Saturday, April 30, 2011

Land Transit to India for Free?

Daily Sun, April 23, 2011
M. Serajul Islam

For over 3 decades we who worked in the Foreign Ministry and had the experience of dealing with India felt extremely disadvantaged not just because of our size but also because of our poor natural hand in bilateral negotiations with our great neighbour. We were at India’s mercy with the vitally needed water of our rivers, with the maritime boundary, on trade and on border issues. Our only comfort was in the belief that we had the “land transit card” in which India was very interested for economic reasons. We knew it was a strong hand and if we played it deftly, we could get from India our legitimate demands.

Therefore, it is extremely surprising to wake up suddenly to the fact that the “transit card” is a useless one. An Adviser to the Prime Minister has gone on record to state that it would be “uncivilized” to ask from India any fees for transit. At least one senior Minister and few others have referred to relevant WTO regulations to which both Bangladesh and India are signatories to prove why Bangladesh cannot charge any transit fee from India. Senior members of our own Government are now advocating land transit for India for free!

This Adviser’s statement is “breaking news”. What is comforting though is that an inter-Ministerial Committee headed by the Chairman of the Tariff Commission has recommended in a Report to the government between US$ 4- 50 in transit fees depending on the route to be used. The Report that has dealt with a wide range of other related issues has been reviewed by the Ministers of Finance, Foreign Affairs and Commerce and a few Advisers of the Prime Minister. They have however given no reaction on the recommendations.

The Bangladesh side never agreed to accept land transit as an item in the agenda for discussion in the many decades of bilateral negotiations with India. Even the Awami League did not allow the issue to be discussed in bilateral negotiations, knowing how sensitive it is to Bangladesh when it was in Government from 1996-2001.

The controversial land transit issue was given a new name to make it acceptable to Bangladesh after this Government came to office and started bilateral negotiations aimed at achieving a paradigm shift in the otherwise conflict-prone bilateral relations. The two sides started to refer to land transit as regional connectivity in which Bangladesh was conveniently pitched as the hub for road and rail network to bring it with Northeast India, Bhutan, Nepal, Myanmar and South China into a sub-region of economic growth and development. Bangladesh was drawn into the concept at a time when except for India talking with it secretly, none of the other countries were even consulted. India threw in a soft loan worth US$1 billion to be spent with India’s approval primarily for building roads and related infrastructure to facilitate land transit under a new nomenclature.

In addition, India also offered electricity to an energy starved Bangladesh. Very deftly, the Indians transformed an issue in bilateral relations that no Bangladesh Government in the past, except the present one, dared to even talk about in public, let alone discuss it with India without the latter relenting on the issues of water, trade, maritime boundary, etc. Without receiving even one concession on any of these issues, Bangladesh has presented India land transit to India on a silver platter. To make it sugar coated, some members of its own Government together with interested groups in non-government circles are now eager to offer land transit to India free!

Bangladesh must be a very generous country or it may not even know what its national interests are. If WTO regulations do not allow it to charge India for transit, how come Government sources quoted huge amount of money that Bangladesh would make by allowing India land transit to make a controversial bilateral issue saleable to the people? More importantly, who would pay for the infrastructure costs that would be according to the Tariff Commission’s Report over US$ 7 billion? And what about the environmental costs and damages where Bangladesh is a frontline state in the fight against environmental degradation?

These questions apart, why would an Adviser of the Government use such a harsh word as “uncivilized “to criticize his own country in favour of India where the latter has been anything but fair in dealing with Bangladesh? Why are others in Government taking a different stand? The way Bangladesh Government is dealing with the issue shows that those in charge are not clear about what they are handling with an absurd lack of coordination that will only strengthen he hands of the opposition that has already dismissed the land transit issue as sell off to India.

The only way to deal with the opposition would be to show the people clearly the financial gains that would accrue to Bangladesh from land transit. If the Adviser and his supporters succeed in waiving for India the transit fee, then it would not need a crystal ball, WTO provisions if they are there notwithstanding, to predict that India would never get to use Bangladesh roads for its economic benefit knowing that the opposition has the support of almost half the people of Bangladesh.

It would be in India’s interest therefore to urge the Bangladesh Government to ensure that its officials do not contradict one another or offer land transit to it free. India should simultaneously also show its willingness to give Bangladesh its fair share of the river waters and resolve other outstanding bilateral problems for bipartisan support of Bangladesh on land transit.

As for its diplomatic efforts, Bangladesh has made a mess. India that coined regional connectivity to get land transit must be smiling at Bangladesh’s negotiating skills by the way certain sections in the Bangladesh Government and non-government organizations and individuals are openly talking of land transit without the need to refer to it as regional connectivity! India must also be curious as to who runs Bangladesh’s foreign policy but happy nevertheless that people within Bangladesh Government are doing it favours that it dared not even ask of Bangladesh Governments in the past.

The surprising support in a section in Bangladesh for giving India land transit has raised apprehensions in a lot many particularly because those supporting are in government and willing to giveit free and without any reciprocity from India. For the many who feel apprehensive that Bangladesh is playing away its only card against India without caring for its national interests, the hope seems to lie in the fact that the infrastructure for land transit would take 4 years in implementing. In the context of Bangladesh’s politics, the issue could come back to square number one in this period of waiting!

There is a postscript to the drama over the transit fees. India has very recently written to the Government of Bangladesh that it should fix “reasonable” transit fees. Perhaps the Indians are unaware of the WTO regulations as some of us in Bangladesh know or if they know, they know, such regulations notwithstanding, how absurd it would be for expecting to receive land transit from Bangladesh without charges given how shabbily and unfairly it has treated Bangladesh in the past.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and a former Secretary to the Government.

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