Saturday, October 1, 2011

Teesta-Transit Tug Of War

THE government’s decision to tag transit facilities for India with an interim Teesta water-sharing agreement is inappropriate, say politicians and experts.

Both transit and Teesta river issues should be dealt separately on their own merits, they say.

Rashed Khan Menon, president of the Workers Party of Bangladesh, an ally of the Awami League-led ruling alliance, opposed the idea that Bangladesh may get proper sharing of water of the Teesta river in exchange of giving transit to India.

‘Getting water from Teesta is our right and we want a proper share of its water according to international law and the issue of transit could not be tagged with it,’ he told New Age.

The agriculture minister, Matia Chowdhury, said on September 10 that India would not be given transit facility to transport its goods through Bangladesh until the Teesta water-sharing deal is reached, reported.

The prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, also made it clear to the Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, during his visit, Matia, a member of Sheikh Hasina’s kitchen cabinet, said at a pubic rally in her constituency at Nalitabari in Sherpur.

‘We need water, but we want it honourably. If we don’t get Teesta water, there will be no transit. The Indian prime minister was told about it in plain language,’ she said.

The Bangladesh Nationalist Party vice-chairman, Shamsher Mubin Chowdhury, was very critical of the government’s position on tagging one with the other. ‘Apples and oranges cannot be compared. The two issues are totally different,’ he said.

‘We have the moral and legal right to water of river. It is our right. On the part of India, it is mere privilege for them to have transit,’ he said.

The government was set to give its formal consent on September 6 to provide India with transit for trade with third countries through the Chittagong and Mongla seaports and passage of goods to India’s north-eastern states, according to the foreign minister, Dipu Moni.

 ‘There will be an exchange of letters giving consent to provide India transit through the Chittagong and Mongla seaports,’ Dipu Moni said at a press conference on September 4 at the foreign ministry.

The letters will contain the consent to do whatever is required, including the signing of agreements, protocols and memorandums of understanding, for enacting rules and setting standard operating procedures and fees in this regard, she said.

The trade agreements signed between India and Bangladesh in 1972 and 1980, and renewed subsequently, will be the basis of transit and the development of regional connectivity and the signing of many protocols under these agreements will be necessary in the future, she said.

However, the government stepped back from exchanging the letter at the last minute as India gave a broad hint on September 5 afternoon that the agreement on Teesta would not be signed during Manmohan Singh’s visit to Dhaka on September 6 and 7.

Dhaka was hopeful about signing the deals on the Teesta and Feni rivers till evening on September 5 although Indian foreign secretary Ranjan Mathai gave a broad hint in the afternoon that the Indian government might not sign the agreement during this visit.

On September 5 afternoon, Mathai said at a press conference at his office in New Delhi that anything agreed between India and Bangladesh would have to be acceptable to the state of West Bengal headed by chief minister Mamata Banerjee.

He said Bangladesh and India might sign a deal for sharing of water of the Feni during the Dhaka visit.
Mathai hoped that ‘the manner in which Bangladesh-India relation is going through a paradigm shift will be appreciated by “all sections” of society in Bangladesh.’

Mamata Banerjee is reportedly unhappy with the proportions of the Teesta water to be shared by the two next-door neighbours. She was asking to give Bangladesh only 25 per cent of water available at the Gazaldoba barrage point keeping 75 per cent for West Bengal. Bangladesh wants sharing of the water on the basis of equity. 

Dipu Moni told reporters at the prime minister’s official residence Ganabhaban on September 5 night that she was hopeful of signing the Teesta deal. 

However, the two sides could not sign even an agreement on the Feni as Bangladesh decided at the last minute to sign the deals on both Teesta and Feni rivers together.

The government asked the foreign secretary, Mohamed Mijarul Quayes, to seek an explanation from the Indian side. Quayes sought an informal explanation from the Indian high commissioner in Dhaka, Rajiv Mitter.
Instructed by the government, Quayes summoned the high commissioner to the foreign ministry at 9:00am on September 6 as the government thought that his initial explanation was ‘not acceptable’.

‘There will not be any deal on the Teesta during this visit as their [India] central government could not finish consultation with the Paschim Banga government,’ Mitter told the secretary, according to diplomatic sources.

Quayes told Mitter, ‘It is not acceptable to us at all if you do not sign the deal at the last minute after finalising everything.’

The general secretary of Bangladesher Samajtanrik Dal, Khalequzzman also criticised the government’s attempt to portray the issues of transit and Teesta complementary to each other. ‘These are different issues and cannot be compared,’ he said.

The general secretary of the Communist Party of Bangladesh, Mujahidul Islam Selim, said he was not aware of any formal claim from India that it would sign the Teesta deal if Bangladesh gives transit. ‘But what the ministers are saying is contradictory. We have the right to Teesta water but transit is not a right for them. They can realise it by negotiation,’ he said.

Dhaka University law professor Asif Nazrul came down heavily on the government’s claim that it did not sign transit deal as India was not ready to sign the Teesta agreement. ‘These cannot be compared,’ he said.

‘Bangladesh has the moral and legal rights to the water of Teesta but for India it will be a privilege if Bangladesh allows it transit facility,’ said Nazrul.

‘Yes, transit facilities can be allowed to India through proper negotiation but it has to ensure benefit of the people of both the countries,’ he said.

The ruling Awami League lawmaker, Mostafa Faruque Mohammed, also a former foreign secretary, said the transit issue had no link with the Teesta deal.

Mustafizur Rahman, executive director of the Centre for Policy Dialogue, said both the transit and Teesta issues have their own merits which offer mutual benefits for both the countries.

M Humayun Kabir, vice-president of the Bangladesh Enterprise Institute, said both the transit and Teesta river issues should be dealt separately on their own merits.

India’s unwillingness to sign the deal on Teesta was clear even 48-hours before September 5 afternoon. The Indian water resources minister, Pawan Kumar Bansal, who was scheduled to arrive in Dhaka on September for the 38th meeting of the Joint Rivers Commission, cancelled the trip at the last minute.

Bansal said on July 22 that his country was set to reach an interim agreement with Bangladesh on the Teesta and Feni rivers during Singh’s Dhaka visit, according to the Indian Express. He said this at a press conference also joined by the Bangladesh prime minister’s economic affairs adviser Mashiur Rahman after a meeting between the two.

Bansal said he was expected to visit Bangladesh to finalise the details of the agreement ahead of Singh’s Dhaka tour.

His comments came two weeks after the Indian external affairs minister, SM Krishna, told newsmen in Dhaka that two countries had nearly finalised a 15-year treaty for sharing the waters of the Teesta and Feni.

After Mamata Banerjee’s antics on the Teesta deal, the Bihar chief minister, Nitish Kumar, is asking for reviewing the 1996 Ganges water sharing treaty.

However, experts in Dhaka believe that there were ‘political elements’ in the demands placed by the two chief ministers. ‘Lots of political elements are involved’ in it,’ Humayun Kabir said. 

A senior official at the Prime Minister’s Office said it was not Dhaka that first tagged the signing of the Teesta deal with the signing of the agreement on transit.

‘In fact, it was India that first bracketed Teesta with transit as it was not happy with our decision for exchange of letters on transit,’ the PMO official said.

‘They were pursuing for a full-fledged agreement on transit or at least a protocol to the 1972 and 1980 agreements on trade for the use of Chittagong and Mongla seaports for third-country trade,’ the official said. ‘We, one way or another, stepped in their plan.’

‘They are applying pressure tactic to exploit the division within the Bangladesh government to get the maximum benefit from both transit and Teesta deals,’ the PMO official said. 

The Awami League-led government’s ministers and advisers were making contradictory statements on the question of Bangladesh providing transit to India.

On the necessity of agreement for allowing India transit, the prime minister’s international affairs adviser, Gowher Rizvi, said on August 28 that there was no need for ‘any new agreement’ on transit as two bilateral trade agreements were signed in 1972 and 1980 envisaging road, rail and waterway transit facilities.
Dipu Moni’s September 4 statement was contradictory to Rizvi’s statement. 

Senior government officials supported the foreign minister’s stance saying that the two countries would need to sign a formal agreement for providing any such transit facilities.

On charging transit fee, the prime minister’s economic affairs adviser, Mashiur Rahman, strongly argued in September last year that Bangladesh could not ask for tariff or fee for providing transit.

In November last year, the finance minister, AMA Muhith, said the existing transit rules of the National Board of Revenue would be amended and the transit fees re-fixed.

In March, Mashiur said that demanding tariff for the use of transit was against World Trade Organisation rules.

‘We could demand transit fess only if we were uncivilised and uneducated,’ he said.

Mashiur also wrote to the National Board of Revenue and the ministries of commerce and shipping not to charge India fees for the movement of its goods through Bangladesh.

In June 2010, the revenue board issued an order regarding transit fees. It imposed transhipment/transit fees of Tk 10,000 for each TEU container and for bulk products without containers, Tk 1,000 per tonne, effective from July 1, 2010.

An Indian cargo ship also paid necessary fees in August 2010, while moving from Kolkata to Tripura using the Bangladesh waterways.

But, following the adviser’s letter, the Indian authorities requested Bangladesh to waive such fees when two ships entered Bangladesh territory in September. Later, the revenue board agreed to allow two cargo ships to move by taking a bank guaranty in lieu of transit fees.

On June 27, Rizvi said, ‘It’s not true that India would not pay any fees for availing transit through Bangladesh We’ll get the legal and legitimate fee from India for using transit.’

Even if Bangladesh allows India transit or transhipment as a favour to the country, according to WTO principles, the former has every right to charge fee settled exclusively on bilateral basis. 

Article V of GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) is considered as guiding and governing principle of transit as it is titled ‘Freedom of Transit’.

Paragraphs 3-5 clearly mention what could and could not be imposed in giving transit. According to paragraph 3, the transit facility ‘shall be exempt from customs duties and from all transit duties or other charges imposed in respect of transit, except charges for transportation or those commensurate with administrative expenses entailed by transit or with the cost of services rendered’.

And the paragraph 4 reads: ‘All charges and regulations imposed by contracting parties on traffic in transit to or from the territories of other contracting parties shall be reasonable, having regard to the conditions of the traffic.’

The paragraph 5 reads: ‘With respect to all charges, regulations and formalities in connection with transit, each contracting party shall accord to traffic in transit to or from the territory of any other contracting party treatment no less favourable than the treatment accorded to traffic in transit to or from any third country.’
The GATT principle allows the transit providing country to recover costs in the form of fee or charge. The general principle, therefore, is that transit traffic shall not be a source of fiscal revenue.

Again, both Bangladesh and India are bound to provide a transit facility for a third country under the WTO rules. The most-favoured nation treatment is obligatory for all WTO members. So, when Bangladesh or Nepal seeks transit to India for entering Nepal or Bangladesh respectively, India has to allow such a facility in compliance with WTO principles.

The Centre for Policy Dialogue showed in a study done in November last year that Bangladesh could earn $2.3 billion in 30 years by providing transit facilities to India, Nepal and Bhutan.

Bangladesh could earn 10 per cent of the potential revenue in first five years as transit fees would be low in the initial years when the infrastructure would have to be built, it said.

An Asian Development Bank study estimated that Bangladesh could earn annual revenue of $1 billion on completion of the needed infrastructure in five years.

The ADB said, initially, Bangladesh could earn annual revenue of $50 million. Projected returns on transit are based on imposition and collection of transit fees and charges.

Sheikh Hasina agreed during her January 2010 visit to India that ‘Bangladesh will allow use of Mongla and Chittagong seaports for movement of goods to and from India through road and rail’, according to the joint communiqué issued on the visit on January 12, 2010.

Originating from So Lomo lake in Sikkim, the river Teesta has entered Bangladesh through Jalpaiguri and met the river Brahmaputra after flowing about 124 kilometres in Bangladesh.

An agreement on Teesta was expected as protracted negotiations on the river since 1952 eluded a solution while the two neighbours only exchanged papers to resolve the issue in the past decades.

The water of the Teesta is crucial for Bangladesh, especially in the leanest period from December to March. Sometimes in December and January, the water flow comes down to less than 1,000 cusecs from 5,000 cusecs.

Drastic fall in the water flow of Teesta during the lean season, especially in February and March, seriously hampers irrigation in Bangladesh while JRC sources said the flow of the river weakened significantly in the last 24 years for Gajoldoba barrage and some dams built in the upstream Indian region.

Deltaic Bangladesh is crisscrossed by 230 major rivers, 54 of them mostly originating from India. Bangladesh and India had inked a landmark treaty on sharing of the Ganges water during Hasina’s 1996-2001 tenure removing a major irritant in the bilateral ties.

BY : Shahidul Islam Chowdhury .