from both countries have been trapped for decades. The two countries signed several other agreements during the two-day visit, which is part of the Indian leader’s outreach to neighboring countries - intended to reduce China's influence in the South Asian region.
The most significant outcome of the Indian leader’s visit to Dhaka was the agreement to swap tiny pockets of land lying in each others territories.
About 50,000 people have been living in miserable conditions in the more than 160 enclaves for decades. Now each country will administer the enclaves in its territory and their residents will be allowed to choose where they want to live. This will enable them to gain legal access to public services such as schools and hospitals for the first time.
The land boundary agreement solves a problem that has lingered on since colonial days.
After signing the pact in Dhaka Saturday, Prime Minister Modi compared the agreement with the dismantling of the Berlin wall.
“We've resolved a question that has lingered since independence. Our two nations have a settled boundary. It will make our borders more secure and people's lives more stable," he said.
The agreement comes as a major boost for ties between the two countries.
It also comes as a boost for Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who won an election boycotted by the opposition last year and is criticized by some Western countries for cracking down on political dissent.
The deal was reached some four decades ago, but got stuck in New Delhi because India stands to lose about 10,000 acres of land under the exchange plan. It is seen as a diplomatic triumph for Prime Minister Modi, who finally won political consensus for it last month when Indian parliament approved the deal.
Modi’s two-day visit to Dhaka saw India and Bangladesh take several steps to increase trade and improve connectivity.
The two countries inaugurated bus services that will connect Bangladesh to four eastern Indian cities. These will be the first road link between the neighbors. Poor infrastructure and lack of transport linkages between South Asian nations have long been blamed for making it one of the world’s least economically integrated regions, but Prime Minister Modi, who heads the biggest and most influential country in the region, hopes to change that.
“I will also open new economic doors for India’s northeast and it that will enable our two countries to integrate South AsiaAsia and connect it with the dynamic East,” he said.
Dhaka says it will set aside an economic zone for Indian investors as Indian companies signed agreements to invest $5 billion in Bangladesh’s power sector.
Since coming to power last year, Prime Minister Modi has prioritized building friendly ties with South Asian neighbors such as Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. That is partly to reassert India’s influence in the region, where many analysts say China has been making steady inroads by investing billions of dollars to build ports and roads and selling military equipment.