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Aiyar goes home 'satisfied', declines to talk trade issues

From The Independent, Bangladesh
September 6, 2005
link to this article.

Indian Petroleum Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar yesterday at crucial meetings with Bangladesh ministers on the much-talked-about tri-nation gas pipeline project categorically mentioned the Indian position saying that India will not accept any conditions from Bangladesh related to this project.

At a meeting with Mahmudur Rahman, the Adviser on the Energy and Mineral Resources Ministry, Aiyar said issues relating to trade and tariff should not be discussed at the tri-lateral meeting, it should be discussed at bi-lateral talks, a meeting source said.

Aiyar termed the meeting "considerably successful" and told journalists that they discussed the matter in accordance with the guidelines of draft MoU which was finalised at the first meeting of the Techno-Economic Working Committee on Myanmar-Bangladesh-India gas pipeline in Yangon on February 25, 2005.

Indian steps to reduce trade imbalance against Bangladesh dominated the meeting. It is learnt that Bangladesh will put certain conditions for allowing the gas pipeline to run from Myanmar to India through its territory. The preconditions are: Indian steps to reduce trade imbalance against Bangladesh and allowing Bangladesh to carry out direct trade with Nepal and Bhutan, and the import of power from Nepal and Bhutan through Indian territories.

According to observers, it seemed that there remained a deadlock over the conditions tagged by Bangladesh in adopting the tri-nation project. But at the end of the day following the Indian minister's separate meetings with the Prime Minister and the Finance Minister both sides signalled that there was a breakthrough.

The three conditions of Bangladesh included agreement on free trade. The Indian Petroleum Minister following his meeting with the Finance Minister said that India was ready to provide transit to Nepal. However, the Finance Minister said that free trade issue could wait as solving the transit and electricity issue were the priority.

"I am satisfied with the discussions and I hope to come here soon to sign the three-party agreement," the visiting Indian minister told newsmen following his meeting with the Finance and Planning minister M Saifur Rahman at the latter's office.

"After my discussion with the Prime Minister, the Finance Minister, the Foreign Minister and the Energy Adviser I am fully satisfied," the Indian minister said.

On the Bangladesh's demand to provide transit to Nepal, the minister said that the transit was very much there.

Bangladesh government raised the issue of poor conditions of the transit road and that could be solved if India would get specific proposal from Bangladesh regarding this, Aiyar said. But he did not mention the issue of allowing Bangladesh importing power from Nepal and Bhutan.

The Indian minister, who is also a popular newspaper columnist of his country, said that there was in reality no difference between the countries on the issue and "it was the question of engagement" that delayed the process.

He said that the completion of the proposed pipeline would benefit all the there countries and there would be "a win-win-win" situation not only "win-win" situation.

He said that he had discussed a wide range of issues with the Finance Minister.

Meanwhile, Energy Adviser Mahmudur Rahman said Bangladesh would still stick to its previous position on the issue of trans-border gas-pipeline through which India plans to import natural gas from Myanmar.

"A significant outcome of the meeting is, we are convinced, both Bangladesh and India, that there should be effective resolutions of bilateral issues between the two countries," he added.

Mani Shankar Aiyar arrived in Dhaka yesterday morning from London by a flight of British Airways with a fractured leg. From Zia International Airport he was taken to the car and later to the Apollo Hospital in a wheelchair. The Indian minister injured his leg in London shortly before boarding a British Airways for Dhaka. Aiyar left Dhaka about midnight yesterday.

Sources said when the Adviser on the Energy Ministry raised the trade gap issue, the Indian Petroleum Minister categorically said it should not be discussed in this forum. "I want to talk about the tri-nation pipeline issue, you should not link this issue to other thing as it is not under my jurisdiction. I can convey your position only. It is better to discuss tri-nation pipeline issue," Quoting Aiyar a meeting source said.

The sources said that after this the Energy Adviser told the Indian Petroleum Minister that in that case a separate committee could be formed under the Commerce Ministry who could look into the matter and prepare a joint-agreement paper in this regard and both the countries could sign the tri-nation MoU and Joint Agreement at same time.

Aiyar vehemently opposed the idea and said such a committee is already working there and "leave the matter to them to discuss."

"I apprised the cabinet of the whole thing and according to the advice of our government, we will convey our position to you", he said.

Regarding the other two issues, the Indian minister said that if Bangladesh could make any arrangement with Bhutan and Nepal then India has no objection to it, sources said.

However, the Adviser said that it was a "goodwill" visit and "we talked the tri-nation gas pipeline issue and it was a successful meeting."

"Visit by an influential minister like Mani ShankarAiyar is seen with importance in the context of Bangladesh-India bilateral relations", he added.

The draft of the MoU has been finalised at the first meeting of the Techno-Economic Working Committee on Myanmar-Bangladesh-India gas pipeline which concluded in Yangon on February 25.

As per the decision of the meeting the three countries would conduct their own feasibility studies and submit the reports within 6 months, but all works related to the tri-nation gas pipeline remained buried for six months.

The proposal, pursued since 1996 by Mohona Holdings, has been approved in principle by the governments of the two Indian states of West Bengal and Tripura, and Myanmar.

Sources said the proposed pipeline would enter Bangladesh through the Brahmanbaria border from the Indian state of Tripura and will cross into West Bengal through the Rajshahi border.

Mohona, recently showed renewed interest in this $1billion project. A proposal also claims to add gas to its pipeline from India's Tripura region, where large-scale gas production remained uncertain for years due to insurgency.

UNB adds: Bangladesh modified its preconditions for allowing the planned tri-nation gas pipeline through its territory, apparently offering a tradeoff for transit to Nepal through India.

As per new stance, now Bangladesh wants to get resolved two issues-export to Nepal through Indian Corridor and the import of hydropower from Nepal through Indian territory-in one package to barter for the tri-nation gas-pipeline project.

Moreover, the third tag-balancing a yawning trade gap against Bangladesh-would be addressed in another away under a separate deal.

Finance Minister M Saifur Rahman, after his meeting with visiting Indian Petroleum Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar, disclosed the modified position of the country on the Myanmar-Bangladesh-India gas pipeline.

He said trade issue could be addressed separately under a separate deal. "But, the issue of hydropower import from Nepal and export of goods to Nepal through Indian corridor must be addressed under a package deal with the issue of tri-nation gas pipeline," he said.

The reaction of the Indian Minister was not available immediately on the shift in Bangladesh position.

But he said the discussion is moving forward in a right direction. "I am extremely happy with the talks with Bangladesh side," he said after his meeting with Saifur Rahman.

Aiyar said after his visit, he would return to Delhi and inform his cabinet colleagues and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh about the matters and outcome of the meetings.

Adviser of the Bangladesh Energy Ministry Mahmudur Rahman said both the sides discussed positively and tried to understand each other's position.

He claimed the Indian Petroleum Minister showed positive outlook to the three preconditions set by Bangladesh for allowing the pipeline to pass through the country.

He said both the sides reiterated their respective position on different issues.

About differences between the two sides, Mahmud said Indian side opposed to link up the three conditions with the pipeline issue.

"But we tried to convince the Indian side that the three issues are very essential for our economy and we wanted to discuss those with the gas-pipeline issue... and we still stick to our position," the Advisor said.

Despite this discord, he said, the visit of Indian Minister and his meeting helped build confidence on both sides.

Visiting Indian Petroleum Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar said that things are moving forward regarding the crucial issue of laying down tri-nation gas pipeline from Myanmar to India through Bangladesh.

"My impression is that things are moving forward," he told waiting reporters emerging from his hour-long meeting with Foreign Minister M. Morshed Khan at the Foreign Office.

The Indian Minister also said that all the three countries of the region earlier appreciated the high importance of the tri-nation gas line project for their economic development.

During the meeting, Foreign Advisor Reaz Rahman, Foreign Secretary Hemayetuddin and Indian High Commissioner Veena Sikri were president.

Aiyar's advanced Dhaka visit came amid reports in a section of Indian media that the proposed tri-nation gas pipeline hit certain snags.

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