Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Pranab Mukherjee’s visit: the same empty rhetoric

THE two-day visit of the Indian finance minister, Pranab Mukherjee, to Bangladesh went as predictably as it could. His articulation of the Indian government’s willingness to enter into an agreement on Teesta water sharing or his assurance that India’s river-interlinking project ‘would not be harmful for Bangladesh’ had no new twist or turn by and large; his colleagues in New Delhi, including the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, have said similar things over and over in the past three years or so. In fact, it may have been unrealistic to expect anything revealing or reassuring from him in the first place; after all, he was in Dhaka primarily to attend the concluding ceremony of the 150th anniversary of the birth of poet Rabindranath Tagore.

The only novelty, albeit essentially on a cosmetic level insofar as bilateral relations are concerned, may have been his fallacious and feeble attempt at apportioning the blame for New Delhi’s failure to conclude the Teesta water-sharing agreement on the Congress Party’s allies in the United Progressive Alliance government and the opposition parties in India. According to, Mukherjee told a select group of editors during a meeting on Sunday that the deal had run aground because of such ‘ground realities’ as the Congress’s lack of majority in parliament. He sounded as if his party had always had the best intentions for Bangladesh at heart, a proposition that would be difficult to prove empirically. Moreover, it is inconceivable that all the members of the ruling alliance and the opposition in India are hostile to Bangladesh’s concerns and interests. Overall, his conclusion appeared geared more towards his domestic audience than anything else.

However, the Indian finance minister or, for that matter, his government needs to realise that New Delhi’s assurances and reassurances have increasingly fewer takers in Bangladesh. According to a report front-paged in New Age on Sunday, both the prime minister and the leader of the opposition in Bangladesh, during their meetings with Mukherjee, categorically said that India should sign an agreement on the sharing of Teesta water and hold a credible study soon on its plan to construct the Tipaimukh Dam on the trans-boundary river Barak. In fact, the prime minister appeared uncharacteristically blunt when she said that most people in Bangladesh did not understand the centre-state relations in Indian politics and that ‘it is easy for them to misunderstand the intent of the government of India over the delay in the conclusion of the Teesta agreement.’

The prime minister rightly pointed out that the construction of the Tipaimukh Dam and the river-interlinking project had become issues of grave concern for the public in Bangladesh.

Suffice it to say, the concern is rooted in findings and conclusions of experts, not only in Bangladesh but also in India, about the threat that the mega projects pose to the life and livelihood, the economy and ecology of the people on either side of the border. Worrying still, the Indian government has thus far displayed not only apathy but also antipathy to the concerns and interests of Bangladesh. Continued torture and killing of Bangladeshis by the Border Security Force; India’s persistent refusal to remove tariff and para-tariff barrier to exports from Bangladesh; and address trade imbalance, etc bear testimony to this end.

Overall, the Indian government needs to realise that the people at large in Bangladesh have very few reasons to keep faith in what it says and that it is time that it started delivering on its assurances and reassurances. 

Meanwhile, conscious sections of society in Bangladesh need to reach across the border and forge alliance with like-minded groups in India that are also concerned about the economic and ecological fallout of their government’s river-linking and Tipaimukh plans so as to sustain pressure on New Delhi to shelve the projects.