A Precipitate Outcome
Reaz Rahman sounds a cautionary note on the recent Indo-Bangladesh summit
No one expected that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's state visit to India would resolve all outstanding issues. It was a goodwill visit. It was to set the climate for negotiations and lay down a base for communications.
Despite all the euphoria over the visit it has been repeatedly underscored that relations between Bangladesh and India are motivated neither by good intentions nor by good neighbourly relations but by the logic of "realpolitik."
The key characteristics are caution, circumspection, pragmatism and hardball negotiations. It must be remembered that India never concedes an inch. Leader of the Opposition Begum Khaleda Zia categorically stated that Bangladesh was not anti-Indian. It was simply not oriented to making it easy for India.
The purpose of the visit was thus to lay down an agenda that would lay a foundation for follow-up over time -- a framework as it were, for discussion, agreement and subsequent implementation. Fundamental concerns of each side were to be spelt out and a network of existing mechanisms and institutions were to be energised and reactivated.
Bangladesh's Fundamental Concerns
Water sharing: 54 rivers cross into Bangladesh from India. In the last 38 years, a sharing agreement has been concluded on only one of them. Many in Bangladesh believe that the 30 Years Ganges Water Treaty is seriously flawed. It was concluded in haste and abandoned the major planks of Bangladesh's claims for a reasonable and equitable share. Furthermore, Bangladesh has no protection in seasons when there is a drastic fall in the flow of waters. The impact of this agreement has had disastrous adverse consequences for Bangladesh. The river-linking project embracing 30 rivers hangs over Bangladesh's head like a Damocles sword. The project is still on the books despite strong protest in India itself. It remains an incalculable threat to Bangladesh.
Environment: The issue of water sharing is compounded by larger economic, ecological and environmental hazards, which call for much greater cooperation especially with regard to watershed and catchment area management, control of pollution, etc. Environmental hazards wreak annual havoc to the tune of billions of dollars downstream. "No harm" assurances have never been realised.
Land boundary issues: Non-ratification by India 36 years after signing the 1974 Land Boundary Agreement has exacerbated tensions all along the 4096 km Indo-Bangladesh border. 6.5 km remain to be demarcated, constituting the core of the most disputed issues. Exchange of territories in adverse possession, and enclaves in each others territory have now unnecessarily become hot spots of tension. Willful disregard of border ground rules and shoot to kill orders have seen mounting toll of innocent civilians killed. Movements of people across the border, trafficking in humans and drugs, border smuggling, etc remain constant pin-pricks. Two elements in particular contain huge potential for conflict: (i) exaggerated claims of large scale illegal immigration, and (ii) the building of a fence to deter such illegal immigration, check smuggling and prevent infiltration by Indian insurgent groups. The fence has at points arbitrarily encroached within 150 yards against agreed border ground rules. India is now justifying that the fence does not constitute a defense mechanism.
Maritime boundary: Demarcation of the maritime boundary between adjacent states carries significant potential for competition and conflict over living and non-living resources. Both India and Myanmar have adopted an unvarying stand on demarcation on the basis of the most rigid application of the equidistant line. A joint stand of India and Myanmar could cut-off Bangladesh's access to the limits of its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and Continental Shelf, and deprive it of its legitimate rights over resources of the sea, sea-bed and sub-soil thereof. Bangladesh's case is based on equity. Government has precipitately embarked on arbitration with the international sea-bed tribunal. It appears to have now reverted to pursuing both options, i.e. arbitration and bilateral negotiations. The fact is that it has not yet firmed up its position in determining the equities of its case. One of the key elements is establishing Bangladesh claim for an extended continental margin up to 350 nautical miles.
Transit and trade: The government has obscured the distinction between transit and transshipment by using a loose interpretation of the broader term connectivity. India's single-minded pursuit is to establish a corridor to North-East India. Transit is reciprocal in nature and implies mutual benefits. Transshipment is unilateral in nature and benefits only India. The AL government has sought to dissemble and cover up the entire issue by arguing that the objective has broader regional dimensions, embracing not only Bhutan, Nepal, North-East Indian states, but also Sri Lanka and the Asean countries as well. The fact of the matter is that the whole exercise was to establish multi-modal transport connectivity to North-East India.
Of major concern for Bangladesh was the burgeoning trade deficit with India. Despite many promises in the past and the huge benefit it received as a result of Bangladeshi economic liberalisation policies, India remains reticent to accord duty free access to Bangladeshi exports or to lift para-tariff and non-tariff barriers. As an alternative, India had suggested entering into a bilateral free trade agreement on the lines of the Sri Lanka-Indian FTA. The matter is still under study. However, some negative aspects are being underscored. It was opined that there was no compelling case for Bangladesh to pursue a bilateral FTA with India based on potential economic benefits. Rather, broad-based liberalisation was preferable and would yield larger benefits. The risk was also underlined of a captive market if Indian producers were to collude among themselves or with Bangladeshi importers so as to artificially increase prices.
Security and strategic issues: Bangladesh has been made a convenient scapegoat for the Indian army and intelligence failure to resolve the six decade old separatist insurgency in North-East India. A drumbeat of exaggerated accusations variously charge Bangladesh with stoking insurgency with collusion of Pakistan's ISI; refusing to dismantle camps or repatriate insurgency leaders; harbouring fundamentalist/extremist groups and their Indian collaborators; allowing madrassas to churn out radicals; channeling sophisticated arms from South-East Asia to India's North-East, and even of supporting an umbrella organisation geared to creating a third Muslim state in India.
These accusations have been directed at all governments in Bangladesh, including the Awami League. They cannot be wished away in the euphoria of a so-called new beginning. Bangladesh has steadfastly denied these accusations in terms of intent or actual involvement. It has raised the question as to why India's lack of responsibility at finding solutions to its own problems should be laid at the doorstep of Bangladesh. Moreover, India has done little to address Bangladesh concerns relating to criminal elements taking refuge in India and anti-Bangladesh groups carrying out activities inimical to Bangladesh including the carving out of a state comprising parts of Bangladesh.
It is in light of the above backdrop that we must assess the actual outcome of the visit. At its best, it can be said that the outcome was disappointing. At its worst, it can be bluntly stated that the nation was unprepared for the stunning concessions that were made. It was all give and very little take.
India gained on four major fronts: (A) Security; (B) Connectivity; (C) Economic Cooperation , and (D) Psychological.
Security: With the signing of three agreements whose contents are yet to be made overt, India appears to have significantly edged forward in securing its objectives to curb insurgent activity, that of terrorists and militants as well as repatriation of leaders. These agreements are nothing new and have been on the boards for some time. The difference was that so far they have been on a regional or multilateral plane and now they have been pinpointed on a bilateral basis.
In November 2008 the AL manifesto called for the creation of a South Asia Task Force to combat militancy. The then Indian External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee on a visit to Dhaka in February 2009 said the concept already exists but what was important was "the sincerity to fight terrorism." He said that this could be achieved if we had bilateral, regional and global mechanisms. To what extent and in what direction bilateral cooperation will take place is unclear. It has given rise to a host of questions: What will be the modalities? Will it entail a standing military force that will operate jointly? Will it jointly carry out verification or will each country coordinate its own actions?
How far Bangladesh will be embroiled in India's security and larger strategic concerns remains a matter of speculation. The release of Aravind Rajkhowa the ULFA leader in advance of the summit was a major fillip for India. The two prime ministers underscored their common ethos for democracy and moderation (euphemism for vindicating censure of fundamentalism and extremism).
Transshipment: India's pre-eminent goal of a corridor to its North-Eastern states has been all but secured. The joint communiqué is rife with commitments that constitute significant links in the chain of connectivity. These include:
Ashuganj and Silghat were declared new ports of call. More important was the fact that the use of multi-modal transport links was ushered in. This was a major concession. Originally a request was made for one time use of over dimensional cargo. Now possibility arose of longer term use.
The understanding to discuss the use of Chittagong port by India has translated to allowing actual use of both the Mongla and Chittagong ports for movement of goods to and from India. This is a mega concession.
Bangladesh agreed to the early implementation of the Akhaura-Agartala rail link to be financed by India.
The two prime ministers welcomed the start of the Maitree Express and called for the establishment of road and rail links between the two countries. Nothing was discussed regarding the long delays that have made the service virtually unprofitable.
India announced a credit line of $1 billion for a range of projects including railway infrastructure, supply of locomotives, rehabilitation of Saidpur workshop, procurement of buses and dredging projects. The question arises as to why the people of Bangladesh have to pay off a credit that is oriented to serving India's interests. Moreover, given the excess of liquidity in the Bangladesh banks these could have been financed from indigenous sources.
The above elements demonstrate sustained progression towards India's realisation of a corridor to the North-East. The AL government's cabinet decision of June 2009 to join the Asian Highway network effectively rounded off the process.
Economic cooperation: India's constant complaint that Bangladesh has been overly negative on economic cooperation issues, especially transport connectivity as well as sale of gas and electricity, was somewhat assuaged when the Bangladesh prime minister took another quantum leap forward, without any preparation, by signing an MOU on cooperation in power.
Para. 32, though silent on details, deals with: (i) 250 megawatts electric supply for Bangladesh from India's central grid and (ii) agreement of the two prime ministers to: (a) expedite inter-grid connectivity, (b) cooperation in development and exchange of electricity, and (c) setting up joint projects or corporate entities. The paragraph entails an open-ended agenda with wide-ranging implications.
Psychological gain: The Bangladesh prime minister, in another unprecedented move and without laying any groundwork, conveyed Bangladesh's support in principle for India's candidature for permanent membership of the UN Security Council as and when reform takes place. It was argued that the BNP government made a similar announcement supporting Japan's candidature long in advance of the decision to reform. The AL government has missed the point. The implications of Japan becoming a permanent member and India becoming a permanent member are not on the same plane. The Bangladesh PM has given explicit recognition to India as the dominant power -- the "hegemon" of the region.
Bangladesh made no commensurate gain. India remained tight-fisted. Outstanding concerns of Bangladesh were not voiced or acknowledged and no foundation laid for addressing them. Criticism is not being directed at India for the outcome of the summit but at the AL for over-reaching itself. There was too much give and too little take. That is why the leader of the opposition called the outcome a joint communiqué between India and the AL not India and Bangladesh.
Water related issues: The two prime ministers agreed that discussion on Teesta water sharing should be concluded expeditiously and the JRC was to meet at ministerial level by the first quarter to discuss Teesta and other rivers. Differences over sharing Teesta waters remain so widespread that prospect of early agreement is negligible. The Bangladesh prime minister, however, has referred to the "spirit of the Ganges Water Treaty" in motivating a sharing agreement. This is a recipe for cumulative disaster. Bangladesh's legitimate claims for a reasonable share were abandoned and the consequences of the Treaty had a disastrous impact on Bangladesh. The prime minister also made no protest, nor sought any assurances regarding the river linking project. By accepting assurances of no harm regarding the Tipaimukh Dam the prime minister has literally signaled the green flag for its construction.
Trade deficit: India's response on trade related matters was lukewarm to say the least, including duty-free access and lifting of restrictions on para- and non-tariff barriers. It was quick, however, to reiterate its own concerns regarding port restrictions, containerised cargo, upgradation of standards and testing to build up capacity for certification as well as lifting restrictions on Indian investments and on specified commodities. Reference to (i) initiatives India has undertaken to provide Saarc LDCs duty free access and (ii) the reduction of a number of items (47) from India's negative list (242) was pathetic in the face of huge gains India has made as a result of liberalisation of Bangladesh's economy.
Land boundary issues: Land boundary issues were placed in abeyance pending comprehensive address of all related issues. Bangladesh prime minister inexplicably thanked the Indian PM for facilitating provision of electricity in Dahagram/Angarpota enclaves. She forgot that the cardinal issue is that after 36 years of signing the Land Boundary Agreement of 1974 Bangladesh is yet to exercise full sovereignty over the enclaves whereas India has enjoyed sovereignty over South Berubari Union since 1974. The issue of constructing a fly-over was a pragmatic solution made three decades ago to which India has never responded.
The balance between gains made by India and those made by Bangladesh are seriously askew. Many of the commitments made by Bangladesh constitute unilateral concessions whose far reaching implications were neither studied nor examined in consultation with the country's parliament, opposition, or experts. No serious review or study was made of Bangladesh's major threat perceptions on such important concerns as water sharing, the dire impact of the river linking project, huge environmental and ecological impact downstream apart from global warming, the real equities of Bangladesh case for demarcation of the maritime boundary and the implications of arbitration, charges of widespread illegal immigration and serious security and strategic issues.
On the economic front, Bangladesh appears to have blindly conceded benefits without any studies on the capacities of allowing the use of our ports, opportunity and other costs, the real cost of connectivity and its security and strategic implications. In the face of this total lack of preparations the AL government must take serious stock of what it has conceded and what it can implement without endangering our national interest.
Reaz Rahman is a former State Minister for Foreign Affairs and former Adviser to the Prime Minister on Foreign Affairs.