The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North

The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North
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Thursday, February 4, 2010

What Bangladesh should ask of India

Nazrul Islam

PRIME Minister Sheikh Hasina's recent India visit has generated considerable discussion. The main outcome of the visit has been the expression of Bangladesh's unequivocal commitment to stop insurgency abetting activities carried out using her land against India. Broadly, this stand applies to all types of terrorist and criminal activities. The commitment has been reciprocated by India, resulting in the agreements signed during the visit. This step has established goodwill and a level of trust that can now influence positively other spheres of Indo-Bangladesh relationship.

Another important development during the visit has been expression of Bangladesh's willingness to allow her ports for use by neighbouring countries, not only India, but Bhutan and Nepal as well. By doing so, Bangladesh has responded to another important Indian need, namely alleviation of the semi-land locked situation of her north-eastern states.

The question many have asked is what Bangladesh has gained in return to these steps. On the issue of security, the commitment is mutual, so that the question of additional gain to be had by Bangladesh in a sense may not apply. However, many have seen the Indian offer of $1 billion credit, the opportunity to buy electricity from her, etc as indirect reciprocal steps.

Regarding ports, allowing ports for use by other countries of the region can be a mutually advantageous step for Bangladesh too. From being national sea ports of Bangladesh, Chittagong and Mongla can now become regional ports, enjoying many benefits of entrepot trade, as do Hong Kong, Singapore, and other such regional ports.

The regional status can be particularly helpful for Mongla, which is generally regarded as underutilised. Of course, Bangladesh has to carefully negotiate the modalities of use of her ports by neighboring countries, so that her legitimate interests are protected and due economic gains are maximised.

However, many think that Bangladesh should get more from India in return for her cooperation in meeting India's security and economic needs and have put forward many additional demands, such as:

removal of tariff and non-tariff barriers to Bangladesh export to India,

halt to killing of Bangladeshis by Border Security Force (BSF) of India,

transit facility to Nepal and Bhutan, etc. Many of these are justifiable demands that Bangladesh should indeed put forward to India and press upon. The joint communique suggests that Bangladesh is indeed doing so.

However, the most important thing that Bangladesh should ask from India is "undiminished river flow." The communique indicates that Bangladesh did raise this issue. In fact, press reports suggest that Bangladesh tried to reach an agreement during the visit on sharing of the Teesta river. However, it did not materialise, and the communique mentions the intention of both nations of continuing the negotiation on this issue.

Actually, Bangladesh needs to adopt a completely different position on the issue of rivers. Now that Bangladesh has secured the goodwill of India, Bangladesh can make this position more prominent and ask India to accept it. Instead of asking for a part of the river flow, which negotiations on "sharing of the rivers" imply, Bangladesh should ask for "undiminished river flow."

Bangladesh can justify this position on the ground of her right to "prior and customary use" of river flows. The international norms and conventions with regard to trans-boundary rivers support this right. India knows that the entire economy, society, and culture of Bangladesh have developed over thousands of years based on flows of the rivers that pass through her. Any diminution of these flows violates Bangladesh's inalienable rights on her rivers.

India has already done a gross injustice to Bangladesh by constructing the Farakka barrage that has done irreparable damage to the rivers and ecology of southeastern Bangladesh. India has done similar injustice by diverting Teesta flow through its Gazaldoba barrage. It is of utmost concern that India has similar diversionary plans with respect to other common rivers. Just as the security threat was poisoning Indo-Bangladesh relationship from Bangladesh side, so is water diversion poisoning this relationship from India's side.

Just imagine how electrifying the effect on Bangladesh people's attitude toward India and thereby on Indo-Bangladesh relationship would be if India announced that it would decommission Farakka! Such a proposition is not unreasonable at all. Long thirty-six years of its operation has shown that Farakka has not brought much benefit to India (West Bengal). It has not qualitatively changed the situation of Kolkata port. On the other hand, Farakka has become a source of flooding in many parts of Bihar and West Bengal. More importantly, Farakka has led the Ganges to change its course so that in future the river is likely to bypass the barrage making this huge structure redundant. That being the case, is it not advantageous for India to do what nature seems to be already set to do, and yet derive the dividends in terms of further warming her relationship with Bangladesh? The same may be said with regard to the Gozaldoba barrage.

Letting the flow of rivers undiminished is also in India's interest from another long term, strategic point of view. This is related to climate change. India knows very well that submergence of a significant part of Bangladesh may render millions of people as climate refugees. Where will these people go? Obviously, India is at risk. No barbed wire is going to withstand the thrust of millions of people. Hence it is in India's interest to help Bangladesh counter the submergence effect of climate change.

Land accretion through sedimentation caused by river flow is the most important protection that Bangladesh has against rising sea level. About 2 billion tons of sediment used to be carried by rivers into Bangladesh. Unfortunately, this sediment volume is decreasing due to India's diversion of river flows. By stopping this diversion, India can help Bangladesh counter the sea level rise.

Thus, there are many reasons why India should agree to the demand for undiminished river flow. However, Bangladesh has to raise this demand, make the arguments clear, and win over both the Indian public and the Indian government. Other things, such as trade opportunities, are important, but not as important as river flow. Trade is something that Bangladesh can do with other nations too. But, for undiminished river flow, Bangladesh has only India to turn to. Undiminished river flow is therefore the most important thing that Bangladesh can ask from India in return for her goodwill gestures and steps.

Dr. Nazrul Islam is the Global Coordinator of Bangladesh Environment Network (BEN) and Vice President of Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon (BAPA).

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