Bangladesh and Bhutan have agreed to activate riverine routes to expand trade between the two countries.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her Bhutanese counterpart Lotay Tshering reached the consensus at a meeting held at the former's office in Dhaka on Wednesday, where the two leaders discussed various fields of bilateral cooperation, especially trade and connectivity.
"The two leaders have agreed on finalising the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for using inter-country river routes and the draft protocol to the transit agreement on a priority basis," said Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen at a press conference on the Bhutan PM's visit to the Foreign Service Academy on Wednesday.
"There has been a lot of progress in the field of naval communication. The Dubri-Chilmari river route has already been operationalised. This will be of great benefit to us. Our products can be sent through the route. On the other hand, we bring some boulders from there. They can be brought in by river," he added.
The minister also mentioned that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had reiterated the government's position regarding giving Bhutan access to seaports in Bangladesh. "She emphasised prompt finalisation of agreements and protocols in this regard."
Hasina also put emphasis on constructing necessary infrastructures to reap the highest benefits from the Preferential Trade Agreement (PTA) signed between Bangladesh and Bhutan.
Both prime ministers emphasised holding foreign office consultation and commerce secretary level meetings as soon as possible to expand trade.
Sheikh Hasina put emphasis on building more ports of call. For establishing cooperation in hydropower projects, she asked for formulating a bilateral or tripartite memorandum of understanding (MoU) in this regard.
"Both the premiers have agreed to work together on cooperation among Bangladesh, Bhutan and India in the field of hydropower. Bi-lateral and trilateral efforts will also be made in this regard," said Momen.
Answering a question on the delay in tripartite hydro-electricity issue, he said, "The proposal has been there for a long time. Bangladesh, Bhutan and India decided that the hydropower establishment would be in Bhutan. And it will come to Bangladesh from there via India. It is now in its final stages. All concerned have agreed to do it. The bureaucratic process is going on now.
"Besides, Bhutan has proposed that it and Bangladesh can also exchange hydropower bilaterally. In this case we can invest in Bhutan. This issue was also discussed."
The foreign minister said, "We are already bringing energy from India but we are yet to bring it from Bhutan. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has repeatedly raised this issue before India so that the process is completed speedily. We are working on it."
The two prime ministers agreed to look into the issue of establishing train links between Bangladesh and Bhutan through the recently inaugurated Chilahati-Haldibari train link with India.
Cargo transport has already started with India on the Chilahati-Haldibari railway line.
Passenger transport would start on this route after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's arrival in Bangladesh, Momen said.
"Discussions have been held on establishing a rail link from Chilahati to Bhutan. This will require India's consent as some parts of the route are there. Bangladesh will raise the issue during Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit," he added.
Responding to a question, the minister said they also agreed to look into the possibility of establishing cargo air links between Gelephu in Bhutan and Saidpur in Bangladesh.
"There has been a lot of progress regarding the Nakugaon Land Customs Office. It has been opened. We can export and import goods from this side as well," he added.
"As both Nepal and Bhutan are landlocked countries, connectivity with them is difficult without India's cooperation. That is why their heads of government also want Bangladesh to play a leading role in communicating with India in this regard, as Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Narendra Modi have very good relations."
The foreign minister mentioned that Bhutan had expressed interest in using Bangladesh's second submarine cable. Bangladesh would allow Bhutan to use internet bandwidth at a friendly price, he added.
The Bhutanese prime minister requested Prime Minister Hasina to issue one-time multiple full term visas for their students who are studying in Bangladesh.
The Bangladesh premier agreed on the proposal and asked officials concerned to take necessary steps.
Earlier, the two prime ministers also held a tête-à-tête for 45 minutes.
Engaging in conversations that were largely around the good relations the two countries shared, the two prime ministers discussed the twin celebrations that were the highlights of the trip and also touched upon some bilateral issues, according to the Bhutanese Prime Minister's Office.
Foreign Minister Momen said, "The Bhutan prime minister and his entourage have had to make much sacrifice to make this visit. This is because after retiring from here, they will all be in a compulsory institutional quarantine for 21 days.
"That he [the Bhutanese PM] has come even after all this is because of his respect for Bangladesh and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and special attraction towards Bangabandhu."
Lotay Tshering arrived at Dhaka on Tuesday morning on a three-day official visit to join the golden jubilee celebrations of Bangladesh's independence and the birth centenary of Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
He is the fourth South Asian leader to join the celebrations.