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Sunday, May 6, 2012

Series of snubs: Padma Bridge, Teesta water and cricket

India has enjoyed free ride or transit without any fee for months as a major gain whereas any tangible favourable outcome for Bangladesh is yet to be visible. Several perplexing, bizarre and outlandish utterances by certain advisers to the prime minister led even some ruling alliance members to question whether these advisers work for the prime minister here or of India and serve the interests of this country or that. 

HOW the other half lives was a publication of photojournalism (1890) by Jacob Riis, documenting squalid living conditions in New York City slums. Many of the well-off were either unaware of or indifferent to the grubby and inhuman living conditions of the deprived and the disadvantaged.

Riis blamed the apathy of the dominant class for the miserable condition of the distressed and destitute. That was late 19th century New York City. This is early 21st Century Bangladesh. The prevailing condition here seems strikingly similar to NYC back then.

In order to alleviate widespread poverty and provide respite to the poor and underprivileged, international organisations and donor agencies, the World Bank crucial among them, were created. The role of the World Bank and other polygonal organisations, however, are both controversial and questionable.

Critics claim that the overbearing, pompous, pretentious and pushy organisations are significantly responsible for the persistent dismal state of affairs in the poorer countries. Their actions are blamed for creating a privileged affluent class, inured to western way and standard of opulent living. The charge is that the World Bank’s policies aid and abet a small population fraction rather than the inveterate needy half.

To paraphrase Mark Anthony in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, I am not here to bury the World Bank but to update on the latest government attempt to convince the organisation to release the $1.2 billion loan for the construction of the much-awaited and much-wanted Padma Bridge, suspended on charges of alleged corruption by official bigwigs.

According to an April 29 New Age back page report, a two-member delegation, led by Gowher Rizvi, adviser to the prime minister on foreign affairs, visited Washington, DC to attend a joint World Bank-International Monetary Fund meeting and convince the World Bank to overturn the suspension of the Padma Bridge loan. The plea, however, proved futile.

World Bank officials declined to act on the plea and the Rizvi mission returned pretty near empty-handed. The bank reiterated the serious corruption allegations and insisted on punishing the offenders. The original corruption claim was stated in a September 21, 2011 letter from the World Bank linking the then communication minister Syed Abul Hossain and his firm SACHO with the alleged scam.

The current communication minister has pledged the start of bridge construction within the next 11 months. The government has signed a memorandum of understanding with a Malaysia-based consortium for alternative fund arrangement. The failure of the Rizvi mission might have prompted the finance minister to announce that the government would replace the World Bank as the Padma Bridge project coordinator.

Come what may, the outright rejection yet again by the World Bank is a slap in the face and may mean a death knell to the mega project in the foreseeable future. The interest rate charged by the Malaysian consortium may be sky high and its ability to gather such a huge fund in a short period may be dubious and uncertain.

Moreover, the conditions laid down may be prohibitive. Such conditions may be so tough, harsh, stern and stringent that there may be a bridge over the river Padma in Bangladesh but the ownership and payback may belong to outsiders for ages.

The abject failure of the mission led by Pollyannaish and soft speaking, with lilting tone and accented Bangla, Gowher Rizvi who habitually seems to see boundless Bangladesh benefit on each foreign accord, is a major snub. We have to live with it and ensure that the government, out of sheer haste or obduracy and false pretence, does not sign on to a deal that is contrary to national interest.

Before, during and after the ill-fated Indian premier Manmohan Singh’s Dhaka visit in late 2011, Gowher Rizvi made a round of TV talk-show circuit, usually conducted by na├»ve, favourable and government-friendly hosts. He claimed that the agreement would profit Bangladesh more than India.

India has enjoyed free ride or transit without any fee for months as a major gain whereas any tangible favourable outcome for Bangladesh is yet to be visible. Several perplexing, bizarre and outlandish utterances by certain advisers to the prime minister led even some ruling alliance members to question whether these advisers work for the prime minister here or of India and serve the interests of this country or that.

The main benefit slated for Bangladesh during the Manmohan visit was the signing of the Teesta water-sharing treaty. The two sides, despite the last minute rosy and mission about to be accomplished outlook of our foreign minister, failed to sign the all important deal due to eleventh-hour intense objection by the West Bengal chief minister, the adamant and assertive Mamata Banerjee.

The official indication here was that it was just a temporary setback. The matter would be settled in no time at all. The finance minister expressed his expectation last September that Teesta water-sharing agreement would be signed within three months.

As for the delay in the Padma Bridge project, the finance minister said in the April 29 New Age report ‘it can happen for any large project like this.’ He had nonchalantly said in early September 2011 about the Teesta water sharing deal, ‘There is nothing to be disappointed as the deal has only been delayed.’

The three months has now turned into a world record in time keeping, time limit, time commitment and time management, similar to the home minister’s 48-hour deadline for apprehending the killers of Sagar and Runi. The 48 hours officially never elapsed and the three months formally never ended. Both seem like eternity.

There is ample possibility that neither the Padma Bridge nor the Teesta treaty may see the light of day during the reign of the current regime, sort of like Dhaka city corporation elections. If either does by some fluke, it would be hastily concluded but total victory will be claimed.

It will be merrily publicised, accompanied by pomp and grandeur, music and festivities, rallies and receptions, similar to the recent frivolous celebration of the Bay of Bengal demarcation verdict.

As for the simmering and exasperating Teesta imbroglio, West Bengali Mamata is steadfast and yet to budge from her adamant stance to refuse Bangladesh the fair share of water. According to a press report, she declined to grant an appointment to our foreign minister during the latter’s recent Kolkata visit.

The April 30 issue of the Bangla daily Manabzamin reported that Mamta refused to meet and discuss the thorny Teesta issue with Dipu Moni. The foreign minister sent the request for a meeting through the deputy high commissioner of Bangladesh but to no avail.

Mamata supposedly responded that she is in no mood to delve into international affairs and was not interested in any such discussion with the Bangladesh foreign minister. Whatever she has to say, she would do so directly to the Bangladesh prime minister, Mamata stated.

Dipu Moni had met Mamata last year and informed her of the big neighbour’s international obligations regarding water sharing. Mamata evidently was not pleased and perhaps mighty peeved with the lecture on global water-sharing covenant and hence the cold shoulder. She may well be hell-bent on making this country suffer by denying meaningful share of Teesta water.

This may be shocking but neither surprising nor something new. Many Indian actions, from trade and tariff to travel, are discriminatory at best and outright cruel, crude and perilous at worst, such as Indian Border Security Force’s treatment of Bangladeshis in the border area. Killing, maiming, beating and torture, what a prominent minister here once callously called natural and expected, are regular and routine occurrences.

The refusal of the West Bengal chief minister to meet and discuss matters of mutual interests with the Bangladesh foreign minister is another monumental rebuff. This is a clear indication of how the chief minister of a neighbouring Indian state, and perhaps other prominent Indian leaders, holds this country in utter disdain and neglect.

A major factor may be that the current regime here treats Indian wish as its command and grants India all without significant return or reciprocation. That might have diminished the importance and implication of this country in the eyes of Indian leaders.

After such depressing and frustrating discussion of colossal twin rebuffs, sports may lighten things up. There is a popular US saying, ‘When things get tough, the tough go shopping.’ One may paraphrase that by the adage, ‘When things get depressing, the depressed watch cricket,’ only if there is no load- shedding. So on to cricket.

The Bangladesh Cricket Board president made an imprudent, unilateral and abortive attempt to organise a controversial tour of our team to Pakistan. No foreign cricket team has toured Pakistan since the visiting Sri Lanka cricket team was subject to a fiendish terrorist attack during the 2009 tour.

The High Court knew better. Considering the security threat, it gave a stay order on the slipshod and arbitrary decision of the BCB president, who, in the opinion of some critics, often acts like Somerset Maugham’s Mr Know-it-all. He had shown a callous disregard for the safety of the players in his risky decision.

What is sorely and urgently needed is a worthy opponent to show the newfound confidence, skills and fighting temperament of our team. Unfortunately, according to the schedule, the team is idle for the next six months.
Having failed in the rash and foolhardy Pakistan jaunt, the cricket board tried to arrange matches against another Test-playing opponent. That is vital because after the inspiring performance in the recently held Asia Cup where Bangladesh narrowly lost to Pakistan in the final, a long hiatus would sap the collective energy and deplete the enthusiasm and momentum of the team.

The cricket board was reportedly keen to play three one-day internationals and five Twenty-20 matches against South Africa. The proposal was made less than a week after Bangladesh’s scheduled tour to Pakistan was postponed by the High Court.

The South African board decided against the Bangladesh series. The board spokesman said: ‘With the volume of cricket to be played this year, sometimes rest is more important.’ So rest and recreation takes precedence over a series against rejuvenated and ready to go Bangladesh cricket team. The team is ready to go but unfortunately can find no place to go. It is just a waiting game for now.

The mild snub from the South African cricket board thus gives no respite from the duel major rebuffs. It is a waiting game for the nation as well. It is waiting for Padma Bridge funding. It is an interminable wait for Mamata to be kind and gracious so that the Teesta water-sharing treaty can be signed.
Don’t hold your breath.

BY :  Omar Khasru.