Friday, August 26, 2011

Indo-Bangla Border A New Berlin Wall

In an unscheduled debate on August 18 in the National Assembly sitting without the presence of the Opposition, the Treasury Bench members themselves raised a big hue and cry about the failures of the government, particularly of four senior ministers and a state minister. The finance minister was targeted for share market scam, banking liquidity crisis, for frequent faux pas, and for interfering in road repair contracts. The communications minister was targeted for dismal conditions of highways leading to disruption of road communication with the capital from western and northern parts for weeks together, and for tragic road accidents claiming many precious lives. 

The commerce minister was targeted for his failure to rein in spiralling food and commodity prices in Ramzan and his own share of habitual faux pas embarrassing other ruling party leaders in the eyes of the suffering citizenry. The state minister for power was likewise targeted, in the absence of the Prime Minister and the powerful Adviser for Power, was targeted for frequent power failures. In addition, the shipping minister was criticised, not for his ministerial duties, but his exertion of undue influence as a transport union leader for liberal issuance of driving licenses to ill-trained helpers of drivers. He has been blatantly advocating that as long as illiterate drivers could read road signs, identify a cow or a goat and follow traffic directions, they should be issued licenses as there was a shortage of licensed drivers of motor vehicles in this country. Such liberal (illegal?) issuance of licenses to trainee drivers has been cited by the media and civil society activists as a major factor causing fatal road accidents.

In his defence in parliament, the Communications Minister spoke at length under Rule 300 of parliamentary procedure. He said that in 1996, total length of roads maintained in the country was 15,600 kilometres. In 2010, the roads and highways increased to 21040 km. For repair and maintenance, a world standard of budgetary requirement has been worked out and approved by the World Bank. By that standard, the requirement in 2008-09 budget was Taka 4205 crore. But the finance ministry allocated only Taka 651 crore. Likewise, the demand for 2009 - 10 fiscal year was Taka 4,404 crore, but the allocation was Taka 610 crore only. In 2010 - 11 fiscal year, the demand for repair and maintenance of roads and highways was  Taka 4,745 crore. The allocation was only Taka 668 crore. In the current fiscal the demand is Taka 5,100 crore. The allocation is only Taka 690 crore, and that also has been released only the previous day (August 17) with sub-divided work allocations and other conditions attached.

In other words, the Communications Minister squarely blamed the Finance Minister for the collapse of the roads and highways network under heavy rains (highest in the last 15 years) on account of gross under-financing of the road repair budget for years together. Suranjit Sengupta lent qualified support to the Communications Minister’s demand that the conditions attached to this year’s release letter of funds for road repairs be withdrawn. He said the Finance Minister has no jurisdiction over work allocations.

The debate had its repercussions in the media orchestration and in the civil society. As such, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on August 24 scolded his party leaders and parliamentarians on the floor of the House that they should not lend ammunition to “enemy” hands (the Opposition) by harping on a few failures of her government. Side by side, there are instances of immense successes too.

Some India-friendly members of the “civil society”, mostly teachers, students, newspaper columnists and cultural activists, including, strangely, the government-appointed Chairman of the National Human Rights Commission and the Secretary of the Communist Party of Bangladesh, gathered at the Shaheed Minar on the same day (August 24) as the Prime Minister was answering questions in the parliament, to single out the Communications Minister and demand his dismissal from the cabinet by August 31. Otherwise they resolved that they would undertake a sit-down strike at the Shaheed Minar on the Eid-day.

Some say the real reason for their singling out the Communications Minister, who is also known to be China-friendly, not the finance minister or any other minister, is not the traffic road accidents they talked about, but because his revelations about the “standard” costs of road maintenance, not to speak of extra costs from soft soil and active delta conditions in our country, has demolished the myth being spun by the India-friendly lobby in the government and the civil society about the huge benefits the country could gain from road connectivity with India under Indian transit plan. At least a memorandum of understanding was expected to be signed during Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s return official visit in Dhaka scheduled September 6.

Now the Finance Minister, an old advocate of the Indian transit plan, has admitted in a meeting with the FBCCI on August 24 that it is not possible for Bangladesh to grant transit facility to India under the present conditions of infrastructural handicap. The government’s own inter-ministerial core committee on transit has in the meantime recommended that under no circumstance road transit can be given to India at our current stage of infrastructure.  

‘India’s new Berlin Wall’
A framework agreement on the transit issue, projected to be the main purpose of the Indian Prime Minister’s visit, appears to have been relegated essentially to a statement of intent and mutual interest in the Indian transit plan. Another issue, that of “fortress India’s fatal stranglehold around Bangladesh borders” has come into focus, not because Bangladesh government pressed for it, but as result of the international media’s attention to child-bride Felani’s killing in Indian BSF fire on the barbed wire fences at the border. The prestigious Foreign Policy journal of the USA is the latest addition of outcry over Felani’s death in the global media under a general coverage of the “World’s Most Dangerous Borders”, the journal has separately covered “an account of India’s new Berlin Wall with Bangladesh. After Felani’s that account entitled Fortress India it goes on to comment:

“In India, the 25-year-old border fence — finally expected to be completed next year at a cost of $1.2 billion — is celebrated as a panacea for a whole range of national neuroses: Islamist terrorism, illegal immigrants stealing Indian jobs, the refugee crisis that could ensue should a climate catastrophe ravage South Asia. But for Bangladeshis, the fence has come to embody the irrational fears of a neighbour that is jealously guarding its newfound wealth even as their own country remains mired in poverty. The barrier is a physical reminder of just how much has come between two once-friendly countries with a common history and culture — and how much blood one side is willing to shed to keep them apart.

“Situated on a delta and crisscrossed by 54 rivers, Bangladesh factors prominently in nearly every worst-case climate-change scenario. The 1-meter sea-level rise predicted by some widely used scientific models would submerge almost 20 per cent of the country. The slow creep of seawater into Bangladesh’s rivers caused by global-warming-induced flooding, upriver dams in India, and reduced glacial melt from the Himalayas is already turning much of the country’s fertile land into saline desert, upending its precarious agricultural economy. Studies commissioned by the U.S. Defence Department and almost a dozen other security agencies warn that if Bangladesh is hit by the kind of Hurricane Katrina-grade storm that climate change is likely to make more frequent, it would be a “threat multiplier,” sending ripples of instability across the globe: new opportunities for terrorist networks, conflicts over basic human essentials like access to food and water, and of course millions of refugees. And it’s no secret where the uprooted Bangladeshis would go first. Bangladesh shares a border with only two countries: the democratic republic of India and the military dictatorship of Burma. Which would you choose?

“India began erecting a fence, complete with well-armed guards, in 1986. After the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won national elections in 1998, the programme was ramped up to placate anti-Muslim sentiment among the party faithful. The fence grew longer and the killings more frequent. After years of complaints from Bangladeshi politicians, India made promises on several occasions to switch to non-lethal weaponry, but has rarely followed through on them.

By next year, every available crossing point between India and Bangladesh will have been blocked off by the fence. But while tightened security has made the border more dangerous, it hasn’t actually made it much more secure. More than 100 border villages operate as illicit transit points through which thousands of migrants pass daily. Each of these villages has a “lineman” — what would be called a coyote on the U.S.-Mexican border — who facilitates the smuggling, paying border guards from both notoriously corrupt countries to look the other way when people pass through.

“The rise of global Islamist militancy in recent years has worsened the xenophobic streak in India’s already dicey relations with its Muslim neighbours, and Indian politicians have been quick to capitalize on it. By 2009, Indian Home Minister P. Chidambaram was declaring that Bangladeshis have “no business to come to India.” The opposition BJP isn’t rolling out the welcome mat either: Tathagata Roy, the party’s leader in the Bangladesh-bordering state of West Bengal, has called for lining the border with anti-personnel mines.

Felani’s death
“Felani’s death, however, galvanised Bangladesh. Graphic photos of her dead body made the front pages of newspapers across the country, and political parties posted her picture with the caption “Stop Border Killing!”

“The shooting seemed to have given India pause as well. In March, New Delhi once again agreed to strip its border guards of live ammunition, and for once actually did it. For the first month in almost a decade, Indian troops didn’t kill anyone on the border. But by April the Indian soldiers had reloaded, shooting a Bangladeshi cattle trader and three others in separate incidents. It was a bleak reminder that while the fence itself may be a flimsy thing, the tensions that make it into a killing zone are remarkably durable.”

Can Bangladesh hope that this time around the Hasina-Manmohan summit in Dhaka will do something at least to put on end to killing at the border by bullets or by beatings?