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India - Bangladesh: Teesta waters muddy relations

by Praful Bidwai, 23 September 2011

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Missing A Historic Chance In Bangladesh

Did India snatch defeat from the jaws of victory during its Prime Minister’s first visit to Bangladesh in 12 long years? Did Manmohan Singh squander a historic chance to make a decisive break with the mutual suspicion and avoidable tension that mark India-Bangladesh relations?

The answer is in large measure yes, although the visit also registered some gains, especially in economic relations. On a balanced assessment, the Indian leadership eventually didn’t measure up to the task of overcoming the trust deficit and transforming India-Bangladesh relations to a point where they reflect the true potential for exemplary cooperation between the two neighbours, with huge benefits to both and to the South Asian region as a whole.

It is of course incontestable that the biggest spoiler or vitiating factor in the visit was West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee who adopted an unreasonable and parochial stand on the issue of sharing the waters of River Teesta and pulled out of the trip, sorely disappointing many in Dhaka and New Delhi. This indisputably cast gloom over the visit.

The only room for dispute is whether Ms Banerjee’s obstinacy and temperamental behaviour could have been anticipated and whether enough groundwork was done by the Indian government to prepare her for an equitable sharing of the river’s waters, which was vital to the visit’s success.

Here, two divergent accounts emerge. One says Dr Singh’s representatives, including National Security Adviser Shiv Shankar Menon, tried hard to convince Ms Banerjee that the interests of her state, in particular, the North Bengal districts, were indeed being taken care of in the proposed Teesta agreement. The deal would ensure that the Teesta’s waters would be shared in a broadly equal 52:48 ratio between the two countries.

Ms Banerjee first seemed to agree, but suddenly raised micro-level issues, such as sharing the flows during the lean season, especially in February and March, when water becomes scarce. During the lean season, West Bengal, she insisted, would concede no more than 25 percent of the flow at a barrage called Gazaldoba, which lies 90 km inside Indian territory.

Mr Menon took this proposal to Bangladesh for discussion. But meanwhile, Ms Banerjee abruptly decided to boycott the trip. She is reportedly extremely keen to build a base for her Trinamool Congress party in North Bengal’s Malda, Jalpaiguri and North Dinajpur districts, where the Left and Congress have been traditionally strong.

According to the second account, the Central government failed to reassure Ms Banerjee sufficiently on North Bengal’s interests, and could have done so had it worked harder on the larger picture rather than on micro issues. At the centre of that picture is the historic wrong India committed by unilaterally diverting the waters of the Ganga by building a barrage at Farakka in 1975.

This was grossly illegal and unfair in and of itself to the lower riparian state. Even worse, the diversion caused enormous losses of food and fisheries production in the downstream regions of Bangladesh for almost two decades.

According to Ashok Swain of Sweden’s Uppsala university, Farakka “disrupted fishing and navigation, brought unwanted salt deposits into rich farming soil, affected agricultural and industrial production, changed the hydraulic character of the rivers and … the ecology of the Delta”, leading to an annual loss estimated at 2 to 2.5 percent of GDP.

This is equivalent to the effect of, say, taking the entire Information Technology sector out of the Indian economy! Even worse was the human tragedy, including large-scale displacement, destitution and forced migration. Farakka became a symbol of Indian domination and stoked anti-Indianism in Bangladesh, which the Right cynically exploited. Anti-Indianism entered the mainstream and has become the staple of conservative parties and groups.

Ms Banerjee could perhaps have been persuaded to understand the importance of undoing this blunder. She might even have comprehended the inequity of the current Teesta water-sharing arrangement, under which India has access to an estimated 32,000 cusecs (cubic feet per second) of water during the lean season for about 8 million people, while Bangladesh must make do with just 5,000 cusecs for 20 million people.

Unfortunately, such a focussed effort wasn’t made, according to the second account. Even if had been, it’s conceivable that Ms Banerjee would still have played an obstructionist role—for wholly narrow, short-term political reasons such as not allowing her Left-wing opponents to corner her.

As a last resort, the Centre could have offered to ask for more time to negotiate a Teesta water-sharing accord which satisfies all, and still tried to get Ms Banerjee on board. That was not to be. Regardless of the minutiae, the failure to agree on the Teesta waters issue is incontrovertibly a huge setback to the cause of radically reforming Indo-Bangladesh relations.

Dr Singh’s visit to Dhaka was billed as a game-changer, which would pave the way for a Bay of Bengal community, including Burma, and provide greater linkages with Nepal and Bhutan. This would be vital to South Asian integration.

India must reverse the damage thus caused by negotiating fair and equitable agreements on all the shared rivers with Bangladesh as quickly as possible. India has to acknowledge that Bangladesh has legitimate concerns and grievances over some Indian dam projects such as Tipaimukh on the Barak in Manipur. These must be addressed in a cooperative spirit.

The Bangladesh government has acted positively on India’s demands on transit and security. It has refused to provide sanctuaries to insurgent groups from the Northeast. The agreement now being reached with the United Liberation Front of Asom wouldn’t have been possible without Dhaka’s cooperation. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has gone out of her way to meet Indian requests, often at the risk of being branded unacceptably pro-Indian by her opponents.

India’s gains on the transit issue are even more handsome. The Dhaka agreement allows transit and trade between India’s Northeast and the rest of the country via Bangladesh. Transporting 45 percent of all goods to the Northeast through waterways, roads, rail and air links would yield enormous savings in fuel and time. The advantages of developing this backward and restive region cannot be overstated.

India shouldn’t have only offered a $1 billion line of credit to Bangladesh, but made a larger outright grant to build the transit infrastructure. In general, India should do more than reciprocate Bangladesh’s gestures.

Indian policymakers must remind themselves of the Gujral Doctrine, a worthy principle which held that India’s dealings with all her neighbours barring Pakistan must go beyond strict reciprocity to unilateral and generous gestures. (I would argue this should apply to Pakistan too, especially in trade and visa matters, and people-to-people exchanges, but that’s another discussion.)

The Gujral Doctrine created tremendous goodwill for India, and helped counter the charge that India has an arrogant Big Brother attitude towards its smaller neighbours and doesn’t hesitate to interfere in their internal affairs, as it did by sending the Indian Peace-Keeping Force to Sri Lanka, imposing an embargo on goods going to landlocked Nepal, and militarily intervening in the Maldives. It’s imperative that India introspect and reform not just the image, but the object (its relations).

As India-Bangladesh relations go, it is not enough for New Delhi to rest on the small gains made through the various agreements signed in Dhaka on the land boundary, biodiversity conservation, economic cooperation, and a $750 million loan for trade infrastructure, etc. India has to rectify the huge imbalance in bilateral trade, with a deficit of $4.5 billion vis-à-vis a country that’s 15 times smaller in economic size.

Readymade garments make up 80 percent of Bangladesh’s exports. In 2008, India started giving “duty-free” access to Bangladeshi garments, but still levied a countervailing duty of 4 to 12 percent, thus taking away with the left hand what was given with the right hand. The garment quota was raised from 8 million pieces to 10 million last year, but Bangladesh exhausted this year’s quota in the first six months.

India still has 480 items on its “negative” trade list for Bangladesh. But if all these were to be given true duty-free access, it would cost India a paltry $5 million loss in revenue, according to a 2008-09 estimate by the Centre for Policy Dialogue in Dhaka. By contrast, such access would greatly boost investment, growth and employment in Bangladesh, with immense benefits for regional integration, not to speak of goodwill for India.

India must develop imaginative strategies in trade, economic and cultural cooperation, education and in coordinated action to combat climate change. Bangladesh is one of the world’s most vulnerable countries to climate change and a sea-level rise. Parts of India’s East Coast are equally vulnerable, as Cyclone Aila, which devastated large swathes in Bangladesh and India’s Sunderbans showed in 2009.

There is a precondition for such a change of stance. India must stop seeing itself primarily as part of the global Big League and relate seriously to the South Asian region to which it belongs, geographically, culturally and strategically. —end—