BANGLADESH is almost entirely encircled by India via a land border of 2,979 kilometres and a riverine boundary of 1,116 kilometres. These two neighbours share 57 trans-boundary rivers. In this regard, border securities, land occupancy, water sharing and trade promotion are the broader issues for Bangladesh and India. The paradox, however, is that despite a fairly harmonious relationship that dates to the birth of Bangladesh some 40 years ago, questions have been raised at home and abroad on the costs of disputes between two countries.
Two countries have so far agreed on many bilateral agreements, including the 25-years Treaty of Friendship, Co-operation and Peace of 1972, the Protocol on Inland Water Transit and Trade of 1972, the Land Demarcation Agreement of 1974, the Bilateral Trade Agreement of 1980, the 30 years Water-sharing Agreement for the Ganges of 1996, the Lease Agreement of Teen Bigha Corridor (a corridor for movement of enclave’s people) of 1992 and the Protocol on Border Demarcation and Swap of Enclaves 2011.
However, the question is why the negotiations and agreements done so far were not effective to end with a positive sum game between two countries.
There was a honeymoon period of friendship and neighbourly relation between the two countries during and immediately after Bangladesh’s war of independence. India helped Bangladesh with enviable political, military and humanitarian supports at initial stage. In this regard, a friendship treaty was signed in 1972 in the spirit of cooperation and peace. Much discussed issue related to Ganges water got momentum prior to completion of construction of the Farakka Barrage and accordingly a joint river commission was formed in 1972.
In addition, the border security got priority for cordial bilateral relations. In this regard, a treaty was also signed in 1974 to solve the problems with non-demarcated boundary of 6.5 kilometres and 162 enclaves. Bangladesh will be surrendering 111 enclaves being India’s inside Bangladesh and India to surrender 51 enclaves being Bangladesh’s inside India. For this exchange, Bangladesh might gain 31 square kilometres of land but it will solve a long-standing problem.
Subsequently, illegal withdrawal of Ganges water led to a water crisis in the dry season in Bangladesh in 1976. Though India was obligated to negotiate prior to operation of such a gigantic dam in the upper riparian as per the riparian doctrine, but did not. In 1976, Bangladesh lodged a formal protest with the UN General Assembly, which adopted a consensus statement. Subsequent talks between the two countries resulted in a five-year water-sharing treaty in 1977. Then, another memorandum of understanding was signed for a five-year renewal. The agreement lapsed in 1988 as the countries failed to come into a consensus. However, international law could not deter India from diversion of water because weak implementation of environmental regulations.
Meanwhile, the waterway-transit facility provided to India in 1972 has remained operational. Ratifying the 1974 agreement now might be a mistake for Bangladesh against which it handed over the South Berubari enclave of 7.4 square kilometres to India. On the other hand, India could not hand over the Tin-Bigha corridor of only 178 x 85 metres. For continuing such tensions, the political events led the negotiations to misunderstanding, mistrust and misapply. Even after major issues being unsolved, the expansion of capitalism opened a window of negotiations, which resulted in a trade agreement in 1980. In the late 1980s, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation was formed to promote inter-regional trade and to strengthen mutual cooperation. Indeed, lack of enthusiasm to solve so many disputes kept countries apart from trade promotion. It might be a reason for which India opened the window of negotiations, which resulted in agreements on sharing water of Ganges River and on lease of Tin Bigha Corridor in 1992. But it was hardly materialised and contributed to fuelling the anti-India attitude.
Bilateral relations got a new dimension when the Awami League retained power. The outcome of subsequent negotiations was a 30-year water sharing agreement of the Ganges in 1996. However, India asked for transit facility in the mid-1990s, which created instant reactions in Bangladesh. On the other hand, non-implementation of the water-sharing treaty by India endorsed a death mark for the river Padma, the part of the Ganges in Bangladesh. Moreover, India steadily embarked on constructing dams or diverting water from many trans-boundary rivers such as Teesta, Gumti, Khowai, Dharla, Dudkumar, etc. All such incidents made the dispute basket larger though all agreements came through a process of negotiations that also continued even at the implementation stages.
However, following the wave of regional economic integrations in the world, the South Asian Free Trade Agreement was signed in 2004 aiming to promote trade and to provide transit facilities in all modes of transports, even though the SAARC member countries had border insecurities and other disputes.
Subsequently, many negotiations went on trade promotion and economic cooperation under the umbrella of the SAARC. Regrettably, the ground realities in 2010 showed that over 15 per cent of Bangladeshi import was from India while India’s import was less than one per cent from Bangladesh. In addition, the illegal trade and smuggling, which are fairly old practice across the border, have become ever serious because of wide participations of local people allegedly in liaison with anti-smuggling enforcement agencies.
Recent talks on the pending issues resumed after the Awami League came to power in 2009. During the recent visit of India’s prime minister in 2011, a protocol was signed in support of executing the 1974 agreement for border security and exchange of enclaves. However, without a specific timeframe, question marks remain on the fate of the exchange. Moreover, the water-sharing deal for the Teesta was not signed. Rather, the construction of Tipaimukh dam on the Barak could not be stopped. Experts and analysts expressed their anxiety that the dam could lead to drying up of the rivers Surma and Kushiyara, and desertification of northeast Bangladesh. The subsequent anxiety is what the fate of Bangladesh will be if India builds 101 dams and barrages under the proposed river-linking mega project to generate about 30,000 megawatts of electricity.
Now the question is how much Bangladesh can hand down to the giant neighbour, whose economy is twenty times larger compared to it. Indeed, trade promotion is no more an insignificant issue for India because of mass illegal penetrations of both its legal and illegal products into Bangladesh. What is important for India is transit, about which internal political dialogues in Bangladesh says ‘no water no transit’ or ‘transit with fee’. However, what is the related standing of India’s hydro-politics? If India provides transit fee but stops water, what will be the fate of our agriculture?
Who could have imagined looking back at 1971 that India would shoot down Bangladeshi across the boarder? The situation has become so that all negotiations end with a zero-sum game favouring India where the giant neighbour seeks undue advantages from the weak bargaining capacity of the small neighbour.
BY : Aminul Islam Akanda.