India's lack of interest stalls sub-regional cooperation | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, January 09, 2013 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, January 09, 2013

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India's lack of interest stalls sub-regional cooperation

During the tenure of the Sheikh Hasina government, two documents were signed that encapsulated the framework of comprehensive cooperation between Bangladesh and India, including at the sub-regional level. They are:
* The Joint Communique of January 13, 2010, following the visit of Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to India, and
* The Framework Agreement on Cooperation for Development between Bangladesh and India signed on September 6, 2011 at the highest political level following the visit of the Indian prime minister to Bangladesh.

The two documents envisaged partnership between the two countries at all levels in all sectors to realise their developmental aspirations, shared destiny and common vision of a peaceful and prosperous South Asia.
For the purpose of this article, I shall refer to two areas of cooperation as (a) water sharing and water resources management of the shared basins and (b) sub-regional interconnectivity.
The foreign ministers of Bangladesh and India, at the first meeting of the Joint Consultative Commission in New Delhi on May 7, 2012, reviewed the progress in bilateral relations and agreed that "greater bilateral cooperation between the countries will promote inclusive growth and development and contribute to peace, prosperity, and stability in their countries and the region" (Paragraph 2 of the Joint Statement).
This agreement at the foreign minister's level shows that they have underscored that enhancement of bilateral relations must embrace cooperation at the sub-regional level
On the two specific areas, the two foreign ministers also "welcomed the formation of technical-level teams for sub-regional cooperation in water and power, and connectivity and transit by both countries and looked forward to the convening of the meetings at an early date" (Paragraph 22 of the Joint Statement).
First, in the water sector, cooperation in sharing of waters of common rivers and water resources management including flood control have been mentioned in Articles 2 and 7 of the Indo-Bangladesh Framework Agreement of 2011.
The ministers, on May 7, 2012, agreed that the first technical-level meeting should be convened at an early date. The technical team consisting of Bangladesh and Nepal has been urging India to hold the first meeting at the sub-regional level, but there is speculation that the proposal for the first meeting has been pending at the Ministry of External Affairs for quite some time. (The rivers from Nepal contribute about 71% of the dry season flows and 41% of the total annual flows of the Ganges, according to experts).
Instances of regional cooperation in water management of shared river basins are plenty. For example, besides the Nile Initiative in 1999 among 10 countries for development of water resources from the common Nile Basin, the Mekong River Commission (MRC) established in 1995 with Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos and China and Myanmar as dialogue partners in 1996 has the mandate for cooperation in flood control, hydropower, irrigation and fisheries among others to optimise use for benefits of shared-basin countries.
MRC has approved procedures and guidelines for effective monitoring of intra-basin water use and diversion. In 2011, the Procedures for Water Quality was approved to establish a cooperative framework for the maintenance of acceptable/good water quality to promote sustainable development in the Mekong River Basin.
The Southern African Development Community consisting of 11 countries agreed in 1995 to ensure equitable sharing and conservation of water in the shared-river basin.
Given the above context, it is suggested that basin-wise commissions (one for the Ganges and the other for Brahmaputra basins) be constituted with all countries that share the basin as members, for water-sharing and water resources-management including flood control and irrigation for the benefit of the people of the region.
It is argued that any bilateral agreement between India and Nepal on upstream rivers of the Ganges basin is not only contrary to the spirit and letter of the pledges made by India with Bangladesh under the 2011 Framework Cooperation Agreement but also breaches international river law.
Second, on sub-regional interconnectivity, as per the Joint Communique, Bangladesh has agreed to give Nepal and Bhutan access to Bangladesh's sea ports Mongla and Chittagong for movement of goods to and from India by road and rail. Furthermore, India has agreed in principle with Bangladesh for road and rail connectivity through Indian territory to Nepal and Bhutan. However, in the public domain, no visible progress has been made in this area either.
One may ask, why is India showing lack of interest? As eminent Indian journalist Sunanda K. Datta-Ray writes (July 2009): "Bangladesh may sizzle but it sizzles on a back-burner of Indian priorities."
A similar position is reflected in the book The Jamdani Revolution (2008) by Krishnan Srinivasan, a former Indian foreign secretary, in which he maintains: "The Indian government has tended to allow the hardliners and Hindu chauvinists to set the agenda for its policy towards Bangladesh."
Another reason could be that India does not want to proceed with sub-regional cooperation at this time because both India and Bangladesh will hold parliamentary elections either in 2013 or 2014 and senior Indian officials have started "go slow" policy as there is no certainty that the ruling government will return to power in either of the countries.
South Asia is the world's least connected region due to the lack of political will. 50% of the world's poor live in the region, which constitutes only 3.3% of the world's surface. A third of the people in the region still live below poverty line. 40% of the adult population is non-literate and the region ranks very low in terms of health indicators, and environmental degradation is clearly identifiable.
The leaders cannot evade their responsibility when rich resources of the area cannot be harnessed for elimination of poverty of the people. Self-interest arguably demands that India with its unique geographical location should pay more attention to the needs of people of the sub-region through cooperative efforts with Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan.

The writer is a former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva.

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