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        Volume 10 |Issue 36 | September 23, 2011 |


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Travails of Transit

Syed Maqsud Jamil

The mega event of the visit of the Prime Minister of India Dr Manmohan Singh has ended. Whether the visit was a failure or success is a contentious issue. Besides, the exercise will constrict the importance of the visit to a myopic context. After all, close neighbours do not live in boxes. The exchanges go on.

Countries are not human beings; naturally neighbours will have promises and problems too. India is a large neighbour and an aspiring global power, and Bangladesh is a small country with a large population. The equilibrium of ties is not the easiest of tasks. Common culture and India's developed status incline Bangladesh to greater interaction with India. The problems are not as overwhelming as India and Pakistan have over Kashmir. Two issues stand out for the importance they carry for the countries. River water for Bangladesh and transit for India.

Bangladesh as the lower riparian is not getting its share of river water. Rivers are not what they were fifty or sixty years back. Upstream deforestation and capricious weather compounded by human apathy about rivers have done the damage. It is also a fact that India is unilaterally withdrawing water by building dams and barrages. All the countries in the region have to work together for a lasting and equitable solution of the problem.

The landlocked geographical location of the seven North-Eastern states of India is both a logistic and security problem. Bangladesh happens to have the advantage of a potential passage for facilitating India's access to these states. These provinces have importance for India. It is likely that these provinces have promising energy reserves, prospects of hydroelectric power and timber industry. The negative sides are also worrying. The ethno-religious dissimilarities are breeding grounds for discontent and insurgency. Assam has long insurgency problem centred round ULFA. Tripura has Bengali and tribal conflicts and Mizoram and Nagaland have links with the insurgency problems in Shan and Kachin areas of Myanmar. Strategic predictions do not discount the distant possibility of centrifugal forces trying to create a Christian state in the North-Eastern region of India. It is obvious that India has legitimate concerns. India needs the support of Bangladesh and the transit facility the latter may provide.

Photo: star file

Bilateral relationship, if it is to be of enduring nature, has to be built on goodwill and trust and of course on a mutually rewarding economic foundation. India's valuable support to the liberation war of Bangladesh has bound the nations in a legacy of shared history. After the brutal episode of 1975, the legacy lurched into a stagnating crisis of confidence and mutual trust suffered. The 1974 Mujib-Indira Land Boundary Agreement, which stipulated that India would hand over Tin Bigha corridor as lease in perpetuity in exchange for Berubari Union waited for long 20 years for partial commissioning under a format of one hour access time every alternate hour (6 hours in total) during day time for the residents of Dahagram-Angarpota enclave. It took nearly another 20 years for the corridor to be set open for 24 hours after Dr Manmohan Singh's recent visit. Forty years for the implementation of an agreement can work like bat among birds in matters of goodwill and trust.

Every issue has facts and realities. India has been a poor giver in matters of Bangladesh's water share and trade facilities and excessively harsh in monitoring its border with Bangladesh. The most stubborn reality regarding transit for India is that Bangladesh does not have the infrastructural base for such facility in making it a promising prospect for it. Our roads and highways are below the standard of a modern transportation network and the worst thing is that they are in a deplorable state. Our railway is far from the advances the world has made in this field. Bangladesh's mighty rivers now have shrunken channels constricted by large sandbanks. A big task is at hand. The experts say that the development of infrastructure for transit will need billions of dollars. There is a remote possibility that it may come as a grant. Even India's recent assistance of 1 billion US Dollar is a credit not a grant.

Such a large investment will need the assistance of multilateral funding bodies and contracting countries on an intra and inter regional basis. A natural prospect of inclusion is China and Myanmar. Though the investment will increase the development potential of Bangladesh particularly in terms of trade and commerce, the repayment responsibility will strain its capacity. It is still a murky area as to how much Bangladesh will earn from giving transit facility to India. We have not yet heard of any substantive homework on the matter. Apparently, according to WTO rules, there is no institutional basis for transit fee or charge. What GATT allows are transportation charges and administrative expenses. It leaves out many other charges and costs that accrue to Bangladesh. Unless these things are sorted out, transit fee from India or for that matter from any other country, will look like kite flying.

The fact, as things are, about transit facility to India is that it is already on. Under a memorandum of understanding, India is sending heavy equipment from Paschimbanga to Tripura through Bangladesh for Palatana Power Station. Giant vehicles are carrying the consignments using the waterways and road routes of Bangladesh. In total there will be 96 consignments. Practically, even a remote island country cannot live in insularity. Myanmar, of course, is an exception. Even she has closer ties with China and is opening up to India. So, in the beginning Bangladesh can offer transit facility on a case to case basis. A sulking attitude in response to India's leaden footed approach may not be in the interest of a workable relationship, which is needed for a future breakthrough. It is always better to keep the spring on for the buds to blossom.



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