WILL THE BONHOMIE DELIVER?
By Monish Tourangbam
Research Scholar, School of International Studies (JNU)
New Delhi, Aug 06 : India and Bangladesh are poised to take ties to the next level with better opportunities and by weeding out irritants in the relationship. Undoubtedly, since the Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League came to power in 2009, there has been a meeting of minds between the leaders in New Delhi and Dhaka.
But, there are issues of concern, namely river water sharing and land boundaries that needs to be resolved. Notwithstanding, high level meetings including between Foreign Secretaries of India and Bangladesh recently who have been trying to strike common ground.
Also, the Joint Consultative Commission (JCC) between the neighbours has paid rich dividends with substantial progress being made along-with various sub-groups to take ties forward.
For instance, the infrastructure sub-group meeting to examine the Land Customs stations and the proposed ‘Border Halts’ along the Tripura-Bangladesh border, review meeting of the Line of Credit to fast track implementation of projects, meeting of Shipping Secretaries to renew the ‘Protocol on Inland Water Transit and Trade’ by a further two years or the Joint Technical Committee to explore possibilities of power exchanges between eastern Bangladesh and India and recommend associate transmission systems on both sides of the border.
Moreover, the two sides are working on modalities to facilitate return of the mortal remains of 1971 Bangladeshi freedom fighters. India is looking at signing three major documents with Bangladesh — Protocol to amend the Double Taxation Avoidance Convention (DTAC), two MOUs on Health Cooperation and on implementation of Small Development Projects.
India has extended a $1 billion credit line to Bangladesh and converted another $200 million into a grant when former Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee visited Dhaka in May.
However, even as the neighbours are gung ho about these developments, the emotive issue of Teesta river water sharing and the land boundary agreement continue to hinder forward trajectory of ties to its full potential.
Dhaka continues to press New Delhi on Teesta water sharing agreement and the land boundary pact which are still stuck due to India’s domestic politics. Undeniably, these need to be settled and a cooperative framework found under which both sides can benefit.
Notably, the Teesta issue is stuck over West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Bannerjee’s reservations whereby the UPA needs to build consensus between the State government and the BJP-led Opposition.
Recall, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s momentous visit to Dhaka became a victim of Mamata’s last minute whims who refused to accompany the Prime Minister September last. Wherein, she rejected the Teesta river water sharing agreement terms, signed with Sheikh Hasina’s Government on the grounds that the stipulations were detrimental to West Bengal’s interests, particularly farmers.
Nevertheless, some welcome developments have infused new optimism in the land boundary issue, with the Cabinet Committee on Security giving a green light to a Constitutional Amendment to ratify the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA). The protocol of this 1947 agreement was signed during Manmohan Singh’s visit. Indeed, significant given the porous border which leads to various anti-social elements and human rights cases.
Undeniably, illegal immigrants pouring into India raise serious issues of border regulation and security; with the Bangladeshi side often accusing Indian security officials of taking extreme measures. Besides, large scale immigration has seriously affected the ethnic composition of some North-Eastern States giving rise to tensions and violent clashes. Borne out by Assam’s Kokrajhar violence last fortnight.
Significantly, India has 111 enclaves spread over 17,158 acres, in Bangladesh, with an estimated 150,000 residents and Bangladesh 51 enclaves, covering 7,110 acres inside India, with a population of about 50,000. In addition, 38 patches of Indian territory spread over 3,000 acres are in Bangladesh’s possession while some 50 patches of Bangladesh territory measuring about 3,345 acres are held by India.
If and when ratified, the land boundary agreement would facilitate a swap of 162 enclaves and adverse possessions held by the two sides. Indeed, a monumental step towards peaceful resolution of a border issue in India’s neighbourhood.
But, here too Mamata Bannerjee and the BJP have reservations thus impeding its implementation. While efforts are being made to weed out irritants, the water sharing agreement and the land boundaries pact, there is realization that these form the core of Indo-Bangladesh ties. Whereby, both need a consensual approach to establish a long term partnership.
Specially, against the backdrop that Hasina’s Awami League too faces domestic elements which are not amenable for stable ties. But given our volatile neighbourhood, New Delhi should not waste any positive overture shown by its neighbours. Political leaders both at the Centre and State should envision creating a neighbourhood that is stable and economically inter-connected.
Besides, it is naïve to believe that politics in India’s neighoburhood revolves only around waiting for economic largesse from New Delhi. One need to look at Beijing which has an aggressive and focused strategy towards using its economic power to increase influence around India, and Bangladesh is not an exception.
Dhaka has every right to take help from other countries as it is not New Delhi’s policy to create satellite States around it. Therefore, the call of the hour is for India to be pro-active and show it is equally efficient in coming to Dhaka’s aid when the need arises.
Certainly, India has come a long way from being an aid recipient to an aid donor country, giving development assistance to conflict-torn countries like Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. But, when the World Bank recently refused its $ 1.2 billion loan to Bangladesh’s biggest project: $2.9-billion Padma Multipurpose Bridge, citing corruption charges, a Chinese company based in Australia offered interest-free credit totaling 70 per cent of the project cost.
The bridge would connect South Western Bangladesh with Dhaka and the Chittagong sea port. Sources point out that once completed the bridge would have serious economic and political bearings, for the 16 under-developed South-Western districts which are home to 60 million people.
Clearly, New Delhi needs to give serious thought to the bridge project and if it considers it to be socio-economically viable for the betterment of the Bangladeshis, it should not waste time in communicating with Dhaka and offering India’s services. Given the camaraderie the UPA Government-Awami League share, both sides should fashion sustainable economic, political and security linkages towards making Bangladesh economically efficient and stable. —– INFA
(Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)