Thursday, September 15, 2011

Friendship Down The Waters Of The Teesta

The Prime Minister of India Dr. Monmohon Singh visited Bangladesh for 30 hours between sixth and seventh of September 2011. This was a visit in return for the visit by the Bangladeshi Prime Minister to Delhi in January 2010. Since the relations between the two countries had not been as sweet as it should have been, the visits by the Prime Ministers were looked upon as being instruments of improving friendship. Theoretically, improving friendship means, removing the bottle necks or obstructions towards friendship.

The ground to that end was paved to a great degree in January 2010 and it was expected to be consolidated in September 2011. Alas! It has been a visit which could not achieve the stipulated objectives. Columns in newspapers, short as they are, cannot describe everything. This column therefore will also describe only a few things.

First aspect to be questioned is the role of two advisers of the Prime Minister of Bangladesh. As I write this column for ‘the independent’ at 2:30pm on Tuesday 13 September 2011, I can not avoid looking at the headlines of today’s ‘the independent’ in the first page and others pages.

There is a headline in page-1 thus: “Advisers draw flak for Teesta fiasco”. Indeed they have been drawing serious flak from the whole of the country irrespective of the political divide. The system of government that Bangladesh follows is the parliamentary system. Here not only the cabinet of minister is responsible to the parliament collectively, but every single minister is also responsible to the parliament for his or her ministry.
Every minister has the additional or dual responsibility of answering to the prime minister because the prime minister is the head of the cabinet and head of the government.

In Bangladesh, a fundamental deviation from practice in other countries, has been noticed. In Bangladesh importance and functions of the ministers has been marginalized by the prime minister. The prime minister of Bangladesh now has appointed six advisers.

They have not taken any oath of allegiance or of secrecy like the ministers. The ministers are answerable to someone or the other; they advisers are answerable only to the prime minister. As the very name goes, the advisors are supposed to advise the prime minister only.

The advice of the advisers is in addition to the advice and suggestions of the respective ministries. For example, the role of Dr. Gowher Rizvi as an advisor on foreign policy or on international relations is supposed to be complementary or supplementary to the role of the foreign minister of Bangladesh.

On ground, or in real life practice, we have seen the role of Dr. Gowher Rizvi to be all-encompassing and devouring the foreign ministry. Surprisingly, the role of Dr. Gowher Rizvi has even devoured the functions and role of the ministry of water resources or the ministry of commerce.

The role of the economic adviser to the prime minister of Bangladesh Dr. Moshiur Rahman has also been negatively prominent. But for the strong personality of the finance minister of Bangladesh, Dr. Mashur Rahman could have become more damaging.

Together these  dignified advisers of the prime minister of Bangladesh have handled all major matters related to the visit of the prime minister of India. Together they have contributed the to the less-than-optimum outcome from the visit. Together, these dignified advisers have insulted the democratic pattern of governance in Bangladesh.

All leaders in the government who were democratically elected  collectively accepted the humiliation rendered upon them by the two unelected dignified advisers of the prime minister .

What is the role of prime minister of Bangladesh in this fiasco? As the top-most decision maker of the country, she gambled in favor of the advisers. She did not win. She has to pay for it either by a coin or by a high value currency note, what ever be it.

The present prime minister of Bangladesh has worked hard over the last 30 months or so to improve  relations between India and Bangladesh. She has another 26 months or so to galvanize everything. As a citizen of Bangladesh I wish her success but with caution.

It is rather sad that sharing of the Teesta water and agreement on transit have been mixed up or have been linked to each other. It is wrong to link them. Let me talk about the rivers first.

South Asia is criss-crossed by rivers. Obviously rivers originate from higher grounds or hills and mountains. More obviously, rivers fall into seas or oceans. Bangladesh is a deltaic plain. This deltaic plain has been formed by the major rivers called Ganges (Padma), Brahmaputtra (Jamuna)
and Meghna and their tributaries.

Fifty four rivers, big or small, flow into Bangladesh from India in the North of Bangladesh, India in the East of Bangladesh and India in the West of Bangladesh. Waters of these rivers are to be used by inhabitants by the river side in India as well as in Bangladesh.

Formally speaking, India and Bangladesh both have a claim on the waters of these rivers. There are international laws, international protocols, international traditions and international precedence to guide India and Bangladesh in sharing the waters of these common rivers.

However, as the English language proverb goes, much water has flown down all these rivers over the last few decades but little goodwill flowed down the channels of foreign and external affairs of these two countries. It is a question of survival for Bangladesh.

Without water and reasonable water, Bangladesh will soon complete the process of becoming a desert. A citizen of Bangladesh whose age is 65 years and another citizen of Bangladesh whose age is 35 years, but both living in Rajshahi or Kushtia district of Bangladesh, will have two different descriptions of their area in the rainy season and dry season.

The older between the two had seen the rivers of his area before 1970 or 1965 or 1975 and is seeing the same after 1990 also. The younger between two is seeing only after 1990. The difference in the terrain and ecology caused due to the withdrawal of waters in the upstream of the common rivers will be visible to the elder person only.

The younger is likely to assume that today’s Bangladesh is the natural Bangladesh or the Bangladesh given by nature; in reality it is not so. It is the inalienable right of Bangladesh to have equitable share of the common rivers.

As for Teesta, early in the life of Bangladesh, a barrage was constructed at a place called Dalia in the district of Niphamari, little down-stream from the international border for facilitating irrigation in greater Rangpur district. But the barrage could never become functional because supply of water from upstream was never regular.

I have gone to great length only to emphasis the fact that Bangladesh must get equitable share of water from the common rivers for its survival. It is the right of Bangladesh.

Bangladesh is surrounded by India. There is a big chunk of India called North-East India. There are seven provinces of states in the North-East called seven sisters. Among these seven five have common borders with Bangladesh.  These  are Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram. Indian state or province of West Bengal (presently called Paschim Banga) lies to the west of Bangladesh and little-bit to the north of Bangladesh in the extreme North West. The extreme North West point of Bangladesh is about 20 or 21 miles away from the nearest border of Nepal. This thin territory of the province Paschim Banga is called Shilliguri-corridor.

This narrow strip of land connects the huge land-mass of India to the West of Bangladesh and the smaller land-mass of India to the North-East of Bangladesh. The territory of North-East India is also larger than the territory of Bangladesh.

It is not so that India is separated into two parts geographically by Bangladesh. India is of course one land-mass but the Shilliguri corridor is too thin to sustain all requirements of North-East India. As a result communication between India to the West of Bangladesh and India to the North-East of Bangladesh is difficult, time consuming, strenuous and susceptible to sabotage activities by Indians unfriendly to the central government of India.

Therefore, a shorter route between India to the West of Bangladesh and India to the North-East to the Bangladesh is a dire necessity to India. Talking about the difficulties of North-East India alone, they do not have easy access to the blue waters of the Bay of Bengal.

So far their easiest and nearest access was through the port of Calcutta (presently called Kolkata). Should Bangladesh allow Indian goods to travel from West to East or vise versa over the land territory of Bangladesh, it will reduce the distance by more than seventy percent and the cost by more than eighty percent.

Should North-East India be able to use the ports of Mongla and Chittagong, they will save time and cost by almost similar percentage. The figures of percentage I am quoting are not absolute or infallible.
To gain the friendship of India, to repay the gratitude of 1971, and to be current with international tendencies and expectations, it is wiser for Bangladesh to let India use our territory and our ports. In lieu, Bangladesh must gain economically and politically.

How much Bangladesh can gain depends on the home work that Bangladeshi political and economic leaders do. The facilities which may be given to India are called facilities of corridor as well as facilities of transit.
India must pay for them politically as well as financially. What pains me is the eagerness on the part of few Bangladeshi high profile persons to give these facilities to India almost free or just on the asking without optimizing the benefit of Bangladesh.

India had never said that it wants the facilities free, India is ready to negotiate. Bangladesh seems not to be ready for the negotiation, unfortunately. To have these facilities is not an inherent right of India, it is a political request which Bangladesh may grant. 

Whatever protocols or memorandums of understanding have been signed between India and Bangladesh on the afternoon of 6th September 2011 are welcome. Most of these did not justify or necessitate the presence of  the prime minister.

People of Bangladesh expected an agreement on sharing of the waters of Teesta; the expectation was not met. Who is responsible for this debacle? Dr. Monmohon Singh and many others in India may point the fingers towards Momota Banerjee the recently elected popular chief minister of the state or province called Paschim Bango with whom Bangladesh shares the entire Western international border.

We in Bangladesh must search our souls and carry out self critique to find out where lies the fault. The two advisors have to share the major brunt; the foreign minister, the water resources minister and the prime minister will be lesser partners.

Come what may, we need equitable share of the waters of the common rivers. And we want to be a friend of India; friendship based on mutual respect and mutual benefit—never one way.

Admiral Stephen Decature while offering a toast during a dinner at Norfolk in the state of Virginia in the United States on an evening in April 1816, reportedly said: “Our country: in her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but our country, right or wrong!” Both India and Bangladesh may have to disagree with the admiral now in the year 2011. 

Source : Syed Muhammad ibrahim.

The writer, a Bir Protik, is a freedom fighter and a retired Major General.