Countries in South Asia need to collaborate regionally and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has set a “brilliant example” by providing vaccines to India’s neighbours, a Bangladeshi minister said on Thursday. Speaking at a webinar, Bangladesh’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Mohammad Shahriar Alam said the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was “failing to live up to the expectations” and expressed optimism over the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) initiative.
The minister asserted that Bangladesh and India are witnessing the “golden chapter” of their bilateral ties. “We must work together to resolve pending issues, including sharing of the waters of common rivers, resolution of sharing of the continental shelf issue in the Bay of Bengal and bringing border incidents to zero,” Alam said via video conference from Bangladesh. “COVID-19 has not only demonstrated our linkages and interdependence, but also our fragility. Unity and solidarity must be our living principles in these challenging times. It demands decisive, concerted and innovative actions by all,” he said while speaking at the webinar organised by the Vivekananda’s International Foundation.
“This is how we in Bangladesh feel that the countries in South Asia need to collaborate regionally and this is a brilliant example that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government is not only providing vaccines to Bangladesh, but to all South Asian neighbours eventually,” Alam said. Bangladesh appreciates the cooperation extended by the government of India for providing vaccines, medicines and protective equipment to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, he said. Alam said Bangladesh is grateful to Prime Minister Modi’s government for the assistance during the pandemic and noted that earlier on Thursday, he along with Bangladeshi the foreign and health ministers, formally received vaccines provided by India under grant assistance.
India has handed over 2 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines to Bangladesh under grant assistance. Alam noted that Bangladeshi firms have also signed agreements with the Serum Institute of India for vaccines.
“On our part, we facilitated the urgent evacuation of Indian nationals working and studying in Bangladesh back to India during COVID. We received similar cooperation from India where Bangladeshis were stuck in different locations in those difficult weeks of April and May last year,” he said. Bangladesh and Nepal on Thursday received COVID-19 vaccines from India under grant assistance. On Wednesday, India sent 1,50,000 doses of Covisheild vaccines to Bhutan and 1,00,000 doses to the Maldives.
India has already rolled out a massive coronavirus vaccination drive under which two vaccines, Covishield and Covaxin, are being administered to frontline health workers across the country. While Oxford-AstraZeneca’s Covishield is being manufactured by the Serum Institute, Covaxin is being produced by Bharat Biotech.
Asked about regional cooperation in forums such as SAARC and BIMSTEC, Alam noted the physical effort made by Prime Minister Modi in the past to give some impetus to SAARC to operate. “But unfortunately SAARC is failing to live up to the expectations. Even during the last summit in Nepal when the leaders, whatever achievements they made after rigorous negotiations, when it came to signing a key instrument, SAARC failed to deliver,” he said. Alam said BIMSTEC connects the region with ASEAN countries and “we are heavily banking on it”.
He said that more could be done under SAARC especially how the regional trade blocs were emerging in other parts of the world. “We initiated the South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) three decades ago but we never delivered,” he said. Under the BIMSTEC platform, the FTA was proposed and some countries are yet to come up with tariff policies, Alam said.
He said even if the BIMSTEC FTA may not be possible immediately, there should be easing of trade between regional countries. The minister also said that Bangladesh is looking forward to welcoming Prime Minister Modi to Dhaka in March this year to “grace the programme marking the birth centenary of our father of the nation (Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman) and the commencement of the golden jubilee celebrations of Bangladesh’s independence and establishment of our diplomatic relations with India”. He said a number of programmes were being planned to mark these important occasions.