The forthcoming visit of Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa to Bangladesh to participate in the grand celebrations connected with the 50th anniversary of Bangladesh’s independence could help boost bilateral economic ties if the visit is properly used.

Bangladesh is planning a week-long celebration beginning with the birth anniversary of the Father of the Nation Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on March 17 and ending on March 26, when the late Sheikh Mujib declared independence from Pakistan and the formation of an independent Bangladesh. Several world leaders including Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India and Mahinda Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka are to grace the occasion. Each of them will be the chief guest on one of the seven days.  

Though the Lankan Prime Minister’s visit will be primarily ceremonial, it has to go beyond it, to laying the foundation for greater and concrete economic ties, an area which has, sadly, gone grossly under-explored in the past 50 years since Bangladesh emerged as an independent

country in 1971 and since SAARC was formed in 1985.

The foundation for good Bangla-Lanka ties is deep and strong. Sri Lanka and Bangladesh may differ in religion but much of their culture is similar.  Sinhala and Bengali, are deeply rooted in Sanskrit. They even share a common ancestry because Prince Vijaya, who founded the Sinhala race, came from Bengal. Sri Lanka and Bangladesh both want to see South Asian unity brought about through SAARC, which Bangladesh proposed and Sri Lanka has ardently supported from the very beginning.

But despite the commonalities, the shared interests, and the absence of acrimony, the level of bilateral relations has been below their potential. Bilateral trade is between US$ 150 million and US$ 180 million. One of the reasons for this is that connectivity is poor. People to people contact and awareness of each other are minimal.

The Dhaka-Colombo-Dhaka airfare is US$ 720. This is much too much for a large and constant flow. Bangladeshis are fond of travel and are great spenders. They will come to Sri Lanka in thousands if the airfare is lower. And along with tourists will come traders and investors sniffing for opportunities which will be good for both countries.

Sri Lanka’s high tariffs are another block to trade. Bangladesh’s pharmaceutical products are much appreciated in Sri Lanka but that is not reflected in imports.

However, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka can contribute to each other’s growth in many ways. Bangladesh is no longer a “basket case”. Bangladesh’s GDP is growing at 8.1%. It has developed expertise in several sectors like agriculture, especially high yielding rice cultivation, inland fisheries, pharmaceuticals, disaster prevention and disaster management.

There is no food shortage in Bangladesh.  Bangladesh is now the fourth-largest rice producer, the second-largest jute producer, the fourth-largest in mango production, the fifth-largest in vegetable production and the fourth-largest in inland fisheries in the world. With a good industrial climate and cheap labour (the cheapest in South Asia and 75% cheaper than in China), FDI is flowing into Bangladesh.

“Today, Bangladesh offers the most liberal investment regime in South Asia – in terms of the legal protection of foreign investment, generous fiscal incentives, concessions on machinery imports, an unrestricted exit policy, full repatriation of dividends and capital on exit. We are establishing 100 Special Economic Zones with a one-stop service across Bangladesh. Twelve of the zones are already functioning. Two zones are reserved for Indian investors. Several high-tech parks are also ready for technology and innovative enterprises,” Bangladesh Prime Minister Hasina told the World Economic Forum (WEF).

The Bangladesh government gives the highest priority to developing the energy sector by committing itself to provide uninterrupted power to local industry by 2021. Bangladesh is quickly moving to a high-value, knowledge-intensive society. “Last year, Bangladesh exported 12 industrial robots to Korea. Four ships made in Bangladesh have come to India. Recently, Reliance (of India) purchased a large number of refrigerators made in Bangladesh. Bangladesh also has 600,000 IT freelancers – the largest freelancing community,” Hasina told WEF.  

The Bangladesh pharmaceutical industry was valued at US$ 1.5 billion in 2013, It jumped to US$ 10 billion in 2020.

“In transforming the country into a “Digital Bangladesh’, since 2009, we have ensured 100% ICT access for people at the grassroots. As a result, Bangladesh has the fifth-largest internet user population in Asia-Pacific,” Sheikh Hasina told WEF.

There are 23,000 Multi-Media classrooms, and 150, 000 teachers are part of the Teachers’ Portal which has put across 80,000 contents to help teachers improve their teaching. The aim is to post 900,000 contents on line.

Though unlike Sri Lanka, Bangladesh is not against the use of coal power, it is way ahead in the use of solar energy, with 5 million households already using solar power.

The secret of Bangladesh’s success lies in three things: 1) Focusing on domestic manufacturing with priority given to export-oriented industries; 2) Preferring investment over debt, and 3) Ensuring a greater role for the private sector in managing capital. Public-Private Sector Partnerships are the order of the day and to the country’s good. Under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) China is to invest US$ 33 billion.


Bangladesh can lend Sri Lanka its expertise in agriculture so that Sri Lanka can stop importing food items. Food imports accounted for 7.2% of Sri Lanka’s total imports in 2018. Unlike Sri Lanka, Bangladesh has reached self-sufficiency in food, including rice, have increased food production from 10 million tons in 1972-73 to 39 million tons in 2015/16, although in the same period, arable land had decreased from 9.8 million hectares to 8.27 million hectares due to urbanization.

Like Sri Lanka, Bangladesh experiences droughts and floods frequently. But Bangladesh has found ways to overcome the challenges posed by such natural disasters through “climate adaptation techniques.” Bangladeshi farmers in flood-prone areas are using a variety of rice that can remain submerged for as many as seven days without getting damaged. They also use rice varieties that can withstand drought and salinity.

In tackling drought, Bangladesh has been able to reduce the use of water in rice cultivation by half – from 3500 litres per kg of rice to 1800 litres. This technique can be used in the dry zones of Sri Lanka like the Northern Province.

Sri Lanka can economize on its fish imports by encouraging inland fisheries with Bangladesh’s help. In 2018, fish and fish products amounting to 84,463 metric tons were imported by Sri Lanka for Rs. 2.7 billion. There is vast scope for developing inland sweet water fisheries in Sri Lanka with Bangladesh’s help as there are many tanks in the island.

Bangladesh can help Sri Lanka with university-level education by setting up institutions in Sri Lanka and giving scholarships for studies in Bangladesh which has many more universities and colleges than Sri Lanka. As of now, in Sri Lanka, university-level education is available only to a very few.        

Bangladesh has opened its doors to Sri Lankan investors.

There are some Sri Lankan firms in the Bangladesh energy sector. Sri Lankans are contributing their expertise in the garments and logistics sector in Bangladesh. Sri Lanka can help the hotel and hospitality sector in Bangladesh grow as it has a long tradition in these fields. Sri Lanka could help organize the Bangladesh tourism sector which is still in its infancy.    



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