September 6th., 2011
M. Serajul Islam
Looking at the issue of land transit as we stand on the threshold of, to believe our own Government, a paradigm shift in Bangladesh-India relations, I can’t help wondering how easily we have shifted between two extremes and why. Our sensitivity on the land transit over the past few decades was not entirely rational. In the last term of the Awami League, land transit was not mentioned in Bangladesh-India negotiations as we considered this our only negotiating card to get our water, trade and other rights from India. Now that we have given it to India, it is not rational either that one Adviser would tell us that this should have been given 40 years ago or another would state that we would be “uncivilized” to charge any fee for transit.
Interestingly, the Adviser who wanted to give India land transit 40 years ago has recently stated in a seminar that there is no need for an agreement to give this facility to India because we have already granted India land transit by an agreement signed decades ago. He is right but partly. This agreement was signed under the BNP Government of President Ziaur Rahman in 1979 and not in 1974 as he stated for which the ruling party had criticized the BNP during both its terms in office.
The Adviser, Dr. Gowhar Rizvi, would have done himself and the nation a great deal of service if he had cared to tell us why the land transit was not implemented for so many decades and India’s role as a neighbour during this period. An explanation would have revealed that land transit was not implemented because bilateral relations during this period were embedded in distrust for which India’s overbearing and unfair attitude towards Bangladesh was to a large extent responsible.
In fact, land transit was introduced as connectivity with promises of rich economic dividends for us when negotiations started with India after the new government was formed in Bangladesh. The switch was made to set aside India’s role in un-friendly state of relations and make the issue acceptable in Bangladesh. I am not sure which side coined this word, but whichever side did it, it was a master-stroke. The vision that Bangladesh would become a connectivity hub of this region that would include India, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar and China was too grandiose for Bangladesh not to be sucked in especially for a new Government that wanted to make India happy.
When we are more than ready to count our chickens from connectivity, the Finance Minister spoiled it for us. He told us that such are the conditions of our roads that it would be years before Indian trucks could use our transport system. The Finance Minister was not concerned that the Indian Prime Minister is about to visit Bangladesh and that his statement would create confusion. In fact, he said what everyone now knows, that our highways are not fit for traffic and would need years to fix.
Quite clearly the Adviser and the Finance Minister were not consulting each other because just before the Finance Minister had spoken, the Adviser was giving us a break down on earnings from land transit telling us that fees from land transit would be peanuts compared to the rich harvest we would reap from commerce and investment relations with India’s Seven Sisters by becoming the regional connectivity hub. The Adviser later went before the media and said that the roads would not be ready for years and therefore transit by river and railways would be given priority.
One wonders how commerce and investment that would make us rich would be conducted without roads. Then again, if road transit was not expected to be a priority, why was all the optimism raised over it. Clearly again, the Adviser came up with the river and railways transits only as an afterthought having been put on a spot by the Finance Minister. All these revealed a lack of coordination, transparency and preparedness in a process in which mysteriously the Foreign Ministry is absent! Nevertheless, lest the people be disappointed with all these, the Adviser asked us not to worry because our negotiators have Harvard University background and therefore more than capable of upholding our interests with the Indian negotiators!
There is also a small problem with the new line that Dr. Rizvi has taken to sell connectivity apart from the strange logic of the Harvard reference. First, neither he nor the government has cared to explain that India’s northeast states are not a composite whole; that they are poor and impoverished and that they have many intra-states problems that will not put them in any shape to make Bangladesh rich, not in the immediately foreseeable future anyway. Second, there is a problem of international politics. India and China are sharpening their conflicts, the former with USA by its side that could put a spanner on connectivity and deal our hopes of getting rich a major blow. It is difficult to contemplate that at this stage, India would be in any way interested to connect China to its still conflict prone northeast by road for Bangladesh’s economic benefit.
India’s interest in land transit is partly economic but more security based. There is no doubt that land transit would help India to develop the impoverished Seven Sisters. However, emerging international relations in South and Southeast Asia have enhanced India’s need of a land transit even more than in the past. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice after her meeting with the Indian Government in 2005 in New Delhi had hinted towards that by naming Bangladesh as the “next Afghanistan.” India thus needs a handle on Bangladesh and in that context a land transit is of immense importance in India’s strategic planning.
Bangladesh has committed itself totally to Indian security concerns. This is a political commitment of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Her Government has ensured the implementation of this political commitment. Land transit is the final element that would fulfill the Prime Minister’s political commitment to India’s security needs. Sadly, our side is not even aware of the price of the Prime Minister’s political commitment. If they were, they could have resolved most of Bangladesh’s outstanding problems with India upon which our survival depends instead of running after the promise of becoming rich as the connectivity hub that by admission of some of its own Ministers/Advisers is still in the distant horizon.
There will nevertheless be many agreements and MOUs, 14 by newspaper reports, to be signed during the coming visit of the Indian Prime Minister that may include some big Indian investments. These agreements/MOUs will promise a bright Bangladesh-India future but will deliver little for now or for some time to come. Whether just promises would please Bangladesh is uncertain. The opposition that represents a very large section of people of the country has been left out of the negotiations totally has most recently called the negotiations a “selloff.” Also, politically, the ruling party is not as strong as when it had started negotiations.
The Bangladesh government must nevertheless be commended for its courage to set aside the history of unfriendly acts by India to improve bilateral relations. Such unfriendly acts include among others, allowing 93,000 Pakistani POWS to return home; unilaterally constructing the Farakkha Barrage, denying Bangladesh a fair share of waters of all cross border rivers and killing hundreds of innocent Bangladeshis on Bangladesh-India border.
It is India’s turn to reciprocate. For the paradigm shift of bilateral relations, the Indian Prime Minister must commit his country politically for providing Bangladesh a fair share of waters of all cross-border rivers and if there is an issue of augmentation, seek a regional solution of Bangladesh’s water needs; and give up building the Tippaihmukh Dam and other dams on cross border rivers over Bangladesh’s objections. India must also commit Bangladesh an unfettered access of its goods to its market. Security assurance and land transit to India are worth much more.
Is India willing for such political commitment or Dr. Manmohon Singh in a position politically to do so? Indians could argue the need for such commitment when our own negotiators are championing their cause free of charge.
The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan.