After the verdict delivered by the UN's Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) based in The Hague, Netherlands, a 40-year-old dispute on India and Bangladesh's maritime boundaries in the Bay of Bengal came to an end. The court settled the issue by demarcating the sea area according to international maritime law, submission and arguments and counter-arguments offered by the both countries, and evidence from earlier verdicts.
On May 31, 2011, Bangladesh filed its objection (Memorial) to Indian claims that overlapped some shallow and deep sea areas within and beyond 200 nm from the Bangladesh baselines. On July 31, 2012, India submitted its Counter-Memorial. On January 31, 2013, Bangladesh submitted its Reply. The court collected charts, maps, and hydro-graphic surveys of the relevant area, as well as information on shipping, navigation and fishing activities there. The hearing on the merits took place from December 9 to 18 2013. The PCA verdict was made public on July 7, 2014.
The verdict, binding on both countries, opens the way for both Bangladesh and India to get access to the Bay of Bengal and take actions for utilising its water, fisheries and mineral resources. The UN court has settled the area of sovereign rights for the two countries. Now it is up to the countries to ensure their rights over the area. We know that legal ownership is not the same as real and effective ownership over land or water. For a country, national plans, initiatives and above all necessary national capabilities are essential preconditions to ensure effective ownership.
The government of Bangladesh claimed a win in the verdict. What about India then? Indian leading TV channel NDTV found it otherwise. After accessing an internal government of India note it reported that “even though India believes the delimitation has been done in an arbitrary fashion, it is not the loser. Control of the disputed New Moore Island and concomitant access to Hariabhanga River is a significant gain. The island, supposedly rich in oil and natural gas, has been a traditional sore point between the two neighbouring countries.” It further noted about the richness of the area that “the Hariabhanga river, which flows around the Sundarbans in West Bengal and borders Satkhira district of Bangladesh, and the region holds twice the amount of hydrocarbons as compared to the Krishna-Godavari basin in Andhra Pradesh.” (http://www.ndtv.com/article/india/un-tribunal-resolves-40-year-old-maritime-dispute-between-india-and-bangladesh-557615)
The island that India calls New Moore is known as South Talpatty in Bangladesh. Bangladesh had a claim on this island since it emerged after the 1970 cyclone. In 1979, the issue was discussed between the two government delegations when the Indian prime minister visited Bangladesh. In the following year, at the end of Indian foreign minister's visit to Dhaka, a joint statement was issued on August 18, 1980 on issues concerning the island. It said: “The question of the newly emerged island(s) (New Moore/South Talpatty/Purbasha) at the estuary of the border river Hariabhanga was also discussed. The two sides agreed that after study of the additional information exchanged between the two governments, further discussion would take place with a view to settling it peacefully at an early date.” (www.hcidhaka.gov.in/bi_doc/24.doc) Whether any follow up discussion took place is not known. Indian navy annexed the island in 1981 and hoisted Indian flag. No government of Bangladesh took any initiative to assert ownership over the island since then.
Ironically, Bangladesh's position in the tribunal was to assert that “the island disappeared permanently below the surface in the late 1980s or early 1990s” (Para 197). On the other hand, India tried to prove “South Talpatty/New Moore as a low-tide elevation according to satellite images from 2012” (Para 206). However, the tribunal did not find any credible evidence of the island's existence.
While the tribunal finds the relevant area comprises 406,833 square kilometres, Bangladesh proposed that the “boundary line divide this area in a way that Bangladesh and India receive maritime space of 145,364 square kilometres and 211,490 square kilometres, respectively, the ratio of which is 1: 1.52 in favour of India.” Bangladesh also argued that “this result is consistent with the ratio of coastal lengths and therefore passes the disproportionality test” (Para 486).
However, after adjusting provisional equidistance line, the tribunal allocated “approximately 106,613 square kilometres of the relevant area to Bangladesh and approximately 300,220 square kilometres of the relevant area to India. The ratio of the allocated areas is approximately 1: 2.81” (Para 496).
There should be no doubt that whatever Bangladesh achieved from the verdict was possible because of international law and the UN's platform for an arbitration process. Our experience of bilateral negotiation with India has always been bitter. Many issues, including the Indian withdrawal of water from common rivers; Indian construction of dams on common rivers; river linking project in India; border killings by India; Indian tariff and non-tariff barrier against Bangladesh, etc. have hung unresolved for decades without any positive progress or outcome. We must take lessons from here to work with international water convention of 1997 and ultimately settle river and water issues as well with India.
Now Bangladesh and India have a clear picture of their territories in short and long sea, their exclusive economic zones, as well as continental shelf. India has the planning, vision, institutions and national capability to take care of its sovereign area and resources therein. How will Bangladesh deal with it?
As Bangladesh has an internationally recognised sea boundary which has huge resource potential, should it go for wholesale bidding for leasing out the gas blocks to foreign companies? Unlike India, Bangladesh is heading towards that. It seems that lobbyists of companies from the US, Russia, China and India are busy in pushing policy makers to do it hurriedly. Sometimes one may confuse policy makers (ministers, advisers, bureaucrats) with the corporate lobbyists, because they often speak in the same tune.
Is there any country in the world which could develop its economy utilising its natural resources without national vision? Without national institutions to build up human resources and technological development? Without developing national organisations capable of monitoring, exploring and producing mineral resources?
Global experience shows that abundance of resources does not automatically ensure development of a country. There are countries that have huge natural resources, high FDI in extractive industries, high rate of extraction as well as export. But wrong policies, corrupt ruling elite, corporate hegemony and 'grabber friendly policies' trapped these countries in underdevelopment and made them highly vulnerable, unable to utilise their resources for their own people. Myanmar and Nigeria are among many resource-rich countries from where theories of 'resource curse' have emerged. Corrupt policy makers, commission agents and company men (CCC) work to take Bangladesh along this path. People's resistance made some difference in Bangladesh but CCCs are still in the driving seat.
Capital or resource scarcity, and lack of technology and skilled human resources should not be used as excuses to rationalise anti-people deals suicidal for the country. Countries like Norway, Malaysia and even India demonstrated that these constraints were not eternal and could be fixed if there were necessary perspective plans and initiatives. Our problems do not originate from these constraints, but from local hegemonic rulers and global alliances who, in the name of development, make 'grabber-friendly policies' and therefore use corrupt practices for extracting disproportionate private profit from common property at the expense of the present and future of the country. Therefore, existing policy paradigm creates greater risk for greater resources. Discontinuity of this paradigm is therefore urgent to ensure effective and real ownership of maritime boundary and its resources for the people and the country.
The writer is Professor, Department of Economics, Jahangirnagar University.