‘Bangladesh can’t wait forever to resolve the Teesta issue’
Dr Imtiaz Ahmed, professor of international relations at Dhaka University, talks about Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's ongoing visit to India and what to expect in the future of Bangladesh-India relations in an interview with Shuprova Tasneem of The Daily Star.
Will importing fuel from Russia be a major talking point during the prime minister's trip, and can that affect our relationship with other nations?
In light of the Covid pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine war, there will definitely be a focus on energy security. India still has a relationship with Russia and has not looked into sanctions the way the West wanted. Bangladesh would definitely want to learn how we can benefit from this relationship.
At the same time, one should know that any energy insecurity in Bangladesh would also become a problem for the West. Our main export markets for ready-made garment (RMG) products are in the US and Europe. If we suffer from energy insecurity and it costs us more to produce RMG products, it will also increase their costs and reduce their profit margins. So I believe it will be a win-win situation for all if we can resolve our energy problems, either through a good relationship with Russia by purchasing directly, or through help from India, particularly when it comes to payment and other mechanisms.
How important is Bangladesh in India's Look East Policy, especially given India's current relationship with China?
The importance depends on how much honey there is in the pot. If there is more instability and less economic development, this interest will fizzle out. Ultimately, geopolitics does not create human beings – it's human beings who create geopolitics. Bangladesh's growth momentum over the last 15-20 years, despite the obstacles faced, is what makes other countries interested in us, including India.
Bangladesh has by now managed to convince the world that what we are interested in is economic development. It comes from our long-cherished goal of becoming a peaceful country – a goal that was set by the father of the nation. So whether we have ties with India, China, Japan, the US or Russia – all of it is based on an economic relationship, not security or military development. At the same time, Bangladesh guarantees that we would not allow anyone to use our territory against anyone else. That's what leads to favourable ties with Dhaka regardless of who is in power in India, because the current regime has made good on this promise, especially in terms of dealing with insurgency coming from the northeast. So I don't think Delhi or Beijing have any worries over Bangladesh's ties with others, since a military alliance is never on the cards.
There are some concerns that Bangladesh is too dependent on trade with India when it comes to essential goods. What is your view on this?
No country would want to be dependent on one source. We've had hiccups in this regard, especially in terms of onion import, which forced us to look to Egypt and Pakistan. We have already opened a channel with Russia for wheat, so I don't think this is really an issue. The problem is that whenever we discuss trade or connectivity, we fall back on traditional linkages and use a piecemeal approach.
Political will is required to look at the bigger picture. To this date, we have not been able to mainstream technology and talk about creating new structures. For example, we are currently discussing updating railway structures from the British era. But with the existing technology, it's not difficult to think of a high-speed train between Dhaka and Delhi. There are countries that have changed their entire geographical composition like this, such as China. So why are we not thinking about this?
The first thing that needs to change is our mindset. We are very conservative when it comes to planning and investing in long-term projects. The fact that India spends huge resources on the conflict with Pakistan could be part of this. There are an estimated half a million troops in Kashmir alone, it's unthinkable. But beyond the funding, there is also a lack of imagination. Technology has given us the opportunity to not be slaves to geography, and we should take advantage of that. The possibilities in this region are immense.
While there are talks of other water-sharing treaties, we are still no closer to a resolution on the Teesta.
I can't speak for the policymakers, but it's possible they think that if we go forward with other water-sharing agreements, we can tone down the issue of Teesta and return to it later. But if we fail to resolve the Teesta issue and go ahead with other agreements, then there will of course be criticism, and the government will have to deal with that. One estimate suggests that the livelihoods of 20 million people are impacted by the Teesta River. If we keep their concerns hanging for so long, despite there even being a draft agreement, and move on to other rivers that don't impact as many people, it will definitely become a political and a partisan issue.
So why is the Teesta issue not being resolved? We need to have frank discussions with Delhi on the factor that is Sikkim. There are 30-32 small and big dams for hydroelectric power that are estimated to be affecting around five percent of water flow in each of the dams, according to one eminent Indian hydrologist, leading to a lean seasonal flow draining into Bangladesh. Mamata Banerjee's contention around Teesta is all about this – not considering Sikkim in the calculations.
Will they deconstruct the dams? Of course not. But Bangladesh can try to solve this by storing rain/floodwater from the rainy season and letting it flow during winter. There are environmental and monetary costs: one calculation suggests it will be around USD 1 billion. Although China showed some interest, India immediately became fearful of it. One way to resolve this is by creating a consortium where different stakeholders can provide the funding and expertise for this infrastructure. India must accept that Bangladesh will not wait forever to resolve this issue.
Will Myanmar and the Rohingya refugees be a part of the discussions in Delhi?
Definitely. The point that some of us are also raising is, now that there are talks about a tripartite engagement on the Rohingyas between China, Myanmar and Bangladesh, why can't Delhi organise the same? That is something I think our prime minister would flag this time, especially since we have not seen much progress on this issue. Given that India has good relationships with both Bangladesh and Myanmar, it can play a critical role. Take, for example, Turkey's involvement in talks between Russia and Ukraine to open a Black Sea corridor for the export of grains, which helped it become one of the big players when it comes to negotiations in this conflict. Playing a similar role in the Rohingya issue could also boost India's global status. This is especially pertinent now after the two ICJ judgments recognising the "Rohingya" identity and the US calling the Myanmar military actions against the Rohingyas a "genocide."
Why have we stopped talking about border killings?
This is very unfortunate. If a smuggler is not armed, you can arrest him, but killing him is not permitted under the Indian Constitution or the international law. And then there are the killings of civilians like 15-year-old Felani Khatun. Yet, during the Galwan dispute on the India-China border, not a single shot was fired. Why is that? Because of a 1996 agreement between China and India that stipulates no-one can carry firearms for two kilometres on each side of the border. So if this can be done there, why can't it be done on our borders?