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                Volume 10 |Issue 35 | September 16, 2011 |


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Cover Story

Both have to work hard to mend ties further, PHOTO: AFP.

Friends Forever

India's withdrawal from the Teesta Treaty has certainly dampened the euphoria that Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visit has generated. Both the countries, which share the world's fifth-largest border, have to work hard to mend ties further.


In their recent political history, the relationship between both the countries has gone through many ups and downs, and there are reasons behind them. Bangladesh's relations with India became a rallying point for extreme-rightist elements in Bangladesh after the brutal and barbaric murder of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. The subsequent military dictators who grabbed power after Bangabandhu's assassination used cheap anti-Indian sentiments in a section of the populace to garner popular support. Since the early eighties, some Indian insurgent groups had been taking shelter in Bangladesh, using the country as their hideouts and Bangladesh's law enforcing agencies turned a blind eye to these clandestine activities. India, for its part, took a myopic approach, and reacting to the prevalent anti-Indianism in Bangladesh, India did not show much interest in solving our bilateral problems.

A significant change in this otherwise grim scenario took place in 1996, after Shiekh Hasina-led government came to power. Ganges water sharing treaty was signed and peace was restored in the Chittagong Hill Tracts after insurgents laid down their arms. Another breakthrough came in 2010 with Sheikh Hasina's visit to India. A joint communiqué was issued by the two countries, and Bangladesh was prompt to address two major issues that its Indian counterparts have raised: All the hideouts of different Indian insurgent groups stationed in Bangladesh have been dismantled and Bangladesh has agreed in principle to give transit to its next-door neighbour. The expectations that the Indian premier's visit to Bangladesh had generated was not at all unexpected. On the table were the fates of two deals that ordinary Bangladeshis had been keenly observing: The sharing of water of the Teesta and wavier of duty of 62 Bangladeshi export items in the Indian market.

Teesta remains dry during the lean season. Photo: Zahedul I Khan

The Teesta agreement has been important for Bangladesh because during the lean season the flow of water that trickles down to the Bangladesh part is as little as 900 cusecs. "India has been unilaterally withdrawing the entire flow of water from the Teesta in the dry months. As a result Bangladesh received a very small regenerated flow that trickled downstream and last year the flow was only 900 cusecs," Professor Ainun Nishat, vice chancellor of BRAC University and a water expert, says.

At stake is also a barrage that Bangladesh built at Tk 1,500 crore in Nilphamari to channel water to the northern district for irrigation. "The project, crucial for supply of water for Amon crop, needs a canal with the capacity of 8000 cusecs," Professor Nishat says.

Before Manmohan's visit, everything regarding the sharing of water was in place; both the countries were supposed to sign it on this 'game-changing visit'; Bangladesh would get 48 percent of the water available and India 52; later some media reported it to be 50:50; or that is what we were told. The first sign of discontent came two days before Manmohan's visit when a Pashchimbanga (West Bengal) minister told the country's media, quoting the country's National Security Adviser Shiv Shankar Menon, that Bangladesh would get 25 percent of Teesta water. Bangladesh's Foreign Ministry was quick to point out that the copy of the treaty that they were going to sign only 48 hours later gave Bangladesh 48 percent.

BSF's killing of Bangladeshis has been a sore point in the relations of the two countries. Will the new protocol relieve the tension? PHOTO: AFP

The final blow on the treaty came when the day before Manmohan's sojourn in Dhaka Pashchimbanga Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee opted out of Manmohan's delegation and it became clear that the Teesta treaty might not be signed. Indian foreign secretary Ranjan Mathai later told the Indian media that India had a federal system and before signing any agreement on the Teesta the centre would take into consideration Mamata's opinion on the sharing of water.

Bangladesh's Foreign Minister (FM) Dipu Moni remained an incorrigible optimist, even at the 11th hour, even after Mathai's comment. "The deal will to be signed tomorrow," she said the night before the visit.

Ashfaqur Rahman, a former ambassador and foreign policy analyst, says that the way Bangladesh has handled the bogged down Teesta treaty smacks of amateurism. "It only happens when you do not do your homework properly," he says, "Our two missions in Delhi and Kolkata could have saved the FM of the embarrassment if they had forewarned the ministry about Mamata's stance."

The reason why Manmohan bowed down before Mamata's last-minute objection is purely political in nature. "Mamata is heavily plagued by problems at home. Of late, the court in her state has given a verdict on Shingur (acquisition of land) that has not gone in her favour; there are troubles in the hills with the Gurkhas; her relationship with the Maoists has turned sour, and she needs a popular cause to hold on to. Karunanidhi is not happy in the south and Manmohan government needs the support of 19 Trinamool MPs," Awami League Presidium Member Obaidul Quader says.

MK Anowar, standing committee member of Bangladesh Nationalist Party, comes down heavily on the government for what he terms as the "failed visit". "People have expected a change (from this visit). Would our Prime Minister have been able to do the same if it were the other way round? Would she have been able to pull out from an international treaty a few hours before it was supposed to be signed?" he says.

Moshiur Rahman,
Photo: Zahedul I Khan

Anowar also demands that there should be a guarantee clause in the Teesta treaty: "There is one in the Ganges Treaty. Why can't there be one in the Teesta too?" Professor Nishat, however, says that there is no reason for that. He says, "The sharing arrangement of the flows of the Teesta cannot be compared with the arrangements for the Ganges. In case of the Ganges, Bangladesh and India share the residual flow arriving at Farakka. In case of the Teesta the undisturbed flow will be available for sharing."

Quader says that the visit is a cornerstone in the two countries' relationship. "The visit has not been fully successful," he says, "But there are elements, which if properly nurtured, can bear fruit in the future."

He believes that relationships between countries should always be mutually beneficial. "As they backed off from signing the Teesta treaty, we didn't sign the Letter of Exchange on transit. I think Sheikh Hasina has shown wisdom and brinkmanship," he says.

Quader, however, thinks that the Foreign Ministry needs to hone in on its diplomatic skills. "It's quite apparent that there is a problem between the Foreign Affairs Adviser and the FM. The Adviser himself has said the Ministry lacks foresight," Quader says. He advises the FM to think carefully before talking to the media.

Prime Minister's Economic Affairs Adviser Moshiur Rahman says, "We Advisers render suggestions to the Prime Minister and she has the right to accept or reject it, or she can suggest that we go to the ministers and consult the concerned ministers or the ministry. Once the advice or suggestion has been accepted it has to go through the normal process of administration.

"The ministry has to prepare the documents; it has to do all the follow-up actions that are to be done by the ministry concerned. The PMO or the advisers working at the PMO render this secretarial service to the ministerial committee. So the ministries are fully in the picture. Once an advice has been taken, accepted by the Prime Minister and the government, it went to the normal process of the government."

He says that the Joint River Commission of both the countries had agreed on the Teesta water sharing long ago. "But because an election in West Bengal was to be held we agreed that a newly elected government should be onboard and therefore the treaty was deferred. The new government (in Pashchimbanga) has to understand the contents and my understanding is that the agreement will be signed in 2/3 months," Moshiur says.

Moshiur considers the visit foreward looking. He says: "The achievements from this visit have been significant; it has a strong forward-looking orientation. There is a resolution on land boundary, which have been a fertile ground for dispute, war and so on. So it is behind us; we have also signed a co-operational agreement for development, which provides for cooperation in all areas particularly in basin-wide management of water in all common rivers, hydropower generation in the sub-region and also in the northeast of India and in any other areas that such benefit can be mutual."

Photo: Star Archives

Since it is an agreement between two countries, no third country is in it. But he says that if Bhutan or Nepal, on specific project or specific co-operational agenda, wants to join, they can also join at some point of time. "The past is left behind," he says.

India has withdrawn tariff barrier on 46 Bangladeshi garment products, which is believed to give a boost to the Bangladesh economy, and decrease the huge trade deficit that exists between the countries. Regarding the non-tariff barriers (NTB) that hinder Bangladesh's export in India, he says that he has asked for information regarding them, but no-one has been able to tell him if the barriers are only for Bangladeshi products or they are for all export items of all countries in the Indian market in general. He thinks some Indian products might be facing these NTBs in their own country.

Quader thinks there should be more people-people contact, especially with people in the bordering region. That Teesta deal did not happen this time should not harm both the country's friendship, he says. His view is echoed by Goutam Deb, Pashchimbanga's North Bengal Development Minister; he says, "Our relationship is not so flimsy that a mere Teesta deal will harm it."

Ashfaqur Rahman thinks it is now time for India to start to act like a regional power which they want to fashion itself to be, and not stand on the Mamata syndrome. "It should be able to give and give generously to its smaller neighbours. It is said that the best way to make your dreams come true is to wake up. We need to do just this now," he says.

Much Ado about Something

Apart from the 15th amendment of the constitution, the issue that has attracted excessive media attention since the last national election in 2009 is transit vis-à-vis other long-standing unresolved political issues with India. On the one hand, allowing transit to the neighbouring countries is a quintessentially political issue that has to do with the country's security and other yet-to-be-settled issues with India. On the other hand, transit has enormous impact on the country's economy not least because it has to be preceded by necessary infrastructural development requiring approximately seven billion US dollars. Speculations regarding the pros and cons of the possible transit deals mounted high in the weeks prior to Manmohon's visit. However, the much anticipated visit ended with no transit deal. While some now see it as an utter failure, others express satisfaction because the deferral, they think, will provide Bangladesh with the necessary time to complete the homework so as to increase our bargaining capacity. Meanwhile deals such as the protocol on the border demarcation and exchange of enclaves and duty-free access of 46 garment items to India are believed to open up newer avenues of possibilities and cooperation. Others appear to be superfluous.


Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (C) inspects the Bangladeshi guard of honour at the Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport in Dhaka on September 6, 2011. Photo: AFP

To begin with, the transit issue has always been at the centre of discussions because of a number of stray comments made by political high-ups. It began with the prime minister's Economic Affairs Adviser Mashiur Rahman's abrupt declaration that there would be no fee in matters of allowing transit to India. The Finance Minister AMA Muhit immediately opposed the idea of a free transit and formed a core committee under the chairman of the Tariff Commission to conduct a detailed cost-benefit analysis and determine a transit fee. As the time of the Indian premier Manmohon Singh's visit came closer, the prime minister's Foreign Affairs Adviser Gowher Rizvi said, a bit dramatically, that no new deal on transit was necessary because transit with India was in place since 1974. Referring to the Joint Communique signed between Bangladesh and India, he said the decision that transit would be given to India, Nepal and Bhutan had already been taken and that during the visit of Manmohon Singh only the operational details including the routes and modes of transportation of traffic will be worked out. While he affirmed that there would be no free transit, he nullified the inter-relation between transit and other political issues.

Observing the lack of coordination among different bodies and the necessary preparation to go for such a big deal, Debapriya Bhattacharya, distinguished fellow at the Centre for Policy Dialogue, told this correspondent a few days before the Indian premier's visit, “The political decision, expressed through the Joint Communiqué, has been in the right direction. Regrettably, subsequent disparate statements from high-level representatives of the Bangladesh government have only added to the confusion, to say the least, surrounding the complex subject of connectivity and transit.”

Nevertheless, Rizvi emphatically said that Manmohon's visit was not only about transit; on the other hand, it was about reviving the mutual trust and friendship between the two countries. As such, he added, the visit would also see the signing of deals on Teesta water sharing, problems of demarcation and casualties along the border and trade deficit, among other issues. Although some of Rizvi's assertions revealed a new level of incoordination among the government bodies as well as the clout the prime minister's advisers have over the whole issue, he was the first government representative to provide media with an all-inclusive agenda for the visit. It is in this light that the success and failure of the summit has to be weighed.

The much-hyped transit deal was deferred following India's last minute withdrawal from the Teesta water sharing deal. Photo: Star File

What then followed was a tale full of ironies. India flip-flopped from the Teesta water sharing deal in an unexpected move only two days before Manmohon's visit. As a result, Bangladesh, too, refused to sign any deal or protocol on transit. Finally, a total of 11 deals were signed out of which only two turned out as speculated. These two are a protocol on undemarcated land boundary and exchange of enclaves, and a deal on the duty-free access of 46 garment products; all the other MoUs were completely unforeseen for the media as well as experts in international relations. Although the framework agreement envisioning pathways for cooperation in trade and connectivity, among other issues, reflects some of Rizvi's presuppositions, it lacks the specificity in certain areas as was asserted. In addition, an MoU to facilitate Overland Transit Traffic between Bangladesh and Nepal through Indian territory also holds promise. Delwar Hossain, chairman of the Department of International Relations at the University of Dhaka, says, “The effort to strengthen ties with India is certainly a welcome approach. However, based on the deals inked, it can be said that there is scope for optimism, but there is scope of frustration too. For example, some peripheral issues have come into focus—the signing of which do not require the premiers of two countries.”

Gowher Rizvi,
Photos: star file
Debapriya Bhattacharya

Quite predictably, the opposition has termed the withdrawal from inking any transit deal a failure while the government high-ups have found it safe to observe silence about this. However, considering the poor technical preparations and concealed bargaining processes on the part of the government, many have deemed the deferral an opportunity for Bangladesh. In this regard, Debapriya Bhattacharya says, “Ironically though, I think the negative outcome of the Indian premier's visit constitutes the most positive part for us. In fact, I consider this deferral as a great opportunity for our country because we were not fully prepared for such a deal.” Referring to the technical preparations in terms of infrastructural development, he says that amidst so many unimportant talks the most important one about investment was neglected. “Then the cost-benefit analysis and the proposed transit fee as worked out by the core committee were not validated through detailed discussions with broader cross-sections of domestic stakeholders. More importantly, there was a serious lack of transparency regarding the negotiating process. One is not aware of whether the government has set up a fully endowed – politically and professionally – negotiating group to service the tasks in hand.” He also cautions about the limited time as is clearly indicated in the joint statement issued by the two premiers. “As the joint statement clearly indicates, we don't have much time at hand. So we must utilise this time by completing all the necessary homework.”

As for the other deals, the protocol to the Land Boundary Agreement of 1974 between India and Bangladesh concerning the demarcation of the land boundary and related matters has been the most substantial achievement. With the signing of this protocol, the countries have now demarcated the entire land boundary as well as resolved the status of the enclaves and adversely possessed areas, finally leading to the settlement of all boundary disputes that had been festering between India and East Pakistan since the British left in 1947 and between India and Bangladesh since the new country was born in 1971.

“This is a significant milestone in the troubled history of the relationship between the two countries. Now the exchange of the enclaves should also be duly implemented,” opines Delwar Hossain.

With a new deal allowing 46 garment products duty-free access to India Bangladesh's garment export is expected to get a boost. Photo: star file

There are 111 Indian enclaves (17,158 acres) within Bangladesh with a population of 37,334 and 51 Bangladeshi enclaves (7,110.02 acres) in India with a population of 14,215. However, according to unofficial estimates, the Indian enclaves have over one lakh people while the Bangladeshi ones have around 44,000 people. Thirty-four tracts of Indian land are under the adverse possession of Bangladesh and 40 pieces of Bangladeshi land are in India's adverse possession. Through this deal, all the problems related to the enclaves and adverse possessions of land will be solved. It will also put an end to the indescribable sufferings of the enclave people who have lived in abysmal conditions, with lack of water, roads, electricity, schools and medical care.

As for the impact of the duty-free access of the garment products to India, one must consider first the huge trade imbalance existing between the two countries. Despite a 68 percent growth in Bangladesh's exports to India in 2010-2011, Bangladesh's exports to India stood at $512.5 million whereas India's exports to Bangladesh at $4,586.8 million. However, Anisul Huq, former Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) president, point out that Bangladesh has a bigger trade imbalance with China in the latter's favour, and with the United States and Germany in its favour.

Previously, 480 Bangladeshi products were on India's negative list although all products are supposed to get duty-free access by 2016 under the SAFTA (as Saarc LDC) agreement. With the deal on duty-free access of 46 Bangladeshi textile items to India, the negative list came down to 434. India had also increased the duty-free access to 10 million pieces of readymade garments (RMG) from Bangladesh every year. However, Bangladeshi businesses often complain about the non-tariff barriers imposed by Indian authority especially in matters of testing the standard. About the significance of this deal, Anisul Huq says, “It is difficult to assess the benefit that the garments industry will accrue from this because we've heard that the Indian manufacturers are standing against this deal. Then there are the non-tariff barriers like testing and others. Problem of connectivity is also a kind of non-tariff barrier. So accruing the benefit from this deal will not be possible if the non-tariff barriers are not lifted by India and if infrastructure is not developed by Bangladesh.” He, however, says that with this deal it has been proved that demand for our garment products is growing in India. “We've an expanding market in India. So we needed a good gesture from India, which we have got. I believe trade imbalance will also be reduced to some extent for this. But the appraisal of the full benefit is a matter of time and at the same time depends on how India will play its non-tariff barriers.”

Anisul Huq Photos: courtesy
Delwar Hossain

Despite all the failures and unpredictable happenings, Delwar Hossain, Chairman of IR at DU, says that the steps that the incumbent government has taken to improve the bilateral relations with India are very timely. “Over the last forty years, relation between the two countries has become very complex. Seen from this perspective, the recent summit is very significant because it is for the sake of our mutual development that we have to take this relation to a new level, irrespective of political affiliation. However, both countries had some visible flaws in preparations. So while moving on, we have to learn from our experience as this summit taught us that our preparation has to be more calculative and thoughtful.” There are several areas of dispute in our relation with India. Pointing to this fact, he says, “We have to improve our bargaining or negotiating capacity. To work to that end, we cannot afford to be divided on the national level because such divisions weaken our negotiating position. So avoiding the secretive nature in which some of the issues have been dealt with, the government has to build a political consensus to show the world as well as India that we stand united by our national interest. I strongly believe that national consensus is the first step towards building a country's negotiating capacity.”



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