Friday, September 9, 2011

Govt Must Not Rush Into Tansit Deal With India

IT IS a matter of concern that the Bangladesh government and its Indian counterpart have agreed, according to the Dhaka-Delhi the joint communiqué issued at the end of the two-day visit of the Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, on Wednesday, to resolve the transit and the Teesta water-sharing issues as ‘early as possible’. It is all the more so because the people in general have no idea of the planned agreements and because there are conflicting reports in Bangladeshi and Indian media on their contents. According to a report front-paged in New Age on Thursday, transit to India for third-country trade through the Chittagong and Mongla seaports, and infrastructure development for passage of goods between two places in India dominated the official and one-on-one talks during Manmohan’s visit although New Delhi has kept the signing of the Teesta agreement on the backburner. It tends to highlight, yet again, India’s general tendency to secure as much benefit as possible from Bangladesh in return for hardly anything tangible. Hence, the Awami League-Jatiya Party administration has done well not to entertain the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government’s request for transit after the latter pulled out of the Teesta water-sharing agreement virtually at the last moment. Already, Bangladesh has met most of the official and unofficial demands made by India since its independence, which makes the incumbent government’s failure to gain anything substantive out of Manmohan Singh’s visit all the more embarrassing.

As we commented in these columns on Thursday, the diplomatic debacle may have been a blessing in disguise for the government and, most importantly, the people of Bangladesh. The cooling-off period after the government-generated high hopes and hoopla in recent times affords a breathing space for all and the policymakers would do well to make most of it. First and foremost, the incumbents need to go back to the drawing board and redraw their negotiation strategy. That would require a closer look at the issues in hand and review the costs and benefits involved. For example, the incumbents need to weigh the pros and cons of a bilateral transit agreement with India; they need to ask if it is the biggest priority for the country at this point in time. To get answer to this and many other related questions, the government needs to initiate an inclusive consultation process, involving experts, academics, politicians from across the political divide, etc. Above all, it must take the people into confidence, which means that the issue needs to be debated in parliament and also in different public forums.

The government should have realised by now that New Delhi’s apparent desperation to secure transit through Bangladesh either for passage of goods to and from the north-eastern states of India and third-country trade gives Dhaka an in-built advantage in bilateral negotiations. Therefore, it should negotiate from a position of strength and make the Indian government sincerely and seriously, efficiently and effectively address 

Bangladesh’s many concerns, e.g. killing by the Border Security Force on the border, huge imbalance in trade in India’s favour, imposition of tariff and non-tariff barrier on Bangladeshi products and water sharing of common rivers. As for water sharing, the government needs to push for a package agreement on just share of water of all the trans-boundary rivers. As the foreign minister, Dipu Moni, lamented in November 2010, Bangladesh and India ‘will need another millennium to conclude agreements on all 54 [common rivers]’ at the rate of one signed and another set to be signed in 40 years or so.

On the whole, the government needs to engage in bilateral negotiations with a view to securing national interest. To ascertain what is in the best interest of the nation, it needs to take people into confidence and share with them the content and intent of each and every agreement that it is in negotiation with India for. Indeed, the process will be time-consuming; however, the government needs to realise that in matters of national interest, haste ultimately proves counterproductive.