12:00 AM, July 07, 2014 / LAST MODIFIED: 01:53 AM, March 08, 2015

Bangladesh-India relations: The next steps

Bangladesh-India relations: The next steps

Ishfaq Elahi Choudhury

SINCE the visit to Dhaka by the Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, there have been new hopes on all sides that the cordial relations between the two countries will scale new heights. It is, therefore, imperative that the tempo be maintained and the spirit of goodwill and friendliness that exists between the two people be used to build mutually benefitting relationship. I shall deal with a few issues here that are awaiting implementations and a few new areas that could open windows of cooperation.
First, the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) that is awaiting ratification by the Indian Parliament.  Nowhere in the world are so many small enclaves clustered along a border. There are not only Indian enclaves within Bangladesh and Bangladeshi enclaves within India, but there are also enclaves within enclaves -- thus there are a few acres of India inside Bangladesh and within that enclave there are an acre or two that belong to Bangladesh. What the two governments agreed was to follow the international boundary line and transfer all enclaves to the country inside which those are located. The deal involves swapping 162 enclaves -- India will get 51 Bangladeshi enclaves located inside India (7,110 acres) and Bangladesh will get 111 Indian enclaves located inside Bangladesh (17,149 acres). A fact that is often ignored is that since 1947 the enclaves had been de facto part of the country inside which they are located. The LBA simply wanted to turn what was de facto into de jure. Once the legal decision is obtained the people in the enclaves can have the citizenship rights and respective governments can provide all the governance benefits that these people have been deprived of more than six decades.
The adverse possessed land is also a legacy of 1947. These are patches of land, mostly along Assam, Meghalay and Tripura border, where the international boundary cuts across areas which had been traditionally settled and cultivated by citizens of the other country. There are 3,500 acres of Bangladesh land which are under Indian possession and 3,000 acres of Indian land that are in Bangladesh possession. Ideally, all adverse possessed land should be exchanged and demarcated as on the map, but the problem is the local people who have been in possession for ages do not want to lose what they have. This is common to both Bangladeshis and the Indians who are affected.
The other option would be to redraw the map and give rightful possession to the affected citizens of both countries. Redrawing the map, even by few acres here and there, will involve Parliamentary ratification. In the larger context of Indo-Bangladesh relations, giving away and taking over few acres here and there might be a small matter, but unfortunately those issues have retarded the relations between the two neighbours for decades.
The second issue that remained unresolved is the Teesta Water Agreement that was ready to be signed, but WB Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee refused to agree because she was not consulted on an issue that involved her state. Mamata's support for the tottering UAP government was vital at that time. The Teesta deal remains in limbo, much to our disappointment. The new BJP government is not dependent on the support of Mamata's Trinamul Congress for its survival, yet the Centre will not probably go ahead with the deal ignoring the WB state government. The government and the people of Bangladesh expect that under the leadership of PM Narendra Modi the Centre would able to take the WB CM along to sign the deal that will pave the way for greater cooperation in future.
While these two issues remain in the process of implementation, we need to go ahead with other mutually beneficial issues. Ms. Sushma Swaraj mentioned greater connectivity by road and rail, power purchase, relaxation of visa to ease travel, trade and commerce and increased Indian private sector investment in Bangladesh. As an exploratory visit the deliverables were quite impressive indeed. The visit could form a foundation on which we could move forward.
On the issue of connectivity, in addition to the proposed bus service between Guwahati and Dhaka, we need to start air service between Guwahati and Shilchar to Dhaka and Chittagong. These services will be commercially viable and assist business and tourism. So far, road connectivity has got the most attention, yet it is the railways that would provide the most efficient and economic connectivity. We need to restore railway link between Jessore-Benapole-Petrapole, which was snapped by the Pakistani regime during the 1965 Indo-Pak war. Indeed, after the construction of the Padma road-rail bridge, Dhaka-Jessore-Benapole-Kolkata railway and road link will become the primary mode of communication between the two countries. In the same way, we need to restore Kulaura-Latu-Mahashashan railway line for greater connectivity with NE India. On the WB side, we may reconnect Rohanpur-Shingabad, Birol-Radhikapur, Chilahati-Haldibari and Burimari-Changrabandha railway links. Bangladesh railways, with little investment, will be a beneficiary of the traffic that the connectivity will generate.
On inland waterways, steamer service between Kolkata and Dhaka via Barisal and Chandpur is definitely a viable proposal from both trade and tourism. The existing water transportation treaty could be the basis for barge cargo service from Chittagong to Guwahati or Shilchar, using Jamuna-Brahmaputa and Meghna-Barak river systems.
On the water issue, we need to immediately start construction of Padma Barrage. Since signing the Ganges Water Treaty in December 1996, we have not done anything to use the water that we are getting. The Padma Barrage is essential to flush Gorai River and reduce salinity in Khulna division. The project will give Bangladesh better leverage in the next round of Ganges water negotiation with India.
Meanwhile, we need to initiate a multi-country study on the use of Brahmaputra water. The countries involved are China, India, Bhutan and Bangladesh. China's reported building of storage dam and hydroelectricity project in their part of the Brahmaputra without prior consultation with the lower riparians is a cause of concern for us. In the same spirit, we need to initiate Indo-Bangladesh study on Barak-Megna basin where there is potential for cooperation as well as tension.  Empowering and strengthening of Joint River Commission (JRC) is long overdue.  In fact, what we have now is occasional JRCs meetings. What we need is a single JRC with a permanent secretariat and executive power to implement its decisions.
On the power issue, we need to seek Indian investment in more coal-fired stations, especially on the western side where we could use Indian coal from Asansole. On the hydroelectricity issues, we need to get in contact with India and Bhutan and get our share from the multiple power projects that the Indians are implementing upstream of Teesta, Dudhkumar and Dharla. These are massive projects, some of which are already generating thousands of megawatts of electricity.  If need be, we should invest in these projects to ensure our share of the power produced.

The writer is Air Commodore (Retd), and Registrar, East West University.


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