FORMER Water Resources Minister and currently Chairman of Parliamentary Standing Committee on Water Resources Mr. Abdur Razzak, upon his return home from leading a parliamentary delegation to India, said that his talks with the Indians have “convinced” him that Tipaimukh will not harm Bangladesh. He told news media that the dam will be constructed for generating hydro-electricity and ensuring flood control and its water will not be used for irrigation.
The parliamentary delegation did not include any member of the opposition. Mr. Razzak's words alone may not resolve the controversy that Tipaimukh has raised in Bangladesh. A lot more will be required to calm passion and apprehension over the issue that was allowed to develop into a full blown controversy with enough potentials to take Bangladesh-India relations off the track. The Indian High Commissioner, unfortunately, started the controversy as much by what he said as by the manner in which he said what he said. Some of the Bangladeshi ministers added apprehension to the controversy when they addressed the issue in the media in support of the Indian High Commissioner.
The Indian High Commissioner and the ministers failed to take into account the fact that the Farakka issue has embedded deep into the psyche of Bangladeshis a suspicion that India would eventually withdraw waters from the rivers that flow from India and turn Bangladesh into a desert. The public reaction in Bangladesh led by the BNP was therefore natural and spontaneous because in Tipaimukh, they saw the scepter of a Farakka on the north eastern side of Bangladesh-India border.
It is very encouraging that the Indians have “convinced” the Bangladesh parliamentary delegation. It is also encouraging to learn that Tipaimukh will generate electricity and control floods in the plains of Assam and that its water will not be diverted to cause shortfall in the flow of Barak River on which the dam will be constructed as it flows into Bangladesh into the Surma and Kushiara rivers. The assurances nevertheless raise a curious issue in the context of the serious controversy that Tippaihmukh has caused in Bangladesh: the inordinate delay by the Indian side to take Bangladesh into confidence over Tipaimukh. According to one member of the delegation, they were given information on Tipaimukh that was denied to Bangladesh in the last 20-25 years. The parliamentary delegation has submitted a report to the Prime Minister but its details are not yet known. The report must have all the technical details so that the Bangladesh government could tell the people the whole truth and let the issue rest. Therefore, one must wait to learn how much the Indians have taken Bangladesh into confidence on Tipaimukh.
When the AL won the December elections last year, it was expected in Bangladesh that Bangladesh-India relations would improve qualitatively given the AL's historical closeness with the Congress. Additionally, in recent times, there has been a perceptible change in people's attitude in Bangladesh over issues that had stalled Bangladesh-India relations in the past such as transit, use of ports etc. Given India's concern over terrorism, Prime Minister Sehikh Hasina even offered to establish a joint task force to tackle the issue. There was optimism in many quarters in Bangladesh that the two countries who need each other for compulsions of history and geopolitics would move towards a new era of win- win relationships where India, in reciprocal gesture, would look at Bangladesh's concerns on water, trade and maritime boundary.
Unfortunately, that optimism was very short lived. The Indian High Commissioner helped raise the controversy over Tipaimukh that put the Bangladesh government on a spot. Even the ministers were confused over the Indian High Commissioner, with the Foreign Minister at least once expressing reservation over his media comment only to be contradicted by the LGRD Minister the day after! All these did not suggest that the Indians were eager to settle outstanding bilateral issues; rather these actions by the Indians hinted towards an overbearing attitude on their part.
Tipaimukh nevertheless has helped the AL and the BNP move closer to making this a national issue, something unpleasantly rare in our politics. The ministers stopped supporting the project perhaps under the Prime Minister's direction who must have sensed the dangers of taking a pro-Tipaimukh stand. In her bilateral meeting with the Indian Prime Minister on the sidelines of the NAM Summit in Egypt in July she raised Bangladesh's concerns over Tipaimukh. Mr. Singh gave Sheikh Hasina assurance that nothing would be done to harm Bangladesh and the two leaders further agreed that a Bangladesh parliamentary delegation would visit India to discuss Tipaimukh.
Apprehensions in Bangladesh will not be fully laid to rest till the people are convinced with facts. The favourable impression carried home by Mr. Razzak and his delegation will not be enough to clear the apprehension in Bangladesh. The facts must come out in a transparent manner so that assessment could be made by experts. The best and perhaps the only way to resolve this issue satisfactorily would be to discuss Tipaimukh in the Joint Rivers Commisison with India providing all the facts and figures, something the Indians have refused so far despite Bangladesh's repeated requests.
The Tipaimukh controversy can land Bangladesh-India relations in the doldrums if handled badly or insensitively. It can also act as a conduit for taking relations to a different level altogether if handled positively. Given the fact that there is very deep and significant opposition in India, particularly in Manipur over the project, the Indians could drop it altogether because the amount of electricity it will generate is by no means dramatic. In fact if generating electricity is the main argument, then there are other places India could look to generate many times more electricity. That could provide a quantum leap to the development of Bangladesh-northeast India-Nepal and Bhutan sub-region and could very well include Manipur with no environmental costs. For many decades now, Bangladesh has been trying to pique India with Nepal's tacit support for a sub-regional management of water resources. Nepal could be used for building dams and reservoirs that could provide the much needed energy as well as control devastating floods in India, Bangladesh and the sub-region.
Recently Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has spoken of a South Asian power grid. It is an old call, one she also made when she was Leader of the Opposition. Such a power grid could become transformational if the vast water resource of the region, which is now being wasted because of India's mindset for dealing with each of her neighbours bilaterally, is developed multilaterally. Bangladesh should now make a strategic shift in conducting her bilateral relations with India. Past experience of using the traditional channels alone have not worked in our favour for we were seldom given a fair deal when our Foreign Ministry and other Ministries and established channels such as the JRC have been used to negotiate with their Indian counterparts. Issues have always been bogged down by a mindset on the Indian side that neighbours cannot be trusted multilaterally and on Bangladesh's side that India cannot be trusted as a friendly neighbour. It is time that our Prime Minister takes charge to deal with the major irritants at the highest level to reach the political understanding without which it would be very difficult to improve and strengthen Bangladesh-India relations.
The Tipaimukh controversy is far from over. Nevertheless, it seems that India is eager now to give Bangladesh information that was not forthcoming in the past. The meeting between the two Prime Ministers in Cairo may be the reason for the change of heart on India's part. The Indian Prime Minister is a statesman and knows the importance of a friendly neighbour. Our Foreign Ministry needs to make more use of summit diplomacy for better attention and resolution of our problems with India.
The writer is a Director, Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies and former Ambassador to Japan.