Thursday, November 24, 2011

Tipai: Another Disappointment

The recent developments regarding Tipaimukh are shocking and if there is an outpouring of concern in Bangladesh it is perhaps because of our experience with Farraka … once bitten twice shy. And clearly a commitment that it would not take steps on the Tipaimukh that would adversely impact Bangladesh has been breached by India. And to say that it has added to our frustrations would be an understatement, as if the Teesta disappointment was not enough. And this will do nothing to endear the government of India to the people of Bangladesh. 

It is disconcerting to learn that all the necessary preliminaries have been completed to commence work on the Tipai dam project. And this raises several issues and questions apart from the fact that it reinforces a feeling in many in Bangladesh that putting one's trust in India for reciprocity may be often misplaced. It also shows how inept our ministries are in handling bilateral issues and how dismally they have failed to keep tabs on developments across our borders that impact upon our national interest. 

Till November 22 our mission in Delhi was still waiting for an official response to the developments. We have a response from the Indian side now, and that too as a reaction to media reports in Bangladesh. Apparently our Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) had not managed to send off a letter to India till now in response to reports on the Tipai development. The Indian reaction is a mere reiteration of their position that the project would have no adverse impact on Bangladesh.

Clearly there are two sets of issues that we must address in this regard. Firstly, the issue of mutual assurances and understanding. Leaving aside the right of Bangladesh as a lower riparian to be consulted on any work on a common river, implied in the Indian assurances is the commitment to take Bangladesh into confidence by consulting it in this regard. Thus while we find the Indian statement of November 22 rather interesting giving one to understand that it was a rather innocuous signing of a "Promoter's Agreement" with the purpose of setting up a Joint Venture Company between the government of Manipur, NHPC Ltd and Sutlej Jal Vidyut Nigam Ltd on October 22, we find the statement of our state minister for water resources, that the matter is entirely an internal issue of India and Bangladesh has nothing to do with it, utterly preposterous.

We have neither been consulted nor kept informed of the development even if it is as harmless as setting up of a joint venture company to construct a hydroelectricity project for the generation of 1,500 MW of electricity. And there is very little doubt that this has been a great embarrassment for Sheikh Hasina and her government, who can rightly feel let down.

We have stated in the past that her proactive actions as regards mutual issues since coming to office were statesmanlike but risky. Bangladesh has more than met the primary concern of India, that of security. It had handed over several ULFA leaders hiding in our territory without waiting for formalisation of an extradition treaty between the two countries.

Bangladesh did not wait for fulfilling the necessary formalities before allowing transit to India and that even without working out the tariff for the service provided. And this was done in spite of the fact that we did not have the required infrastructure, and alternative arrangements had to be made for movement of over-dimensional vehicles at the expense of our existing roads. Our main concern, the common rivers' water has been given a short shrift.

The second, and perhaps even more important, is the environmental and ecological impact of the project and the eventual harm to the lower riparians it might cause; and that includes some of the North Indian states.
The Indian assurance is not backed up by any study whatsoever. The Indian claims have been contradicted by a study in Bangladesh conducted by Institute of Water Management in 2005. And without going into the differences between a dam and a barrage, it is clear that any impediment on a river will have an influence on its flow. By one account seventy million people are likely to be adversely affected by the dam.

Therefore, there is very strong rationale for a joint study to determine the potential impact of the project since there is clearly a divergence of view on it, not only between Bangladesh and India but also within India itself. And Bangladesh should make a case for this most forcefully. We find an element of timidity on our part to demand our due share from India, whether it is Tipai or Teesta.

As for our own agencies, it would do well for the MoFA in particular to be more proactive. One would hope that it would not have to wait for press reports at home to wake up to the developments which occurred almost a month ago. Our man in New Delhi should have been aware of this and alerted Dhaka as soon as things happened. But then Delhi autumn can have the most torpid effect, particularly on diplomats. 

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