Monday, October 31, 2011

Of Bangladesh-India relations
M. Serajul Islam

Daily Sun
October 23, 2011

It is time for our negotiators to get back to the drawing board following the disappointing visit of the Indian Prime Minister to Dhaka and assess the reasons for the big gap between expectations and achievements.

Let us set aside our gains like, for example, the settling of land boundary and the 46 RMG items that we will now be able to export to India duty free. Our major concern with India is water for the 54 rivers that come from India and give Bangladesh, its life. A fair demarcation of the maritime boundary holds a major key to our economic development. In 40 years of “incremental diplomacy”, we have only one accord on water sharing and on the maritime boundary; we have been forced to go to the UN

We are not getting the water promised by the Ganges Accord because there is not enough water at Farakkha during the dry season due to upstream depletion. The Teesta Accord that we are now desperate to sign is even in a worse situation. Mamata Banerjee has said recently that there is no water at the point of sharing during the dry season.

Bihar Minister of Water Nitish Kumar has asked for a review of the Ganges Accord. Mamata Banerjee and Nitish Kumar are in fact asking us to look at a crucial issue that our negotiators seem oblivious about – the issue of upstream withdrawal. Over the years since our independence, the Indian states have withdrawn waters from these cross-boundary rivers without ever caring for Bangladesh’s needs, thus pushing us to a process of slow death.

A private TV channel has shown a series of documentaries recently to create public awareness on how our rivers are drying up. I wish our negotiators have seen the documentaries to know our situation and India better. Given our desperation for the Teesta Accord, it is very likely that we would sign an accord that on paper would give 50% share of Teesta waters during the dry season. If we are to believe in our common sense, objective data and Mamata Banerjee, there will be little or no water to share when the time for sharing comes!

One point that most of us missed while analysing the botched up visit of Dr. Manmohon Singh is the little emphasis that our negotiators placed on water sharing till India reneged on the Teesta deal. They were too engrossed with the magic of connectivity hub with which they wanted to launch a new era of Bangladesh-India relations. In fact, they had told us many times during the process of negotiations that Teesta Agreement was almost ready for signature when our Prime Minister visited New Delhi.

Thus our negotiators did not just set water issue aside, they sugar-coated our major playing card, land transit, by promising us great riches as the connectivity hub. In fact, they made it appear like it was in our interest to give India the land transit. Therefore, we should thank Mamata Banerjee for stopping us from signing a Teesta deal that would have been an agreement on paper. In the process, we would have given away to India land transit that holds such immense value to India.

Mamata Banerjee has also helped us hold back on the security card for without her spanner on the Teesta deal, we would have handed over Anup Chetia and also have not signed with India the extradition treaty. In fact, given the state of terrorism, both homegrown and cross-border inside India, India is in desperate need for support and assistance of Bangladesh for a handle on terrorism where they consider Bangladesh a major source of concern. Thus for them AL victory in the last elections and Sheikh Hasina’s offer on security was an answer to their prayers.

Although a lot of what has transpired between Bangladesh and India on security has been outside public knowledge, it can be safely concluded that India needs a lot more time to feel it has secured the security threat from Bangladesh. Hence there is strong reason to feel that despite the concessions we have already made on security – like for instance handing over the top ULFA terrorists – there is much more value of our security card to India. Hence in an ironic sort of way, both the transit and security cards have become stronger because the Indians reneged on the Teesta deal that botched up the visit.

When they get back to the drawing board, our negotiators should first set their priorities right. They should put water in bold letters and place it right on top. While negotiating on water, they should lay claim to a share of all cross-boundary rivers and object to any upstream withdrawal without consulting us. However, keeping in mind that augmentation is the key, our negotiators should seek a regional approach to the water issue. A regional approach has the potential to turn our region into one of the richest in terms of water resources in the world. Indian mindset in dealing with neighbours bilaterally has been the problem.

Equally important to Bangladesh, in fact much more than becoming the connectivity hub, is the need to exploit the rich potentials of hydro-carbons and marine resources in the Bay of Bengal. Where we trusted India to give it land transit and security without demanding our rights on water, trade and land boundary, it awaits explanation why we decided to go to the UN tribunal with our case. When our negotiators go back to the drawing board, they should consider a negotiated settlement on the maritime issue because going to the Tribunal does not rule out bilateral negotiations.

Of course, our present negotiating team will get nowhere with the above. This is where our Prime Minister has a historic role to play. She alone can make India change this mindset by playing the security and land transit cards in exchange. Sadly, because of our poor negotiating skills, we are rather late in playing this strategy because today Sheikh Hasina is not as strong politically as she was when she visited India nearly 2 years ago.

She could make up this weakness by talking with the BNP. It was heartening to see the BNP a lot changed vis-à-vis India. The talks between Khaleda Zia and Manmohon Singh were even followed by a letter from the latter to the former when Dr. Singh returned to New Delhi. Given the state of relationship between her and Khaleda Zia, the discussion on an India policy could be carried on at levels below them to give India the message that Bangladesh, not just the AL, is ready for a paradigm shift in relations.

Meanwhile, at the drawing board, our negotiators should decide to hold on both the security and transit cards and see what India does with the issues it has resolved. If a Teesta deal comes along, so be it but that should not lead to land transit and no more concessions on security, not without India agreeing to deal on the water issue regionally. The water sharing issue cannot be left to incremental diplomacy for Bangladesh may not last long enough to see the end of that process ofnegotiations.

Security and land transit for our water needs could eventually create the mutual trust in Bangladesh-India relations with which resolving the demarcation of the maritime boundary could be achieved effortlessly. However, the driving force for achieving the above must be political will to change the negative bureaucratic mindset that is more pronounced on the Indian side.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt.

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