Salahuddin Noman Chowdhury is the Ambassador of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh to Nepal. Before taking up this assignment, he held the position of Director General (Administration) at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Dhaka. In his diplomatic career of 23 years, he worked in various capacities at Bangladesh Missions in New Delhi, Islamabad, New York Consulate and New York Permanent Mission. In the headquarters, he held positions like Director General (External Affairs),Director (Economic Affairs),Director (South East Asia) and Deputy Chief of Protocol (Visit). Nepalkhabar recently talked to Salahuddin Noman Chowdhury on the Golden Jubilee of Nepal-Bangladesh ties. Excerpts:
Nepal and Bangladesh celebrated 50 years of their diplomatic ties this year. How do you evaluate the ties between Nepal and Bangladesh?
I am very happy with the way the relationship has matured over the last five decades. It started in 1971 when the people of Nepal spontaneously supported the people of Bangladesh in the war of liberation, for which they remain ever grateful to the people of Nepal. During the course of time, we had an excellent relationship at the political level. As you know, President of Nepal Bidya Devi Bhandari visited Bangladesh to attend the birth centenary of the father of the nation, and also the celebration of 50th years of independence. Our Prime Minister and President had also visited Nepal several times during the last 10 years.
What are the other major areas where Bangladesh and Nepal could solidify further bilateral ties in commerce and economics? How can Bangladesh support and co-work with Nepal in the sector of commerce, energy, and tourism?
In the last five decades, we reached deals in areas of trade, investment, connectivity, cultural cooperation, water sector cooperation, power sector cooperation, and so on. But unfortunately, the trade volume has not flourished as expected. Now, the trade is about USD 100 to 20 million which is very small if we would compare it with other countries. We must realize that trade is for mutual benefits. Nepal produces many items which Bangladesh can buy at cheaper prices and the same is the case for Bangladesh. And realizing this, we are now trying to negotiate an agreement, a preferential trade agreement between the two countries and if that agreement materializes, our trade will increase significantly. On energy, we are currently negotiating the process to import 40 to 50 MW of electricity from Nepal to Bangladesh and our goal is to have a dedicated line from Nepal to Bangladesh through the Indian territory. On tourism, you know that Nepal is already one of the favourite destinations of Bangladeshi tourists and recently, mountain tourism is also increasing as we observe the number of mountain tourists that come to Nepal, and this will continue to increase. But we are also looking forward to having more Nepali tourists to Bangladesh to see the sea beaches, mangrove forests, and tea gardens in Bangladesh.
Bangladesh ranks among the primary focuses for Nepali students looking to pursue higher education, particularly in the medical and technical areas. Approximately 6,000 Nepali students are now studying in Bangladesh. How can both countries work to further strengthen the education sector? How can Nepal attract Bangladeshi students for higher education?
Education sector cooperation is one of the main pillars of our relationship. I am very happy to see that a large number of Nepali students are studying in Bangladesh at medical colleges, engineering universities and other universities. I am happy to meet the reputed medical doctors in Nepal who have studied in Bangladesh. So this has the potential to increase in the future. Currently, we are providing 22 scholarships at the government medical colleges and many private universities also provide scholarships to Nepali students. Many other students also go for their education in different universities on self-finance basis, but there is a scope to expand the relationship by bringing more Bangladeshi students to Nepal as well. The Nepali education system is very good, and the quality of education is very high. If we could get exposure to a Nepali education system that would be beneficial for Bangladesh as well. So, it can start with the offering of some scholarships to Bangladeshi students by Nepali universities or colleges.
Since both Nepal and Bangladesh are members of the UN, WTO, BIMSTEC, BBIN and SAARC, how can the countries use such international and regional forums to enhance regional and bilateral trade for creating investment opportunities?
In the last few decades, we are facing multiple crises. Climate change was already there. Then the pandemic started, then the financial crisis, and now the war. And there are predictions that there will be food shortage or fertilizer crises in the future. So, in this situation, I think that Bangladesh and Nepal and countries like ours have no option but to work together in multilateral and regional platforms. I think that both countries should work very hard to have a mechanism for cooperation to face this crisis. Unfortunately, they have not been able to make the best use of the most potential platforms. As of now for apolitical divide, my personal view is that we have to delink politics from trade or investment for their mutual benefits.
Nepal and Bangladesh will soon be graduating from the LDC status and Bangladesh is all set to be the next Asian tiger. What are the prospects of cooperation between Nepal and Bangladesh? How can Nepal benefit from it?
By 2026, which is only four years away, we will be graduating from the LDC group to the middle-income group. But with that graduation, we will have multiple challenges. We will not have the international support measures that we are having right now, and there will be no duty-free quota-free access, no soft loans, no technological support, or no waiver of intellectual property rights. So, there will be some difficulties to have access to our products in the international market. So, what we need to do is to have a mechanism to create interdependencies to absorb the shocks that we would be facing at that time. I think that we have to make our products competitive by using technology and also using innovative approaches in production. We have to increase our productivity, mobilize their domestic resources and also have more investment in the education and health sector and particularly in skill development. For example, Nepal is producing electricity in abundance, Nepal can use electricity for increasing the productivity of its products making them more viable, and more cost-effective.
In the Secretary-level joint steering committee meeting between Nepal and Bangladesh, the two countries agreed to develop a dedicated transmission line between the two countries in cooperation with India. How feasible is this project from your point of view? What are the possible constraints you see?
It is absolutely feasible, and I can say this without being an expert. The only constraint is political will. We have to realise that the import and export of electricity will be for our mutual benefit.
All the trade and connectivity links between these countries happen through India, so without India’s favor, connectivity links and trade cannot further flourish. The Nepal-Bangladesh dedicated power transmission line will also have to pass through the Indian territory. Do you think India will support this project as this would be going through a sensitive zone (chicken neck) of India?
I think that India will, of course, support this because we have understood that India wants a robust functional and sustainable connectivity framework in the entire sub-region. So, there is no reason for India to oppose this. I think that India will extend their support to these connectivity issues. In addition, I would like to say that there are some people who are very sceptical about security issues. I think that there is no sensitivity, in this case, we do not need to be worried. There are some people who may raise some irrational or unnecessary questions about the security issues, but there is no security issue as such. It is a wire which will go underground or over the ground. So, our responsibility will be to dispel any worries from any quarters about security.
During a courtesy call on her at her official residence, Gono Bhaban, on August 5, 2022, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina reaffirmed that Nepal could benefit from using Bangladesh’s Mongla and Chattogram seaports. The delegation was led by Pabitra Niroula Kharel, Chairperson of the House of Representatives International Relations Committee. How and what are the major benefits that Nepal could benefit from using Bangladesh’s Mongla and Chattogram seaports?
We will always welcome transit of goods; Nepali goods using Bangladeshi territory and Bangladeshi ports, which we have announced already. It is a part of our commitment to regional cooperation and also our abiding friendship with the people of Nepal. On our part, we have already built all the infrastructure and we are ready to offer those facilities to Nepal. I think that if this route can be used, the exports and imports of Nepali products will be much cheaper and cost-effective. And that will have an impact on Nepal’s international trade and economy.