DISPUTE over the use of water resources has been one of the key determinants in the bilateral relations between Bangladesh and India for long. Despite initiatives, establishing sovereign rights over trans-boundary international rivers has remained a cause of concern for Bangladesh. In their major engagements, India used non-elastic diplomacy while taking advantage of the elastic attitude of the Bangladeshi counterparts. It is time for Bangladesh to revisit the balance sheet of this mutual relationship and ask what was wrong with the big neighbour, India.
Bangladesh’s major problems in bilateral relations with India stem from a number of irritants ranging from water disputes, un-demarcated lands, exchange of enclaves, frequent border killings, trade complications, using Bangladesh as a market for Indian narcotics, push-in of the Indian minorities into Bangladesh territory, non-compliance by India with major treaty provisions, and finally lack of commitment from the Indian side to address these issues through goodwill and friendship.
One priority issue for India is to integrate northeast India with its mainland through Bangladesh territory, for which it has been persistently seeking some form of transit/corridor facilities for a long time. The traffic between India proper and the northeast is mainly carried by rail and road links through the Shiliguri Corridor, which requires staggering transportation costs for carrying goods. To transport goods to and from the northeast through this ‘chicken neck’ corridor, the Indian government provides 25% transport subsidy. It was estimated in the 1990s that Rs.7 billion is spent as additional costs to transport goods and services to and from northeast India. It is expected that the cost has increased subsequently in tandem with economic growth both in the northeast and the rest of India.
India is now desperately seeking transit facilities for its landlocked states in the northeastern region. It is asking for a free gift or token cost from Bangladesh. During her visit to New Delhi in January 2010, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina signed a framework agreement allowing river port ‘transit facility’ to the seven sisters region from Ashuganj to Akhaura. Once implemented fully, it would allow India to transport annually an estimated 10 million tons of inward and outward traffic to the northeast, surpassing the previous level of river transit of about 50,000 tons a year.
Prior to the full implementation of the transit deal, Bangladesh should claim from India about two-third of the total additional costs that India has to spend now. Also, in order to avail the complete inland river facility, India will have to ensure the flow of water in the major river basins of Bangladesh, including Meghna and Tessta.
Besides, many observers fear that if these transit/corridor facilities are used for military purposes at times, an anti-Indian insurgency might start inside Bangladesh territory. Bangladesh has to be very cautious in dealing with such issues and lessons should be learnt from anti-Taliban drive in Pakistan. The Pakistani example should be sufficient to help persuade Bangladesh not to invite similar risks for its own territory and people.
Amongst the major problems, the water sharing dispute remains dominant. Farakka Barrage and the desertification of northern Bangladesh have been the most contentious issues for the last 38 years. Bangladesh has 54 common rivers with India, out of which Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna are major trans-boundary rivers. In the absence of joint basin management, and non-compliance with the Indo-Bangladesh water sharing agreement of 1996, about 20,000 kilometres of Bangladeshi rivers have dried up.
Gazoldoba barrage project in Teesta River is another serious concern for Bangladesh. India keeps the barrage closed during the winter season, which affects the river flow downstream and disrupts the navigability of the Teesta River and ecology of the northern districts. India has also constructed several dams on Teesta to produce hydropower. The Tipaimukh dam project on the Barak River in Manipur state in India is a new addition that will affect Bangladesh. It will have drastic and adverse impacts on the hydrology, morphology, and ecology of the downstream Bangladesh.
The Joint River Commission (JRC) has been working to assess the gravity of the overall economic and ecological impacts of the dams. On its side, the Bangladesh government has engaged two consultants who might be able to submit their full reports by mid-2014. This assessment is necessary, but the measure allows India to buy time. Given the situation, the present government will not be able to sign any agreement during the next few months. Playing the Mamata card, however, Teesta water sharing deal was unilaterally abandoned by India in September 2011, and again by postponing the ministerial meeting scheduled for June 2013.
Furthermore, there are disputes between the two nations that impede a settlement on maritime boundary demarcation. The establishment of Bangladesh’s right over New Moore (South Talpatti) island remains a far cry. India claims that the main channel of the Haribhanga river flows to the east of the new island, whereas Bangladesh maintains that it flows to the west, which would clearly make the island an integral part of Bangladesh territory. The Bangladeshi position is also supported by the British survey report from the colonial era.
As a result of the controversial claims made by India, Bangladesh is also facing difficulties in the exploration of untapped resources from its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and continental shelves, which are essential for the exploitation of marine resources in the country. Whereas Bangladesh’s claim over the seabed areas with Myanmar was resolved by the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) on March 12, 2012, issues with India are still waiting for international arbitration. Maintaining its hegemony, India has been asking for seaport facilities from Chittagong and Mongla without recognising the maritime boundary.
In view of this reality, Bangladesh should send a clear message to India about shelving all the treaty provisions on transit and river port facilities, unless India comes forward with total cooperation and integrity. A more plausible way would be signing an ‘Integrity Pact’ taking China and Nepal as joint partners to find durable solutions of the outstanding disputes between Bangladesh and India.
The writer, an eminent educationist, is a Professor at North South University.