Now that the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague has awarded Bangladesh more than 19,000 sq km of the disputed 25,000 sq km plus of sea in the Bay of Bengal, it is pointless to raise issues that cannot be resolved. The award as we all know is final and there is no appeal on it in any other legal forum in the world. We have to live with it peacefully and permanently. India too has officially accepted the award in the spirit it was given. The big question is, what have we gained through this award?
To start with, the award has given us access to the high seas beyond the 40 km boundary from the coast. The Bay up to 370 km from our coastal base line is our economic zone where we have sovereign rights. If our continental shelf stretches beyond this limit we may not have fishing rights but we have the right to exploit minerals and other resources on the sea bed. With one stroke we have been able to acquire three times the size of the existing ownership of the Bay.
We have now the sovereign right to fish, mine, collect and gather any resource available within the 19,000 sq km sea. Even sea birds flying over this territory are ours. Shipwrecks are ours too, to recover and claim. Any archaeology site found in this area is ours. Sure this is a massive deal, yet it is as much as we expected. As our foreign minister said, “the court's ruling was a victory for both countries.” We claimed what we were entitled to under our specific circumstances because of the concave nature of our coastline. This position was upheld in the final ruling. The principle of equity was considered besides the principle of equidistance in determining the final sea boundary. We should, therefore, under the circumstances, remain satisfied.
It is necessary to see what specific resources we now have in this big water body. Let us first look at our fish resources. The Bay of Bengal is the home of myriad species of fish. From shrimp to tuna these fishes are available in large numbers and can be caught. We also have some endangered species. Therefore, our attempt should be to see that we do not do any unscientific harvesting of fish, thereby destroying these endangered species. The Bay is a biologically diversified basin and we should try to maintain this ecological diversity. We should try to catch fish with the help of most modern trawlers which are able to release endangered species if they are caught by mistake. Our attempt should be to catch the fish below 200 meters depth. We must leave fishes to be caught within 40 meter depth to wooden trawlers which are equipped with special nets so that fish eggs are not destroyed and this resource is not depleted.
Two important resources in the Bay are oil and natural gas. These carbon content are deposited in the sediments on the sea bed brought down by the three river systems -- the Ganges, the Brahmaputra and the Meghna -- over thousands of years. It is said that as the Bay is rich in this it needs scientific exploration. Most of the sediments have accumulated on the bed of the sea in the form of huge submarine fans. The richer hydrocarbon deposits are in the deeper part of the Bay which we have now acquired ownership of. Added to oil and gas these fans also contain gems and other minerals. Keeping all this in mind we need to first undertake a scientific survey of these sediments before we call for international companies to bid for their exploitation. A critical need, therefore, is to acquire a modern survey ship to do the job. We understand that such a ship is being procured with a loan from the Islamic Development Bank. Other specialised survey ships also must be procured to supplement the work of the mother ship.
The Bay of Bengal has been used as a trade route for centuries by various nations of the world. The Greeks, in their sailing manual the Periplus Maris Erythraei, as early as the 1st century A.D., wrote that the route to India from the Red Sea was along the Arabian Sea, and along the Bay of Bengal to eastern India. In the 2nd century Ptolemy referred to the voyages from Ganges across the Bay of Bengal to the Strait of Malacca for trade and development. So the Bay has been an important crossing point for international trade from time immemorial. Today, the Bay still continues to be an important route in trade between South Asia and the South East Asian countries. We must ensure that this important route flourishes further.
The resources and the facilities that we now own need to be protected from predators. The entire nation needs to be like sentinels. But it will essentially be the task of our Navy to protect the resources. It has to ensure that a strict law and order regime is in place in our portion of the Bay so that no one dares to breach our maritime law. For this, our government has to invest in training, equipment and scientific skills.
An important need of the hour is to have a single authority like an independent commission on the Bay to devise policies for managing, exploiting and protecting the resources of our portion of the deep sea. It will be the national stock taker of these resources, central data storage, as well as a policy purveyor. New laws needs to be enacted and the old maritime laws updated to protect our marine resources.
With all these resources in the sea coming to Bangladesh we must now stopping cribbing about what sunken island we lost in the bargain or how many sq km of sea we were shortchanged. Let us work together to protect what we have got and how attractive and profitable we can make the sea for the benefit of our people.
The writer is a former Ambassador and a commentator on current affairs.