Friday, September 23, 2011

A New Turn In Dhaka-Delhi Ties?

THE first visit of the Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, to Bangladesh evoked enthusiasm but its results turned out to be disappointing to the Bangladesh government because the Indian authorities backed out from signing a much-anticipated deal for equitable sharing of water of the Teesta and Feni rivers. As reported in the media, the Indian decision to back out was prompted by the opposition of the Paschim Banga chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, who seems to believe the clauses in the agreement will deprive her state of its due share of Teesta water.

In the hullabaloo over the Teesta deal debacle, the issue of the Feni water-sharing deal was simply crowded out. No explanation was given by either Dhaka or New Delhi as to why an agreement on the Feni did take place. Suffice it to say, the impression was created that Teesta and Feni water-sharing agreements were going to be signed during Manmohan’s visit. Even on September 4, two days before the Indian prime minister’s arrival, the Bangladesh foreign minister, Dipu Moni, told journalists that Dhaka and New Delhi would sign an interim agreement on the sharing of Teesta water on the basis of equity; she did not make any mention of the Feni. It appears that there was lack of close cooperation and understanding between the two governments on this vital issue.

New Delhi’s last-minute change of heart as regards the Teesta agreement seems to have further strained the relations between the two countries and is indeed a diplomatic debacle for the Bangladesh government. The international relations adviser to the prime and the foreign minister either lack the negotiating skills or unaware of the nitty-gritty of foreign policy, especially when it comes to dealing with India. It is a failure of shuttle diplomacy by the international affairs and economic affairs advisers to the prime minister of Bangladesh. It is regrettable to note that the parliamentary committee on foreign affairs was not consulted with about the signing of a treaty or memorandum of understanding at any stage of the negotiations.

Euphoria about a turning point in the relations between two neighbouring countries evaporated as a result of the failure to sign a memorandum of understanding on liberalisation of trade under the existing bilateral trade agreement or an agreement on joint investment in the power sector for the benefit of the people of both countries, apart from Teesta water-sharing treaty.

Sharing water of common rivers between the two countries is vital to the existence of the country and survival of its people. The Bangladesh government is, perhaps, not aware of the fact that India has begun constructing another dam on the river Saree which is nearing completion. That would cause serious ecological devastation in Sylhet in particular. Not to speak of the Tipaimukh dam, which India intends to go ahead with, although its government assured that no damage would be done to Bangladesh if it is constructed. Many dam specialists are of the opinion that there would be tremendous adverse effect on Bangladesh, the lower riparian country, if the dam is constructed. In a way much more harm would be inflicted on Bangladesh than was inflicted by the Farakka barrage. Since China is going ahead with a project to divert waters from the river Brahmaputra in Tibet to the arid Xinxiang region, apart from building hydroelectric power plant, India is taking an initiative to make a dam to preserve waters from the Brahmaputra, causing damage to Bangladesh. Brahmaputra is an international river and the interest of the lower riparian country should be looked into.

The Indian prime minister, accompanied by secretaries, ministers, including the chief ministers of Assam, Tripura, Meghalaya and Mizoram, paid a two-day visit to Bangladesh on September 6-7. Mamata Banerjee did not accompany him in protest. This is for the first time that chief ministers of the Indian states had accompanied their prime minister to Bangladesh.

This is not the first time India has backed out from signing water sharing treaties with Bangladesh. In 1972 India promised to start as ‘a test case’ the Farakka dam on the river Ganges near Murshidabad, but the dam became operational without taking cognisance of the difficulties that might be caused to Bangladesh. In 1996, a 30-year water sharing-treaty for the Ganges was signed, but without any guarantee clause. During lean period, Bangladesh has been deprived of the agreed amount of waters.

On another occasion India did not honour the treaty of land boundary signed by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the then prime minister of Bangladesh and Indira Gandhi, the then prime minister of India, in 1974. The pretext was filing of a case in the Calcutta High court against the signing of a land boundary treaty. This is the behavioural pattern of the Indian authorities in dealing with neighbours. In 2009 former Indian foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee and the commerce minister assured that they would provide Bangladesh with 5 lakh tonnes of rice and 2 lakh tonnes of wheat at international price, but the promise has not materialised as of now. However, a news item which Hindustan Times carried on July 11 saying an empowered group of ministers headed by Pranab Mukherjee decided to export 3 lakh tonnes of non-basmati rice to Bangladesh at a price of Rs 20,000 rupees per tonne as part of the rice diplomacy after a diplomatic gaffe by the Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh.

We should not concentrate only on the negative aspects of the first visit of an Indian prime minister to our country in decades. There is some positive aspect to the visit. India has agreed to allow duty-free access of 46 Bangladesh-origin products into its markets. That is good news indeed. Signing a protocol to the land boundary agreement of 1974 will pave the way for settlements of land boundary disputes, including un-demarcated areas and adversely possessed enclaves and about the exchange of enclaves. This protocol, if implemented by both sides, grants rights to the people residing in enclaves as citizens of the country they belong to. Now the Bangladesh government should conduct a survey in cooperation with international organisations to demarcate and construct permanent pillars. Bangladesh should seek help of the United Nations in the demarcation of land boundary along with adversely possessed lands and enclaves. Bangladesh should also consult reports of International arbitral awards of 1950 between India and Pakistan.

The visit of the Indian prime minister and chief ministers of four Indian states to Bangladesh is itself a success story wherein leaders of both countries might have exchanged opinions on issues of vital interests to the people and the countries in general. From this visit, officials and leaders of Bangladesh might have gathered experiences on how to deal with the Indian authorities in the future.

BY : Mohammad Amjad Hossain.