Indian Foreign Secretary's recent visit to Bangladesh has opened a new door to possibilities
Dhaka and New Delhi are going to witness a flurry of diplomatic visits of leaders from both sides aiming to lay the groundwork for Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh's much-await maiden trip to Dhaka. In line with that, Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao paid a two-day official visit last week.
Diplomatic sources have said that after the end of elections in West Bengal, India is revaluating its relationship with Bangladesh. Rao's visit will be followed by Indian Foreign Minister S M Krishna and Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram's tour of the country, possibly in June-July. Dates for Krishna's and Chidambaram's visits are yet to be finalised; Bangladesh's Foreign Minister Dipu Moni is also expected to be visit India in the next couple of months.
Though the Indian Foreign Secretary came to Dhaka as part of regular Foreign Secretary-level consultations, she called on Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Foreign Minister Dipu Moni, Prime Minister's International Affairs Adviser Gowher Rizvi and Economic Affairs Adviser Masihur Rahman and discussed the Indian Prime Minister's visit and the progresses made so far towards the implementation of the 51-point joint communiqué issued during Sheikh Hasina's trip to India. The communiqué is considered by both sides as a Magna Carta since it has addressed some major concerns of the two countries.
There is a tradition of issuing a joint press statement after the Foreign Office level consultation end but no joint statement was issued this time and both sides kept mum about it.
Indian foreign secretary Nirupama Rao pays a visit to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in Dhaka.
However, the Indian and Bangladeshi Foreign Secretaries held a delayed joint press conference on June 7, when they expressed their firm optimism about signing agreements on sharing Teesta river water and 6.5 kilometres land boundary demarcation, transfer of enclaves and adversely possessed territories during Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visit.
The Foreign Secretaries said that they had had comprehensive consultations covering a range of issues of mutual interest and bilateral cooperation, including security, land boundary, border management, economic and commercial cooperation, connectivity, cooperation in water resources, cooperation in power sector, status of projects under US$ 1billion line of credit (LOC) and Indian Prime Minister's visit to Bangladesh were discussed at the consultation.
Rao said that the water resources ministries of the two countries were working on the details of the sharing of the Teesta River and an agreement to this effect would be signed during Manmohan Singh's visit to Dhaka. She, however, would not disclose the percentage of the sharing of waters, saying it was a sensitive issue and it would be resolved at the highest political level. "I will not discuss the framework or percentage of water Bangladesh will receive from the Teesta. But don't think I am trying to hide something. This is a very sensitive issue. We have to go through a certain process to reach the final solution," Rao said.
Highly placed sources said there was still differences on sharing the Teesta water. Bangladesh wants the sharing on a 50:50 bases, while India has proposed for 45:55. Bangladesh badly needs the Teesta water especially from December to March-- the dry season. At times in December and January, the water flow of Teesta goes down to less than 1,000 cusec from 5000 cusec due to withdrawal of water by India. Earlier, the two countries exchanged drafts of Teesta river water sharing treaty. On June 6, Bangladesh water resource secretary Shaikh Wahiduzzaman led a delegation to India and held talks with his Indian counterpart and discussed an interim agreement on the Teesta water. Although the two water secretaries reduced their points of differences, they could not settle the sharing formula.
The Indian Foreign Secretary also said the Joint Boundary Working Group (JBWG) was working to reach agreement on demarcating the 6.5 kms boundary, transfer of enclaves and adversely possessed territories. "We have made substantial movement forward in respect to both water and land boundary issues." The work on river bank protection and embankment construction along the common rivers is going on well and the dredging of the Ichhamati along the 20 km common stretch is about to be completed," she added. A highly placed Foreign Ministry source told this correspondent that Bangladesh had asked for a next-generation comprehensive water-sharing agreement that would cover all the 54 common rivers shared by the two countries.
Rao believed that both sides had made considerable progress in implementation of the Joint Communiqué since the visit. Implementation of projects under the $ 1 billion LOC from India had been of high priority for both sides. "We have just conveyed our concurrence for a number of projects under the LOC in Railway infrastructure and the purchase of buses for the city of Dhaka. These can be implemented immediately. India is committed to implementation of far-reaching decisions taken by the leaders of both countries," she said.
The Indian Foreign Secretary also said that the cooperation in the power sector, including grid connectivity, supply of up to 500 MW of power from India, including 250 MW of power at a preferential rate and Bangladesh's request for setting up of a high technology joint venture thermal power plant of 1320 MW capacity was progressing well. India in April this year also announced increasing the annual duty free quota for export of Bangladeshi garments to India from 8 million to 10 million pieces. "Both sides are working on several projects to improve trade infrastructure and connectivity," she added.
About the murder of Bangladeshi nationals by Indian border guards on the common border, Rao said they were concerned about it and a modality would be worked out to stop it. "We are strongly against all sorts of violence and killing in the border. We condemn whether an Indian or a Bangladeshi is killed. Most of the killings take place at night and citizens of both the countries lose their lives, which is very unfortunate," she said and informed that as pilot project, Indian side had decided to use non-lethal weapons to stop loss of life in some areas on an experimental basis.
When asked about the conditions tagged with US$ one billion LOC under which Indian companies will supply 85 percent of goods to Bangladesh, she said there was scope to discuss on the issue of conditions as “we want to help Bangladesh with an open heart and see the prosperity of the Bangladeshi people.” On allowing Nepal and Bhutan to do trade with the third country by using the land of India, she said Nepal and Bhutan were already using Indian territory to transport their goods within 200 meters of Bangladesh territory.
On transit issue, Bangladesh Foreign Secretary Mijarul Quayes said Bangladesh had not offered only bilateral transit, rather a regional transit so Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Bhutan were economically benefited. Asked about charging fees to India for using Bangladesh's territory, Foreign Secretary Mijarul Quayes said that work was going on and the matter of transit fee would be settled when both sides agreed.
In reality, Bangladesh has been benifitted very little since the signing of the "historic joint communiqué". Rather the murder of Bangladeshis at the hands of Indian border guards has remained unabated and trade imbalance is widening. Bangladesh has already implemented several important decisions made in the joint communiqué, such as allowing Indian Over Dimensional Cargos (ODCs) to move from West Bengal to Ashuganj through river route. As a gesture of goodwill and confidence building measure, Bangladesh provided this multi-modal transit free of cost. Dhaka also implemented the promises it made by taking a strong position against Indian insurgents and helped the arrest many of the ULFA leaders taking all the risks in recent time.
The people of Bangladesh look for a durable solution of all the long outstanding problems with India on a priority basis. It is time that the carrot replaces real gains.
Rezaul Karim is Diplomatic Correspondent of The Daily Star.