Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Can economics drive Bangladesh-India relations?

Daily Sun
March 18, 2012
M. Serajul Islam

A good friend asked me to look for some positive developments in Bangladesh-India relations to arrive at a balanced view of the way in which these relations are moving. In particular, he said that as a result of the initiative of our Prime Minister, there have been big strides on the economic front, particularly in our exports to India. His emphasis was on the 65 RMG items that have been given duty free access to the Indian market that he felt would help Bangladesh make big inroads in to the Indian market.

In a number of seminars I attended recently, I came across some economists who have strongly opposed those critical on Indian failure to reciprocate on issues of water, border and land boundary. They termed such criticisms of India as rhetoric and detrimental to the interests of Bangladesh. They asked the critics to wait with a little patience to see the benefits that Bangladesh would soon receive from Indian policies aimed at assisting Bangladesh benefit from  trade cooperation  trade with it.

In my own writings in a number of newspapers on Bangladesh-India relations, I have been critical of the way India has failed to reciprocate to the courageous gestures and initiatives of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. I felt that our Prime Minister took great political risk to unilaterally offer India full support for its security concerns by stating firmly that Bangladesh would not be allowed to be used for terrorist attacks on India. In that context, she handed to India seven top ULFA insurgents who had been hiding in Bangladesh that has virtually ended the strong movement of independence of Assam.

As a former Director-General for South Asia  in our Ministry of Foreign Affairs and having served in New Delhi, I have always felt that Bangladesh’s future and its prosperity is inextricably linked with developing positive relations with India. Factors of geopolitics make this absolutely indispensible.  However, this geopolitical compulsion is not upon Bangladesh alone. India too is as much dependent on geopolitics to seek positive relations with Bangladesh. Land transit from mainland to India to the 8 northeastern states is not just an economic imperative for India. In fact, the more important reasons are, first , security of the northeastern states and, second,  its integration with India.

Even in last term of the AL, land transit was an issue that the Government would not discuss with India because it was considered Bangladesh’s only card to negotiate with India for its legitimate rights on water, trade and border issues. Unfortunately this time those who feel that Bangladesh needs good relations with India for its own sake have been left wondering what more could Bangladesh have done to make India happy.  In Bangladesh, where India is a factor in politics, it is more a wonder why India would push the Awami League that is its natural ally historically into such a predicament where its failures are going to cost the AL heavily in the elections due in two years’ time.

The Indians, unfortunately seem to care very little for sentiments in Bangladesh or the predicament of the Awami League. The Indian Prime Minister saw for himself the deep frustration among the people on the failure to sign the Teesta deal. He acknowledged that by assuring in his speech to a gathering of Dhaka’s elites in Dhaka University that his government would make all efforts for the Teesta   deal to be signed as soon as possible. That is not happening and the Teesta deal seems now to be sinking into the quick sands. Other issues such as killings on the border, Tippaimukh, etc have moved away from the expectations of the people of Bangladesh.

Instead of caring for the sentiments of the people of Bangladesh, the Indians have introduced new and dangerous issues that are perplexing. The project or linking the Brahmaputra with the Ganges   is one such issue. The Indians had always their eyes on the water of the Brahmaputra that the Indians could not dam because of the terrain and its fast flowing nature. The Indians wanted a link canal to connect the two rivers to take the water on the Indian side to augment the flow of the Ganges and its own needs and those of Bangladesh.

The proposal was preposterous for many reasons and Bangladesh under both military and civilian regimes never took this seriously except as an Indian ploy to vex us and divert our demand for more share of the water of the Ganges.  They have brought this age old proposal that Bangladesh has in the past, on bipartisan basis, rejected as dangerous to its existence for reasons they alone can explain. If this project materializes, India would succeed in damning or diverting waters from the major common rivers, the Ganges, the Teesta, the Brahmaputra, and the Surma/Kushiyara. Recently, India has forced into Bangladesh to withdraw the water of another cross border river the Feni River.  The act infuriated President Ershad so much that he led a long arch to Feni to protest the reprehensible act as he did to protest the failure of India to sign the sharing of the water of the Teesta.

Indian actions are strange and difficult to fathom. What is stranger is the fact that there are many in Bangladesh who do not see anything unusual in such actions by India and refer to those who criticize these Indian actions as people who do not want well for Bangladesh. They hold the view that the openings that India has given Bangladesh in trade is going to bring such huge benefits that what India does or does not do on Teesta/Brahmaputra/border killings would not matter all. They of course point to the US$ 1 billion soft loan and India’s promise to make us as the connectivity hub of the region to overlook what India is doing or not doing on rest of  the bilateral issues.

There is bad news for those who cannot be motivated to think ill of India no matter what because of the rich economic promises they think India is offering us. In fact, my friend who was not happy with me for my critical views on India for its failure to deliver told me that till end of February, Bangladesh had exported an additional US$ 600 million to India benefitting from Indian decision to give Bangladesh duty free access on a number of RMG items. My friends who are in business have told me that recent policies of India are enhancing our exports. However whether few hundreds of millions of extra US $ or a billion would be enough to satisfy India’ denial to give us our legitimate demands on water, border and other issues is very doubtful.

The serious issue here is one of trust. In the past, India has promised Bangladesh many things but has always found one way or another to break its promises. India recently banned export of cotton to Bangladesh because of low production. The ban was later partially withdrawn not for our sake but for pressure from Indian cotton growers. Bangladesh depends for 35% of its cotton needs on India and a ban has the potential to cripple our RMG/textile sector. The ban should alert us to think how much we can depend on India to deliver.

Those who look at economics as the engine to drive Bangladesh-India relations have a lot on their plates to convince the people about what India really has in mind. The public mood has turned against India quite clearly. There were some good signs that the Indians were concerned with the changing mood in Bangladesh and were due to send their Foreign and Finance Ministers to Bangladesh. The visits were supposed to take place last month. Has India lost interest in Bangladesh or perhaps taken us for granted to consider it un-necessary to explain its failure to deliver on Teesta, Tippaimukh, Feni River and now the river linking project that  Bangladeshis feel will turn Bangladesh into a desert? Perhaps the Indians are complacent because we have amongst us those who are helping their cause by highlighting the promise of economic gains and no

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt

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