Thursday, July 14, 2011

Issues with India -- take the people into confidence

The Indian foreign ministers visit ended with an optimistic note about many deals on the anvil waiting to be struck by the two countries. The issues likely to feature are cooperation in trade, connectivity, water resources management, power, land boundary demarcation, border management, security, culture, education, and people-to-people contact, etc.
It is Bangladesh who should be looking more in anticipation towards all that is likely to come about in the form of agreements during Manmohan Singh's visit to Dhaka in September, for the simple reason that Bangladesh, for its part, has provided almost everything that the January 2010 memorandum had stipulated.
In return it has got, to paraphrase an Indian journalist's comment, a bagful of nothing. It is a matter of satisfaction for people on this side of the border that the Indian opinion makers are not only aware of the deficiency in delivery on the Indian side but do not also hesitate to come down heavily on their government for failing to do so.
It will therefore be a great disappointment for Bangladesh if the commitments were to remain confined to pious articulation only. And it is for the government of Hasina to ensure that we get some thing in the bag and at the same time take the people along in whatever it seeks to do in terms of bilateral cooperation, particularly on issues related to land boundary and transit.
One would, therefore, like to see the Teesta water issue resolved equitably, the question of 6.4 km unmarked stretch of border demarcated finally, the issue of lands as adverse possession (APL) on both sides be amicably settled, the trigger happy BSF restrained through imposing a rigorous regime on them, and the most topical issue of transit be handled in more transparent manner so a to remove all apprehensions that still persist in some people's mind.
Given the reported activities of the survey officials of both countries in the border areas, it seems that the land issues are being addressed on a priority basis. However, it appears that there are misgivings in people's mind in Bangladesh about what is going on and why. And in some areas there is resistance against whatever it is that the two governments are trying to do. And I use the clause, "whatever it is…" quite deliberately to suggest that even the supposedly better informed segment of the society is not fully aware of the goings on.
Certainly, we have not had a progress report, if you like, about the functioning of the joint boundary working group working on APL. For the record, Bangladesh holds 226.81 acres of Indian land as adverse possession APL while 551.8 acres of Bangladesh land is in the adverse possession of India. And as for enclaves, India has 92 enclaves of Bangladesh while 110 of its own are in Bangladesh.
Certainly, there are prickly issues related to the border that need political goodwill on both sides to resolve. And there cannot be any more sensitive matter than the APL, which will involve ours parting with some and getting some amount of land from India and vice versa.
Why this fact is not made a matter of public discourse and why the government machinery is not proactive in informing the public is beyond comprehension. Lack of information or untimely dissemination only leads to speculation. And one is not sure whether the people are fully conscious of the difficulties that are facing the survey groups on the ground.
The issue of transit has been plagued by confusing statements from the advisors and ministers. Latest being on the status of the deal, whether what we have is merely a draft or it has been finalised and waiting to be signed. The foreign secretary, reportedly terming it a draft, seems to suggest that not everything has been ironed out as far as Bangladesh is concerned. And indeed there are many things that need to be clarified to the public. And when one talks of transit there are the bilateral and the regional/international aspects of it.
It appears that we have lost our sense of history when it comes to bilateral transit. Bangladesh had, in fact, agreed to accord "transit" facility through the signing of the Indo-Bangladesh Trade Agreement on March 28, 1972. Article V of the Agreement provided for "mutually beneficial arrangements for the use of their waterways, railways and roadways for commerce between the two countries and for passage of goods between two places in one country through the territory of the other." This was renewed in 1986 and, notably, in 2006 with the above mentioned clause still in place. One therefore finds BNP position on the issue rather disingenuous.
The government must let the people know that the idea of transit has joint ownership. What should be done is to devise ways to get the maximum dividend from what is a very strong strategic asset for Bangladesh.