Thursday, August 18, 2011

Visit of Indian PM And Bangladesh Is Loser Again

Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh will be arriving in Bangladesh in less than 20 days from now. West Bengal's Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is also included in the team of Dr. Singh. Indian foreign minister, home minister, information minister, cultural affairs minister and a large number of important figures in the government will be accompanying the prime minister during the upcoming trip to Bangladesh. It was always expected that the transit agreement will create a win-win situation for both Bangladesh and India. But in reality, due to lack of patriotism and commitment, Bangladesh side is set to become a great loser in the agreement.

Bangladesh will have to invest US$ 7.11 billion just to prepare the infrastructure for allowing Indian goods and military items to move within Bangladeshi area through transit facilities. Bangladesh will require US$ 0.50 billion each year just for maintenance of such facilities. But, in return the transit rate that Bangladeshi government is going to accept will not bring any profit for the country. By spending US$ 7.11 billion dollars, Bangladesh's current government is paving the transit routes for Indian consignments, while it will not even earn the amount required for annual maintenance of these facilities.

India is giving loan to Bangladesh for improving the infrastructure for the transit, which is again at a higher interest rate than many of the international loan Bangladesh receives for such projects from other nations and bodies. Bangladesh will have to pay US$ 0.30 billion as interest only for the amount it would borrow for infrastructural development to allow Indian consignments to move.

What experts say is, India should have been asked by Bangladesh side to place minimum US$ 15 billion as upfront payment of fees with Bangladesh while signing the transit treaty instead of giving loan with annual interest. Actually it was a grand failure of diplomacy from Bangladesh side in playing the issue in right manner. Bangladesh seriously lacks in properly negotiating with India, with a humpty-dumpty type foreign minister like Dr. Dipu Moni, who in most of the cases, behaves as a domestic help of the Indian government instead of showing minimum dignity as the minister of an independent nation. To Bangladeshi foreign minister, all those Indian policymakers are 'Big Brothers' and she feel afraid as well as shy in placing the legitimate demand on behalf of her nation with the counterpart during any discussion. At the back of her mind, she might be thinking that, by keeping India happy, she can prolonge the tenure of Awami League government till 2021 at least.
The Indian government is bargaining with Bangladeshi side in paying extremely low fees for using road, railways or river routes in Bangladesh as transit. But, according to international rules and existing fees of transit in other nations - road, rail and river transit fees are equal. In most cases, it ranges between US$ 2.50-100 per ton. Logically though Bangladesh should be charging minimum US$ 0.50 per ton as flat transit rate from India, some unscrupulous anti-Bangladesh elements inside the ministry of foreign affairs and other ministries concerned are actively trying to put unimaginably low transit fees from India [which is just below US$ 0.08 per ton] in the agreement. And the agreement is now ready to be signed on September 6, 2011.

Earlier a report on transit / trans-shipment guidelines was submitted to the commerce ministry. Bangladesh Tariff Commission submitted the report to the commerce ministry, suggesting different methods of realizing transit fees and identified several routs.

The report said North-east Indian states [Nagaland, Mizoram, Manipur, Tripura] especially the eastern part of Meghalaya, southern part of Assam besides Nepal and Bhutan could save costs, ranging between US$ 4 and US$ 50 per ton of goods, by transiting products through Bangladesh territory.

Bangladesh should impose transit fees of a minimum 70 per cent of the savings the beneficiary countries would make by using direct routes through the country, the report suggested.

"India, Nepal and Bhutan will immensely benefit from using the facility while Bangladesh will not require similar facility from any of this countries/region, due to its direct access to sea, the report added.

It suggested that Bangladesh could charge transit fees to recover administrative expenses, uses of service, congestions and environmental pollution arising out of heavy transit traffic. The report recommended forming a Joint Working Group [JWG] among the participating member-states for initiating and finalizing an "Umbrella Agreement" for the proposed transit. It also suggested that the agreement must clearly outline a win-win situation for the participating member-states. The JWG needs to determine the mechanism of cost recovery and other institutional costs and charges/fees to be collected towards materialization.

There is a huge market for Bangladesh toiletries, ceramics, medicine and other items in a number of states within India. Especially the North-Eastern states in India could be a solid market for Bangladeshi products for a numerous reasons. Unless India gets transit facilities via Bangladesh, any product manufactured in India will be comparatively much expensive than those of Bangladeshi products due to heavy transportation cost. At the same time, if India does not get transit from Bangladesh, it put its own sovereignty and integrity into potential threat.

Bangladeshi TV channels remain blocked:

While there were speculations and expectations from owners of Bangladeshi television channels of seeing positive initiatives from the Indian side in allowing these channels within cable television network in that country, it has already been indicated by a number of sources that, there is no hope for Bangladeshi television channels to be shown in India in near future. It may be mentioned here that, Indian cable operators have been refraining from allowing Bangladeshi television channels from being included in the network, as there is an unseen ban on doing so. India allows most of the foreign TV channels, including Pakistan TV and Quran TV.
The initial steps of stopping Bangladeshi TV channels from entering the cable television network in India was initiated by West Bengal's previous leftist government led by Jyoti Basu, who was vehemently opposing allowing Bangladeshi channels on West Bengal's cable network, fearing, Bangladeshi TV channels will become quickly popular amongst the Bangla speaking audience in the West Bengal, because of its rich contents such as drama, telefilm, folk music etc, and at one stage, such Bangladeshi channels can stand as potential threat to communist leadership in West Bengal. The restriction game was played by Jyoti Basu government through the Kolkata City Administration. On the other hand, the Indian central government also was not willing to allow Bangladeshi TV channels in national network, fearing it will have tremendous influence on people in the disputed territories, such as Seven-Sisters or even may influence Indian buyers in switching to Bangladeshi products, especially toiletries, ceramics, electronics etc. Bangladesh annually imports goods worth above 3 billions dollars from India, while export from Bangladesh is very nominal. Indian policymakers are committed in not allowing Bangladeshi TV channels in their national network.

Results of the upcoming visit of Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh to Bangladesh will be actually 'win-win' for New Delhi and 'doom-demise' for Dhaka. Following signing of the Farakka Treaty with India during the government of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the Bangladeshi nation is suffering immensely due to India's wrong behavior for decades. Now, a new era of extended sufferings will begin for the Bangladeshis right after Sheikh Hasina government puts signature on the Transit Treaty. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina herself is also aware of the losing points in Transit Treaty for Bangladesh, and that is why she is trying her best to suppress the contents of the agreements and treaties, simply with the intention of getting it signed. If Bangladeshis will suffer, it may not be a great problem for leaders like Sheikh Hasina, whose children are living abroad permanently and happily. Even after few years, she may also join her children to spend a peaceful life. Really it does not matter to her what happens with Bangladesh. This is fact and wish everyone understands this!

RAW Says Mujib Was Not Their Agent

Former general secretary of the Research & Analysis Wing [RAW] Employees Association, R. K. Yadav has written a letter to Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on August 12, 2011, which was received by the Bangladesh High Commission in New Delhi, stating that, according to Revelation by former Secretary of RAW, K.Sankaran Nair, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman "was never working for the Indian intelligence."
Copy of this letter has also been sent to Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh.

In the letter, R. K. Yadav wrote: "Recent events in the bilateral relations between India and Bangladesh have begun new era in the friendship when your Government honoured late Mrs. Indira Gandhi with "Swadhinata Sommanona" [Bangladesh Freedom Honour] which was handed over to Mrs. Sonia Gandhi on 25th July, at a function in Dhaka. This honour, though belated, is for her historical contribution in Bangladesh liberation war of 1971 which was the biggest military victory for Indian army after World War II in any other war.

Historically there are many other events related to this liberation war.

"While delivering a lecture on the 43rd anniversary of Agartala Conspiracy Case, on 20th June, 2011, Bangladesh President Zilur Rahman [name of the Bangladeshi President is misspelled] urged the historians, freedom fighters, writers and civil society members to come forward with responsibility to present "THE CORRECT HISTORY' of the nation before the new generation. He further added "Our young generation doesn't properly know the long history of the liberation war. At different times, history has been presented in distorted or factional ways". He made these remarks while inaugurating a function to mark the anniversary of this historical case at the IDEB Bhaban organized by The Historic Agartala Case Evaluation Council.

"There is no denying fact that this historic case united the whole of East Pakistan people against the military junta of West Pakistan in 1968-69 and ultimately paved the path for the birth of a new independent nation under the astute leadership of great leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

"Whole of the material related to this court case is available with your Government. This is all based on the concoction of the then Pakistan Govt. in which 35 East Pakistan officials including Hon'ble Sheikh Mujibur Rahman were made accused in the case of sedition. Probably, from the Indian point of view, there could be no other point of reference or intervention in this case except to the fact that Indian intelligence agency, Intelligence Bureau [IB], was definitely involved in this case. Mr. K. Sankaran Nair, who later on became Secretary of Research and Analysis Wing [RAW] in 1977 was the operational officer of this case in Agartala and that is why the Pakistan Govt. termed it as Agartala Conspiracy Case in the court. He was working under cover as Col. Menon while briefing and de-briefing all those who were working for a particular cause planned by the Indian Intelligence, Intelligence Bureau. RAW came into existence on 21st Sept., 1968 and prior to that Intelligence Bureau was the only Indian Intelligence agency handling both internal and external affairs of India.

"Sankaran Nair is now over 90 years of age. He was head of Pakistan desk in Intelligence Bureau and subsequently played a very significant pivotal role in RAW in 1971 while training Mukti Bahini and helping Indian army for final assault on Pakistan force to get them surrender in Dhaka and ultimately liberation of Bangladesh from the clutches of Pakistan. He was number two in RAW under Mr. R. N. Kao and both were pioneer in their job for the liberation of Bangladesh."

Mr. Yadav informed the Bangladeshi Prime Minister that he is writing a book on Indian intelligence [RAW], where he also is describing RAW's role in the war of independence of Bangladesh in 1971. He also endorsed the fact that prior to the war of independence of Bangladesh, Indian intelligence were regularly meeting Pakistani nationals, giving them money and arms to continue insurgency inside East Pakistan. Yadav wrote: "I am working on a book related to Indian intelligence which also includes its role in the Bangladesh liberation war of 1971. In that context, I met many former intelligence officers of India. I met the founder of RAW, Shri R. N. Kao and his deputy K. Sankaran Nair many times. I discussed many other achievements of IB and RAW with both of them and while doing so K. Sankaran Nair in a tape recorded interview revealed and admitted to me that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman never worked for Intelligence Bureau of India and he was falsely implicated by the Pakistan military rulers. Sankaran Nair as Col. Menon met four East Pakistani citizens on the border of India and Pakistan near Agartala for operational planning in Eat Pakistan. He was assisted by Indian Naval officers and a Bihari IPS officer. He wanted to induce some new strategies for separatist activities. Prior to that he gave them financial aid and supplied arms to fight Pakistan army. Subsequently, these people wanted to raid the armoury in East Pakistan which was resisted by Sankaran Nair. He warned them not to raid the armoury and suggested that more arms would be floated to them through river on barges by the Indian intelligence which could be collected at suitable points for insurgency against the Pakistanis. These East Pakistani citizens ignored his suggestion and along with other colleagues raided the armoury which resulted in the arrest of 34 persons and the case as Agartala Conspiracy case was registered in a military court in Dhaka. An Indian diplomat P. N. Ojha, who was IB operative in Dhaka at that time, was declare Persona Non Grata [PNG] by the Pakistan Govt. and deported to India for his involvement in this case, which was a fact.

"According to Sankaran Nair, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was never agent of Indian Intelligence nor was he involved in this case and if he was implicated in the court case that was what the Pakistanis had done at the behest of Yahya Khan, the then Army Chief of Pakistan. Subsequently, whole of East Pakistan was united and stood against the West Pakistan in this case which paved the way of independence of Bangladesh.

"Even the present Deputy Speaker of Bangladesh Parliament, Mr. Shaukat Ali, who was one of the accused in this case, has admitted the facts of this case. This is all History and case details are available on records with your govt but there is no legal proof to wipe out the blot on Sheikh Mujbur Rahman of being the agent of Indian Intelligence. This tape recorded admission of K. Sankaran Nair is the only proof which could be legally used to assist your govt if it desires to reopen this case and get his name removed historically as the agent of Indian intelligence. I am willing to give that relevant portion of this tape along with sample of a video tape of Sankaran Nair to match the authenticity of audio tape with the permission of Indian govt who can get it legally transferred to your govt as per the provisions of International Law. If need be, I am willing to depose in this case in your country along with these necessary material with the permission of Indian Govt. This is one of the instances of the history of liberation which the President of Bangladesh perhaps referred in para first above.

Moreover this evidence to clear the name of Father of Nation in this case, could be a surprise gift to you in particular and to the people of Bangladesh on the Martyrdom day of the great leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on the coming 15th August."

Transit: Some Issues

Transit facility for India has become quite contentious largely as a result of the way it has been handled by the government. It would have been less controversial if it had been taken up as part of an overall settlement of the outstanding bilateral issues, which appears to have been the approach taken by India in its dealing with Bangladesh.

To go by public statements, there is not much disagreement about giving transit to India in principle, but a large group of the citizenry want this to be agreed upon only if it is demonstrably beneficial to Bangladesh. Since a beneficial transit agreement can always be negotiated, the government needed to convince the public that its negotiating team has the skill and will to ensure such an outcome. Instead, the government agreed on transit even before any negotiations began (note that Bangladesh had agreed on transit in principle as early as 1972).

Stung by criticisms, the government's first ploy was to appeal not to politicise the transit issue. The Commerce Minister, who did most of the talking on the issue until recently, urged everyone to treat transit from an economic and commercial viewpoint. If substantial economic and commercial benefits could accrue from transit facilities given to neighbouring countries, then there would be a strong case for it. The government and allied economists and intellectuals initially suggested that Bangladesh stood to gain revenue in excess of one billion dollar per year through imposing transit fees. There would be further gains in terms of regional connectivity that would open up huge trade and investment opportunities within the region. With such rosy prospective gains, it was difficult to argue against transit.

However, there was suspicion that the possible gains were greatly overestimated and the costs suppressed. The suspicion deepened as the estimated magnitude of gains started dwindling precipitously. One highly respected economist estimated that the net revenue earning from transit was likely to be of the order $15-30 million if only rail routes were used - a pittance compared to the initial claim.

When it became clear that there would be negligible revenue earning from transit, the government's economic case for transit appeared rather weak. In this situation the Economic Advisor to the Prime Minister made a rather startling observation that it would be 'uncivilised' to require India pay anything for transit facilities through Bangladesh. Predictably, it whipped up a maelstrom of protests and criticisms.

The Government (Ministry of Commerce) formed a Core Committee headed by the Chairman of Bangladesh Tariff Commission ((BTC) to suggest the terms, including fees, of transit. It has reportedly submitted its report. It has not been made public, but bits and pieces of the report have been published in the news media. The Committee estimated the cost of development of necessary infrastructure for transit at a staggering $7.1 billion dollars. It is about twice the entire Annual Development Programme (ADP) spending of fiscal year (FY) 2009-10 and much more than the amount needed for solving the nation's energy problem permanently. The emphasis on transit gives out a signal that the government regards it as more important than two years' development work or the solution to the energy crisis that the nation is suffering from.

From the estimates of the probable volume of traffic and charges, it became quite clear that transit revenue would not generate enough to cover even a fraction of the maintenance cost of the infrastructure, let alone the capital expenditure. An economist argued that since the infrastructure will be used also by the domestic vehicles, it will be unfair to require Indian transit vehicles to bear the entire cost. The Foreign Minister recently came forth with the argument that transit was essentially a political matter; presumably economic cost calculations did not matter. Thus two years into the controversy, the government came around from cautioning people not to regard transit as a political issue to asserting that it was.

To put transit to India in a favourable light, the Government and some economists linked it with transit for Bhutan and Nepal through Bangladesh. Both of these countries are land-locked countries. India, as well as Bangladesh, is obligated under international law to provide them transit facilities through routes most convenient for international transit. However, India has denied their rightful claim to access to routes through Bangladesh as a pressure tactic to secure transit for itself.

Bhutan is a tiny country of only seven hundred thousand people. Its trade volume is minuscule and most it is with India. There is little economic or commercial gain to be made through transit trade. A profitable opportunity that may arise is if Bhutan were in a position to export electricity to Bangladesh.

Nepal's first choice for transit is unlikely to be routes through Bangladesh, although it may want to keep Bangladesh option open as a safeguard against problems with other routes. It is unlikely that a large amount of revenue will accrue from Nepal transit. Thus, the economic case for transit to India should be viewed on its own merit.

There are some misconceptions and controversies that occur repeatedly in the discourse on transit. To start with, there is no agreement on whether the access facility that India wants can be termed 'transit'. A large group of people hold the view that what India is really asking for are 'corridors' through Bangladesh for quicker and less expensive traffic movement from to North-Eastern part from the rest of the country. It cannot be called transit since transit refers to movement of goods from one country to another through the territory of a third country.

In other words, movement of goods originating from and ending in the same country cannot be called transit even though it might have required travelling through the territory of another country.

There can be no restrictions on the definition of a term one chooses to adopt. However, some terms are used in the relevant international laws and given specific definitions that have gained currency. The transit question arose in the context of land-locked countries. The trade and development prospects of these countries were perceived to be rather dim if they did not have uninterrupted access to the sea.

The League of Nations took an initiative to conclude an international treaty that would guarantee land-locked countries free access to the sea. The initiative resulted in the Barcelona Statute on Freedom of Transit (1921). Article 1 of this Statute defined transit, which was borrowed with only minor modifications by Clause 1 Article V of GATT 1947:

Goods (including baggage), and also vessels and other means of transport, shall be deemed to be in transit across the territory of a contracting party when the passage across such territory, with or without trans-shipment, warehousing, breaking bulk, or change in the mode of transport, is only a portion of a complete journey beginning and terminating beyond the frontier of the contracting party across whose territory the traffic passes. Traffic of this nature is termed in this article "traffic in transit".

This definition does not mention whether the journey commences in one country and ends in another, and hence presumably, if the journey commences and ends in the same country, the passage through the other country would still be termed transit. Indeed, transit is broadly defined in international law to cover passage between custom points within the same country.

Thus, if a container is unloaded from ship at the Chittagong port and forwarded without custom clearance to Dhaka Container Terminal where it is delivered to the consignee after the completion of all custom procedures, then the container was in transit between Chittagong port and Dhaka Container Terminal.

The term 'Corridor' does not appear in the international agreements. However, transit corridor is sometimes used in ordinary discourse to describe an across-the-board arrangement between countries including all stakeholders, both public and private, for the development of a good physical infrastructure and harmonised and simple procedures for transit traffic. Walvis Bay corridors, which are a network of transport corridors principally comprising the Port of Walvis Bay, the Trans-Kalahari Corridor, the Trans-Caprivi Corridor, the Trans-Cunene Corridor, and the Trans-Oranje Corridor that connect several countries of southern Africa are an example of successful cross-border transit traffic facilitation arrangement. The Trans-Caprivi Corridor runs from Congo to the Port of Walvis Bay through the territories of Zambia, Angola and Namibia.

Guarantee Clauses Crucial In Deals On Water Sharing

ANY water-sharing agreement between Bangladesh and India should be based on the annual water flow between the starting and ending points of a river, not certain points like Farakka and Gazaldoba barrages after diversion of water in the upstream, says the Atiqur RK Eusufzai, chairman of the New York-based International Farakka Committee.

All water-sharing agreements need incorporation of guarantee clause for sustainable supply of water for Bangladesh during lean periods, he also said in an exclusive interview with New Age on Tuesday.
Eusufzai, a non-resident Bangladeshi who prefers to be identified as a ‘water activist’, believes the Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, should make an open announcement during visit to Dhaka next month that his country will not construct Tipaimukh dam and Phulertal barrage on the trans-boundary river Barak.
‘He cannot go against the nature,’ he said.

Thanks to sharp political divisions in Bangladesh, successive governments have failed to effectively deal with India in respect of the trans-boundary rivers and other critical issues, Eusufzai said.
The politicians ‘must act together and speak in one voice,’ he said. ‘Any division among them will invite devastation for the country and the people.’

‘National unity is the last word if we want to protect our interests,’ Eusufzai added.

Are activities of the International Farakka Committee limited to the Ganges water? Does it work on other rivers Bangladesh shares with India, Myanmar, China, Bhutan and Nepal?

We, some environmental activists, formed the International Farakka Committee in 1993 to protect rivers—including the Ganges, which is the Padma in Bangladesh, Meghna and Brahmaputra—flowing through Bangladesh and the region and subsequently protect the livelihood of the people living in the delta.
The word ‘Farakka’ in the name of the committee, which is purely a non-governmental environmental  organisation, is symbolic as many of us had joined the historic long march in 1976 under the leadership of Maulana (Abdul Hamid Khan) Bhashani in protest at operations of the Farakka barrage for unilateral withdrawal of Ganges water in the upstream by India.

Most of us believe it was a wrong decision on Bangladesh’s part to have agreed to India’s proposal for test run of the barrage in April 1975. We believe we ‘should not say yes’ without understanding the issues involved, whatever those may be.

I must add that the IFC is a non-profit and non-party organisation with members who believe in different political ideology. Persons who do not believe in any political ideology are also its members.
Its activities are not limited to issues related with the Ganges only. It also works on all trans-boundary rivers shared by Bangladesh and its neighbours.

What is the IFC’s stance on the Tipaimukh dam?
I WAS a member of the IFC delegation that visited Sylhet recently to understand the possible adverse impacts that construction of a mega dam on the river Barak at Tipaimukh and a multipurpose barrage at Phulertal by India would have on the region. Most regional experts and local people, who include farmers, fishermen and members of other profession, told us that they are anxious about the adverse impacts of the dam and the barrage.

India has started construction of the dam and the barrage at one of the most earthquake-prone regions in the world. People in the Indian states of Assam and Manipur are also staging protest against construction of the dam and the barrage. Everybody knows what devastation the recent earthquakes have wreaked on Japan.
India said the Tipaimukh dam and the Phulertal barrage would help reduce floods in Bangladesh. We do not expect ‘too much good’ from India. Flood is a natural phenomenon in Bangladesh, a delta created by rivers. Let us live with flood.

The Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, will be in Dhaka on an official visit early next month. What is your expectation from the visit especially with regards to the trans-boundary rivers?
India helped us during our liberation war in 1971. I think they should treat Bangladesh in the same spirit. Manmohan should make an open announcement in Dhaka that India would not construct the Tipaimukh dam and the Phulertal barrage.  He cannot go against the nature.

What would they say and do if we were in the upstream and India in the downstream? What are they doing with China? Is not India asking China to stop construction of dams and barrages on the Yarlung Tsangpo River, which is Brahmaputra in India and Jamuna in Bangladesh?

One important thing is whether we will be able to raise our voice or not. We are a nation that became independent through a war. Are we suffering from inferiority complex?
I hope our prime minister will deal with the issues with all her wisdom, prudence and courage.

The two countries have been holding discussions for the last 15 years on sharing Teesta water. Bureaucrats of the two countries worked for a couple of years for two separate interim agreements for 15 years on sharing of Teesta and Feni water. Are you hopeful that the agreements would be signed during Manmohan’s visit?
People expect that the agreements will be signed without further delay.

What should be there in the text of the agreements?
At least 30 per cent of the water should be kept reserved for the rivers concerned. Bangladesh should be given at least 60 per cent of the rest.

An important point is to determine at which point the river water will be divided. According to the 1996 Ganges agreement, the two countries divide and share water at the Farakka point. But everyone knows that India withdraws and diverts Ganges water at many points in the upstream.

The two governments are planning to divide and share Teesta water at the Gazaldoba barrage. Once again, it is an open secret that India withdraws and diverts water at several points in the upstream of Teesta. It is not acceptable.

Bangladesh must get its due share of average annual water flow between the starting and ending points of each river.

Should there be a guarantee clause in the agreements on Teesta and Feni rivers?
Certainly. All agreements require incorporation of guarantee clause for sustainable supply of water to Bangladesh in the lean periods.

Right job not done in right time …
The Indian authorities are constantly trying to get 100 per cent out of every deal with Bangladesh. A matter of regret is that successive governments have failed to do not do the right job at the right time, to withstand Indian pressure. We are paying now for their failure.

The Awami League government failed to incorporate a guarantee clause in the Ganges Water Sharing Treaty signed with India in 1996. During the Bangladesh Nationalist Party’s 2001-2006 government, Chinese prime Wen Jiabao expressed solidarity with Bangladesh’s rights as a lower riparian country on the upstream of the trans-boundary rivers. The government utterly failed to make use of the Chinese support.

Pursue basin-wise approach…
India generally prefers to deal issues bilaterally. No problem with that if they agree to give us our due share.
India and Pakistan are doing fairly well in sharing the Sindh water despite several wars fought between the two countries. Several European countries formed a commission to share and manage navigation on the Rhine River. Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand and Vietnam formed the Mekong River Commission on joint management of their shared water resources and development of the economic potential of the river.
I think Bangladesh should also pursue formation of separate commissions for joint management of the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna and, if necessary, other major rivers with India, Bhutan, Nepal, China and Myanmar.

Blame game…
Most of us generally blame India for its attitude in dealing with its neighbours. But for how long will we continue to blame others ‘for the failure of our whole statecraft’?

In fact, we have miserably failed to deal with issues related to common rivers. I do not want to blame any individual or party for the failure when we are talking about our own home.  I am blaming myself. 

The Ganges barrage…
Fifteen years before the independence of Bangladesh (in 1971), the renowned water expert BM Abbas raised his voice for the construction of the Ganges barrage to protect the river Padma and livelihood of the people. But none of the successive governments paid heed to his suggestion.  There was lack of clear understanding. Now we are paying for their failure.

Role of ministers, bureaucrats, experts …
It was not possible for one person like the president or the prime minister of the country to look after details. I think the ministers, bureaucrats and experts have miserably failed to provide adequate support to the higher authorities to make a perfect decision for Bangladesh.     

Experts need to serve ‘one’ prescription…
It is globally accepted that experts may have different opinions on any issue. Unfortunately, most of our experts are sharply politically divided. I think experts should give us one unbiased prescription to resolve the crisis. Please, give us one prescription.

Bottom-line for politicians 
In fact, the country and its people are victims of ‘politics of division’ as there is a dearth of ‘politics and politicians’ in political parties. The parties-without-politicians are running the country
The ruling and opposition political parties are sharply divided on most issues including rivers. But the people do not expect the politicians to remain divided for decades. There is one bottom-line for them—they must act together and speak in one voice. Any division among them will invite devastation for the country. National unity is the last word if we want to protect our interests.

The IFC has recently formed a peoples’ commission with members from Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan USA, Canada France, China and Bhutan. Why? 

We felt serious shortage of initiative, information and findings on different issues including rivers. The government organisations could not provide us adequate information and data. So we formed a commission to collectively work and undertake programmes to protect the Himalayan rivers and uphold interests of the people in the river basins.  We are also planning to establish a research institution to work on the Himalayan rivers.

However, we strongly believe the governments should take a proactive role to protect the rivers and the people.

Will Transit To India Enhance Regional Connectivity?

The important question is whether or not international law requires freedom of all transit including travel between two points of the same country through the territory of another.

There is no ambiguity about freedom of transit to land-locked countries:

"Land-locked States shall have the right of access to and from the sea for the purpose of exercising the rights provided for in this Convention including those relating to the freedom of the high seas and the common heritage of mankind. To this end, land-locked States shall enjoy freedom of transit through the territory of transit States by all means of transport." (UNCLOS 1982, Article 125 Clause 1)

However, transit from one coastal state to another is less clear. GATT 1947 stipulates:

"There shall be freedom of transit through the territory of each contracting party, via the routes most convenient for international transit, for traffic in transit to or from the territory of other contracting parties. No distinction shall be made which is based on the flag of vessels, the place of origin, departure, entry, exit or destination, or on any circumstances relating to the ownership of goods, of vessels or of other means of transport." (Article V, Clause 2)

The use of the term 'international transit' above is significant. It seems to suggest that GATT calls for freedom of international transit. The important question then is whether goods travelling between two points of the same country through the territory of another country qualify to be called international transit.

GATT (and its current incarnation World Trade Organisation or WTO) was a multilateral organisation for promoting international trade through uniform laws. Nothing in GATT relates to exclusively internal matters of a Contracting Party. Since transit between two points of the same country, albeit through the territory of another country, is essentially internal trade, it is unlikely that GATT would have contemplated regulating such trade. This seems to be the broad international understanding. UNCTAD Trust Fund for Trade Facilitation Negotiations states:

In the WTO context, goods are defined to be in transit when the crossing of the territory of another WTO Member constitutes only part of the journey between departure and final destination country ... . GATT Article V therefore only refers to so-called through-transit, i.e. transit in the GATT context, normally involves at least three states. (Technical Note 8, rev 2, February 2009, emphases added.)

Thus, transit between two points of the same country through the territory of another country does not fall within the purview of Article V as it is commonly understood by the international community. It seems nations were aware of the political and security aspects of transit and therefore avoided multilateralisation of the issue. Bangladesh is under no international obligation to offer transit to India which has a much larger coast than what Bangladesh has. Hence, transit to India must be decided bilaterally or sub-regionally.

It is customary to begin a discourse on transit by pointing out the limited scale of trade in the South Asia region relative to other regions such as South-East Asia. This is attributed to restrictive cross-country regulations and trade logistics problems. Without mentioning which countries are imposing these restrictions, the authors jump to the conclusion that if Bangladesh offers transit between North-East and rest of India (i.e. East-West transit through Bangladesh), it will melt away the trade barriers and thereby substantially increase trade and investment in the entire region.

Actually these arguments do not fully apply to Bangladesh. India is the largest trade partner of Bangladesh with two-way formal and informal trade putatively in the region of $6.0 billion. India is the second largest source of formal import of Bangladesh accounting for 15 per cent of the total import in 2009-10. If probable informal import is added, the figure rises to around 25 per cent, which makes it the largest source of import for Bangladesh. Bangladeshi export faces substantial non-tariff hurdles erected by India, but nonetheless export to India exceeded half billion dollars last year. But for these hurdles export to India would have been much greater and total trade greater. There can be no doubt that there is scope for substantial expansion of trade with India if the trade barriers are relaxed.

It is claimed that transit to India will enhance regional connectivity and thereby promote greater trade and investment. However, a little reflection will reveal that East-West transit to India does not do much for regional connectivity; it only improves internal connectivity of India by making traffic movement from the West to North-East India quicker and cheaper. It is unlikely that Bangladesh will gain greater access to either the North-East or the rest of India due to transit.

Currently access to North-East India is hampered by various non-tariff barriers and infrastructure bottlenecks. The Ministry of Commerce (MoC) has been complaining about these barriers for a long time without much success in reducing them significantly. It would seem that India is not particularly keen about Bangladesh having extensive economic and commercial ties with North-East India. East-West transit will enable India to prevent Bangladesh from gaining a sheltered market in North-East India by largely offsetting its geographical comparative advantage. India could transport goods from the rest of the country to the North-East quickly and cheaply through the transit corridor, but Bangladeshi goods could be made unattractive through an appropriate choice of non-tariff barriers.

It should be very clear that connectivity of Bangladesh with Bhutan, Nepal and North-east India is not automatically enhanced by East-West transit unless India makes it a pre-condition of connectivity, and it does. What the Core Committee is suggesting is that East-West transit to India will pacify India to give Bangladesh better access to the North-East. East-West transit is neither necessary nor sufficient to secure access to North-East India. Bangladesh may end up losing its principal bargaining chip without much tangible gain.

While East-West transit does not automatically enhance regional connectivity, North-South transit does serve this end. Both Bhutan and Nepal gain by having North-South transit routes through Bangladesh. Bangladesh also gains direct access to these countries unless India creates hurdles.

The biggest gainers from North-South transit are the North-East Indian states. Their international trade (though not internal trade) will be greatly facilitated by access to Chittagong port. Bangladesh will gain from providing transit services including port services. The magnitude of the gain will depend on the skills of the negotiators on both sides. Trade and investment in the region are likely to be promoted by such transit. As economic development of the North-East is accelerated by the transit, trade and investment should flourish.

The geographical location of Bangladesh gives it a comparative advantage in trade with the North-Eastern states vis-a-vis other states of India as well as other countries of the world. This advantage should be protected as far as practicable to exploit the trade benefits. East-West transit dilutes this comparative advantage to a large extent. Hence, such transit should not be granted without ample compensation. However, North-South transit appears to benefit the entire region including Bangladesh. These considerations should be borne in mind when negotiating a deal with India.

A major obstacle to transit is the inadequacies of the transit infrastructure on both sides of the border. Roads and rail tracks of Bangladesh that might be used for transit are in an appalling condition. They can hardly bear the load of domestic traffic, which is increasing at a rapid rate. The total breakdown of transport services along some of the arterial roads recently is a stark reminder of the need to very substantially improve the transport infrastructure of the country. It would be a mistake to allow transit traffic without first ensuring that the transport infrastructure can bear the load of both domestic and transit traffic.

By- M.A. Taslim.