Interview: Pacts entered into during Sirisena’s visit will be bedrock of Lanka-Bangla ties

By P.K.Balachandran

The 12 to 13 pacts that Sri Lanka and Bangladesh will
sign during President Maithripala Sirisena’s three-day visit to
Bangladesh beginning on July 13, will be the “bedrock” of robust
cooperation in a variety of fields, particularly disaster management
and agriculture, said the Bangladeshi High Commissioner in Sri Lanka,
Riaz Hamidullah.

In a conversation with this correspondent here on Friday, the High
Commissioner said that Bangladesh has a lot to contribute to Sri
Lanka’s economic security by sharing knowhow on disaster preparedness;
innovative agricultural production techniques in the face of frequent
floods and droughts; and progressive secondary level educational
methods.

The growing Bangladesh economy (hovering around 6 to 7% per year)
offers immense investment opportunities for Sri Lankan entrepreneurs,
and the expanding Bangladeshi middle class offers a lucrative market
for Sri Lankan products, whether made in Bangladesh itself or in Sri
Lanka.

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.

Disaster Preparedness

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 and these
go 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 it in way that we lose the least,” the High Commissioner
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.

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 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 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.

Teacher Training

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 aim is to enroll 900,000 teachers in this portal, Hamidullah said.

Bangladesh has over 4500 Union Digital Centers which supply five
million services and had 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.

Agricultural Development Model

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 an 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.

According to the FAO, Bangladesh is the 5th largest producer of
horticultural items in the world, and is the 4th largest in mango
cultivation. In inland fisheries it is 4th or 5th, the High
Commissioner pointed out.

“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.

Solar Energy

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.

Trade and Investment

The low volume of trade and investment in Sri Lanka-Bangladesh
relations is worrying, particularly because opportunities are
enormous. 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 noted.

“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.

(– P.K.Balachandran is a senior Colombo-based journalist writing
on the countries of South Asia –)