The Rajya Sabha on Wednesday unanimously passed the long-pending land boundary agreement bill that is expected to boost ties between India and Bangladesh.
The bill’s passage will lead to an amendment in the first schedule of the Constitution and give effect to a May 1974 agreement between India and Bangladesh on acquisition and transfer of territories.
It is expected to be introduced and passed in the Lok Sabha on Thursday. Since it is a constitution amendment bill, it would also require ratification by the legislatures of at least half of India’s 29 states.
The move is likely to boost Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s neighbourhood first policy, paving the way for greater cooperation with Bangladesh, a country he is expected to visit next month.
“This is a historic situation. We are going to implement the agreement after 41 years. I am happy that everyone supported the bill,” foreign minister Sushma Swaraj said moving the bill for approval.
India signed the additional protocol to the land boundary pact in September 2011 during the visit of then prime minister Manmohan Singh to Bangladesh. But it was not ratified because Singh’s government failed to get Parliament’s backing after the bill was introduced in the Rajya Sabha by then external affairs minister Salman Khurshid.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), especially its Assam unit, initially opposed the bill because India stood to lose around 10,000 acres under the terms of the agreement. The exchange will see Bangladesh take over 111 enclaves (17,160 acres) from India’s possession and India, in turn, receive 51 enclaves (7,110 acres) from Bangladesh.
Enclaves are tiny landlocked territories that each country has within the borders of the other nation. The enclaves in Assam, West Bengal, Tripura and Meghalaya come under the bill’s ambit.
Troubles over finding a way to share water from the Teesta river and delay in the ratification of the boundary pact cast a shadow over bilateral ties with Bangladesh, despite an upswing in relations after Sheikh Hasina became the Prime Minister.
“This agreement will not shrink our borders. We will have an advantage of 500 acres. Though 10,000 acres will go to them, it is just notional and those enclaves are deep,” said Swaraj, allaying the fears of some MPs that the pact could lead to shrinking of borders. In Assam, India will get 470 acres of land from Bangladesh, while 268 acres will go to Bangladesh, she said.
The BJP’s Assam unit was brought on board by Modi himself. He assured party workers in November that the pact would result in a better demarcated border and check the flow of illegal migrants from Bangladesh to India. A parliamentary standing committee in December backed the ratification, saying it was in India’s national interest.
“I am delighted. This paves the way for more exciting things to happen. I would say better late than never,” said Tariq Karim, former Bangladesh high commissioner to India.
On the delay of four years to get the bill passed, Karim said, “nothing in this part of the world has been easy since 1947. But it speaks for the commitment to a vision for cooperation with Bangladesh. The unanimity in the passage of the bill shows that if nothing else everyone is united on the idea that India wants good relations with Bangladesh,” he said.