Potential turning point
FOLLOWING the unanimous passage of the Land Boundary Agreement by the Indian Parliament, there is widespread optimism amongst our people for a major breakthrough in our bilateral relationship with India including the signing of the treaty on Teesta water sharing during PM Modi's visit to Dhaka. However, the statement by an influential Indian minister that the Teesta water sharing agreement would be delayed has put somewhat of a damper on the people's expectations from Modi's visit. At the same time nothing can be ruled out in diplomacy. Even though Mamata Banerjee has said that she would be leaving Dhaka after signing the Land Boundary Agreement, her presence in Dhaka during Modi's visit should provide an opportunity for some tough negotiations involving the three leaders on the issue of Teesta water sharing.
Given that the treaty on Teesta water sharing will not be signed at all, it would be crucial for Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to persuade Modi and Mamata to enter into a comprehensive framework of the Agreement and discuss about water sharing of all the common trans-boundary rivers.
The process of drying of the rivers and consequent desertification of Bangladesh due to the shortage of water, particularly in the lean season, has begun. Unless the process is reversed through a comprehensive agreement at the highest political levels during the visit, it would have disastrous consequences for Bangladesh's development, agriculture, food security and ecology, among others.
We are told of the domestic compulsions of Mamata Banerjee about the elections in West Bengal next year; this should not stand in the way of signing the Teesta treaty. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has done her part in meeting the legitimate security concerns of India in North-East by not allowing Bangladesh's territory to be used for hostile activities against India. This is laudable; we did not achieve our independence to engage in a proxy war or conflict against our friendly neighbour. Crucially, our government has given transit facilities to India through Bangladesh to North-East states; India and its people including West Bengal are aware of the benefits it has accrued to them. It is thus a legitimate expectation of Bangladesh for Modi and the Indian government to reciprocate in kind.
Modi is in a relatively stronger position than any other Indian prime ministers in recent memory; it is hoped that our leadership would be able to mobilise collective political will to achieve a comprehensive agreement on the sharing of the water of Teesta and other trans-boundary rivers with Modi during the visit. If we miss the bus, one can be rest assured of entering into another endless phase of futile wranglings and negotiations with the South Block and Indian bureaucracy.
Bangladesh and its people have long historical ties with West Bengal and North-East, particularly Assam. The decision to start the bus services between Bangladesh, Guwahati and Kolkata is a most welcome development. In fact, it is time to restore the pre-1965 and eventually the pre-partition communication links between Bangladesh, the North-East and West Bengal covering rail, road and river.
What is called for is a much wider connectivity involving people-to-people contact and exchange at all levels through free movement of peoples across the borders to undo the negative consequences of partition due to the arbitrary manner in which Radcliffe drew the partition lines.
While welcoming the news of the decision by India on easing visa restrictions, I need to state that this is not enough. What is required at this point of time is a bold decision and statement on part of the leaders of the two countries to come to an agreement for removal of the visa requirements eventually. There maybe some initial hiccups but no serious security implications are foreseen. The insurgents, the terrorists and the militants do not require visas to enter into each other's territory, given the porous nature of our borders. It is the ordinary people who wish to see their relatives and friends, or visit the country for medical treatment or shopping sprees who suffer most due to visa restrictions.
In this context we need to achieve a broader of peace and tranquility; it is crucial to ensure that ordinary Bangladeshis are not killed by the BSF. Lethal weapons should only be used when there is no other way to deter cattle smugglers, human traffickers and drug peddlers.
On trade and investment, the issue of tariff, para-tariff and non-tariff barriers with India, like water, has to be resolved at the highest political levels during Modi's visit. We need a firm decision from the Indian Prime Minister on the issue of the removal of tariff barriers for meaningful breakthroughs in the bilateral relationship between the two countries. This has to be backed by enhanced Indian public and private investments in Bangladesh to expand our export base to produce goods with buy-back arrangements to India in order to reduce the trade imbalance. At the same time, it is important for the Bangladesh government to remove restrictions to make it easier for our private sectors to invest in India, particularly for the markets in North-East and West Bengal.
Both Bangladesh and India are in the grip of a critical energy crisis. Apart from import of electricity from Tripura, we would need to collectively harness the potential of hydro-electricity in North-East backed by sub-regional cooperation to harness the huge hydro-electricity potential of Bhutan. Additionally, for the preservation of ecology, we need assistance of India and other developed countries to acquire green technologies for harnessing solar, wind, biogas and other sources of renewable energy.
It is time to work collectively to erase the inherited colonial legacies of the past. For us the imperative need of the hour is to convert SAARC, BCIM and BIMSTEC into concrete realities. One can hope that Modi with his vision and commitment to peace and development in South Asia would give substantive impetus to the process of building a peaceful, prosperous and stable South Asia during his visit to Dhaka.
The writer is a former UN Regional Administrator in Kosovo.
Email: [email protected]