A One-sided Love Story?
Even after Bangladesh has given India multi-modal transit
and other facilities, its bigger neighbour has failed to
reciprocate these goodwill gestures.
back from India
Indians want to see Sheikh Hasina in power for the second term in a row but they want a quick realisation of the outstanding issues that are plaguing both the countries diplomatic and political relationship. They would like to deal with the unresolved issues with Indian interests in mind before the Awami League government ends its tenure. A clear impression has come out from a series of interactions between the countries' civil society, journalists, think-tanks, bureaucrats, political leaders and a group of Bangladeshi journalists from different print and electronic media who visited India last month.
It also appears that Indian civil society and media are now interested in improving ties with Bangladesh and want to see both the countries fulfil the commitments given to each other, which was envisaged in the 51-point Joint Communiqué issued during Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's visit to India in January last year.
However, it is quite apparent that the Indian bureaucracy is following the age-old strategy of dilly-dallying in resolving the longstanding bilateral issues, which encompass mostly border related irritants and an imbalance in trade.
The Bangladesh presspeople have observed that the issues concerning Bangladesh have been deliberately kept on hold in the name of technical committees, sub-committees, joint working groups, but issues relating to Indian interests have been given priority.
However, there have been frank admissions from a top cabinet member and other senior bureaucrats that there has been a delay in implementing the commitments India has made to Bangladesh.
Indian finance minister Pranab Mukherjee meets the Bangladeshi media delegation. Photo: star file
The Bangladesh media delegation has had the opportunity to meet Indian Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, Foreign Secretary Nirupoma Rao and senior officials of the Planning and External Affairs Ministry. Bangladeshi journalists have mainly raised and discussed issues of sharing of the common river water, demarcation of 6.5kms border and transfer of enclaves and adversely possessed lands, trade imbalance, non-tariff barriers to Bangladesh export products and unabated murder of Bangladeshis by Indian border guards.
They have also raised the issue of the much talked about “Tin Bigha” corridor and non-ratification of Mujib-Indira Land Boundary Agreement. The Bangladesh parliament ratified the agreement in 1974 but India has not yet done the same.
The journalists have noted that although India has made a commitment to export five lakh metric tons of food grains to meet food shortages in Bangladesh about a year ago, it has not exported even a grain of rice or wheat till this day. To make things worse, when Pranab Mukherjee, the then Indian External Affairs Minister, came to Dhaka after the devastating cyclone Sidr, he had made a pledge to rebuild a village which would have had several hundred houses. But, four years since then, not a single house has been built in the Sidr-hit areas.
As a gesture of goodwill Bangladesh has given India multi-modal transit facility, which is completely free of cost (without any tax, customs duty or service charge), to transport cargos through Bangladesh's river and land routes to the Indian state of Tripura for setting up a power plant at Palatana. But even one and a half years after Hasina's visit, the Indian side has failed to settle any of Bangladesh's concerns, not even an interim sharing deal of Teesta water.
The Indian civil society members and journalists have voiced support for the immediate implementation of the commitments given by India to Bangladesh, but the Indian bureaucrats have said that things are on track, referring to various committee and sub-committee meetings.
In some cases, some young Indian bureaucrats have got angry after hearing the questions asked and issues raised by Bangladeshi journalists and have made false claims of implementation.
Members of the think-tank Observer Research Foundation, after failing to give satisfactory replies to explain the reasons behind non-realisation of Indian commitments to Bangladesh, have tried to derail the discussion by raising the issue of China-Bangladesh relations and trade gap.
However, important members of the Indian establishment such as Pranab Mukherjee, Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao have admitted delays from the Indian side in following up on commitments.
“Commitments will remain as mere words if they are not reflected in our actions,” says Mukherjee.
Mukherjee, a seasoned politician and powerful minister in Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh's cabinet, has admitted to the dilly dallying. "There have been some slippages. People want to see much more things visible on the ground. Whatever commitments we have made, we need to implement," he has said adding, "I do feel that some of the issues should be implemented quickly."
He has said that he would talk to the concerned ministries to find out why things are being delayed and make sure there is expeditious implementation of the commitments envisaged in the Joint Communiqué.
In reply to a question, he has said that Prime Minister Singh plans to make substantial announcements on certain longstanding issues with Bangladesh including the sharing of Teesta water during his planned visit to Dhaka some time this year.
“We have special relations with Bangladesh and we're fully aware of Bangladesh's concerns…We have to take steps expeditiously to resolve those concerns,” Mukherjee has said recognising Bangladesh's legitimate demands.
About the interim sharing agreement of the Teesta, he has said: “We want to make announcement about it during the Prime Minister's visit.” However, he does not spell out the time of the high profile visit but has indicated that it will depend on how quickly Delhi and Dhaka reach agreements on some pressing issues.
Mukherjee has also hinted at the changing nature of Indian domestic politics and the outcome of the state elections. Pranab has said that non-accomplishment of bilateral issues by the two sides are delaying Manmohan's Dhaka visit. “We're making a check list and are trying to make sure how quickly we can accomplish the unfinished tasks.”
On the murder of Bangladesh nationals at the border by Indian border guards, Mukherjee has said that he disapproves of killing in the border. He has observed that given the “deep and intense” Dhaka-Delhi relations, such incidents are “extremely unwarranted.”
The Indian leader has asserted that under no circumstances, such incident should take place and “this should be stopped completely.” Mukherjee has suggested an institutional mechanism to stop recurrence of such incidents and to ensure a peaceful border.
Replying to a question about the growing trade imbalance against Bangladesh, the Indian Finance Minister has said that he will look into shortening the Indian negative lists to allow duty-free access of more Bangladeshi products to the Indian market. In this context, he has mentioned that the Indian government decision to allow a duty-free export of 10 million pieces of Bangladesh garment from the present eight million.
On the use of Chittagong and Mongla seaports as agreed by Bangladesh, he has said the ports need to increase their capacities, and he has also said, “We are discussing how we could contribute to it.”
He also feels that when transit would be in place, it would not only facilitate the communications but also contribute to reducing Bangladesh's trade deficit with India through increased volume of export and import; he thinks it will also increase India's investment in Bangladesh.
When asked if India is happy with Bangladesh's anti-terrorism initiatives, Pranab has readily appreciated Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's courageous stance against terrorism.
On the demarcated border and exchange of adversely possessed enclaves and lands, he has said that a meeting at the Home Secretary level or their representative level will be held shortly to make a spot visit at the border. There are some local resistances over the issues and both sides would try to convince the local people to overcome the difficulties.
Asked about the delay in implementing his commitment to build houses in a cyclone Sidr-affected village, Mukherjee has regretted that his commitment has not been implemented even after four years. Referring to the Indian officials, he has said they had shown him a model of the planned houses but there is a stagnation in implementing his promises.
Mukherjee has admitted that the delay from the Indian side can create mistrust among the people about such commitments. “I was shown the model of the planned houses. I'll have to check it now why it has not been yet implemented.”
About non-realisation of India's commitment to sell 500,000 metric tons of food grains to Bangladesh, he has said that the food grains could not be exported as an Indian court has issued an injunction on the exporting agency STC. He has assured that if the government cannot vacate the court injunction it will look for other options to export the food grains.
Rezaul Karim is Diplomatic Correspondent of The Daily Star.