12 October, 2009

A Fresh Look at the Indo-Bangladesh Relations

The Bangladeshi masses have yet again chosen democracy. Thus the fourteen party grand alliance spearheaded by the Awami League has come back to power. The military has handed over the reigns to Sheikh Hasina in January 2009. India would definitely expect positive response from the present Bangladeshi government now. More so, when we keep in mind the smooth relations with the previous Hasina government in 1996-2001. But the irritants remain and the major impediments seem to be rising Islamic Fundamentalism in Bangladesh, usage of the said territory by insurgents of the North-East of India for illegal transit as well as shelter. In this backdrop, we try to examine the bilateral relations of these two historically and culturally connected neighbours, starting off with a brief historical introduction.

It is well known that India’s role in the emergence of today’s Bangladesh was phenomenal. The two countries signed a 25 year Treaty of Friendship, Peace & Cooperation in March, 1972. India also aided the nascent economy by providing essential commodities like food, petroleum products, sugar, steel etc. The two countries also signed a short term agreement on sharing the water of the Ganges and established a Joint Rivers Commission to conduct a survey of the river system. In August 1974, President Mujibur Rahman was assassinated by a military coup. And after coups and counter-coups, Gen. Zia-ur-Rahman took over as the military dictator of Bangladesh. He initiated the process of Islamisation (1975 - 1980). It reached the zenith during Gen Ershad’s regime (1982 - 1989) when Islam was declared the State religion in June 1988. Khaleda Zia, the widow of the assassinated dictator Zia ur Rahman became the new leader by succeeding Ershad in 1991. Next in line was Sheikh Hasina, the leader of the Awami League and daughter of Mujibur Rahman succeeded Khaleda in 1996. Two important treaties were signed : the Chittagong Hill Tract (CHT) Peace Treaty & the Ganges Water Sharing (GWS) Treaty.

Let us have a bird’s eye view on those two treaties.
CHT Peace Treaty : The agreement recognised the distinct ethnicity and special status of the tribes and indigenous peoples of the Chittagong Hill Tracts, and established a Regional Council constituting of the local government councils of the three districts of the Hill Tracts. The council was to be composed by men and women from the Chakma, Marma, Tripura, Murang and Tanchangya tribes; the delegates would be elected by the district councils of the Hill Tracts. Elected for a five-year term, the council would have authority and responsibility to maintain law and order, social justice and tribal laws, oversee general administration, coordinate disaster relief and management, issue licenses for heavy industries and oversee other development projects. The central government would be required to consult the regional councils over all issues concerning the Hill Tracts.
The agreement also provided for the setting up of a central Ministry of Tribal Affairs to be headed by a person of tribal ethnicity to administer the affairs concerning the Hill Tracts. The agreement also laid out plans for the return of land to displaced natives and an elaborate land survey to be held in the Hill Tracts.

GWS Treaty or the 30 years’ Treaty : According to the treaty, the Ganges water would be distributed from Farakka for the two countries between January 1 and May 31 each year on the basis of an agreed formula, and that India would make every effort to maintain the flow at Farakka at the average level of previous 40 years. At any critical period Bangladesh would get the guaranteed flow of 35,000 cusec (1 cubic foot per second). The two countries also agreed to the need for mutual cooperation in augmenting the flow of the Ganges on a long-term basis, and for entering into similar accords in sharing the flows of other common rivers.
It removed the tense relation between the two countries, and opened the way for their wider cooperation in sharing the water resources of the entire region. The implementation of the treaty has the prospect of allowing Bangladesh to receive a fairly good flow of water into the Ganges-Kobadak Irrigation Project in greater Kushtia and into the Gorai river that drains the southwestern districts, thereby saving agriculture, and the world's largest mangrove forests in sundarbans by preventing salinity from the Bay of Bengal. It has also opened the way for Bangladesh to build a barrage on its segment of the Ganges to make a judicious use of the lean season flow coming from upstream.
But after Sheikh Hasina’s term expired, it was Khaleda Zia again with the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) in 2001 and relations with India naturally strained.

Major unresolved issues between India and Bangladesh can be enunciated as follows :

Border Fencing : India has to fence the 4100 kilometers long land border with Bangladesh. According to Status Report on Internal Security released by the Union Home Ministry, out of the 2218 km land border in West Bengal, fencing could be constructed along only 1191 km. Moreover, the decision to set up 13 Integrated Check Posts (ICPs) has not been implemented.

Refugees : Official reports of the BSF quote that 1.2 million Bangladeshis who entered India between 1972 and 2005 with valid documents have not been sent back. In fact, it seems that Panchayats purportedly help Bangladeshi immigrants procure primary identity cards like ration cards, voters ID etc. There has been a negotiation between the two countries regarding the ‘Chakma refugees” flooding into India.

Tin- Bigha Corridor : The exchange of enclaves according to the Land Boundary Agreement of 1974 has not yet taken place. About 110 Indian enclaves are still in Bangladesh and 51 Bangladeshi enclaves are still in India. Tin Bigha corridor is the name of a strip in Cooch Behar district of West Bengal (between the Dahargam and Angarpota enclaves). It was given to Bangladesh in June 1992 as a brotherly gesture by India. (An enclave is a territory whose geographical boundaries lie entirely within the boundaries of another territory)

The enclaves were part of the confrontations centuries ago between two regional kings, the Raja of Cooch Behar and the Nawab of Rangpur. The little territories were the result of a confused outcome of a treaty between the Kingdom of Koch Bihar and the Mughal Empire. After the partition of India in 1947, Cooch Behar was merged with India and Rangpur went to then East Pakistan. In 1974, both countries agreed to exchange the enclaves or at least provide easy access to the enclaves, but since then little has materialised. Talks between the two countries on the issue resumed in 2001, but the lack of a concrete time frame has relegated the issue to the back burner.

The residents of the enclaves live in abysmal conditions, with lack of water, roads, electricity, schools and medicines. Crime also is rampant, as complaining would mean crossing the international boundary due to the lack of law enforcement resources. Residents of the enclaves may go to their respective countries on the production of an identity card, after seeking permission from the border guards.

New Moore Island : Also known as Purbasha, or South Talpatti, is a small uninhabited offshore island that emerged in the Bay of Bengal in the aftermath of the Bhola cyclone in 1970. Administratively, it is located in the South 24 Parganas district of the Indian state of West Bengal. It is situated only two kilometers from the mouth of the Hariabhanga river, a distributary of the Ganga.The island is administered by India but is claimed by Bangladesh. The emergence of the island was first discovered by the West Bengal state government in 1971 and it was subsequently surveyed by the Indian Coast Guard. India named the newly emerged island as New Moore Island. The first remote sensing image of the island taken by an American satellite in 1974 showed the island to have an area of 2,500 sq meters. Later, various remote sensing surveys showed that the island had expanded gradually to an area of about 10,000 sq meters. The island is located in the coastal shallow seas south of the border marked by the Hariabhanga river flowing between South 24 Parganas district of West Bengal, India and Satkhira district of Bangladesh. The island lies at 21.37 N latitude and 89.12 E longitude. The island continues to expand and the landmass area fluctuates between 7 km² and 14 km² depending on the high and low tides.

Tipaimukh Dam : It is a mooted Hydroelectric project based in Manipur. It has evoked controversy as the dam is to be built 100km off the Bangladesh border. The dam will be 390m long and 162.8m high, across the Barak River, 500 m. downstream of the confluence of the Tuivai and the Barak rivers on the Manipur-Mizoram border. The dam will be at an altitude of about 180 m. above mean sea level with a maximum reservoir level of 178 m. The dam was originally designed to contain flood waters in the lower Barak valley but hydro power generation was later incorporated into the project. The project will have an installation capacity of 1500 MW and a firm generation of 412 MW. The dam will permanently submerge an area of 275.50 square kilometres.

A non-resident Bangladeshi engineer, Dr. Khondakar Abu Sufian, suggested that the Tipaimukh Dam will be a blessing for Bangladesh, because it will have the potential to reduce flooding in Bangladesh by 30%, or the river-levels in Sylhet region will be reduced by 1.5 metres during rainy season. Apparently, this calculation about reduction of flooding by Tipaimukh Dam is based on a study done in 1992-94. The opponents of the dam claim that this is a gross violation of international norms and the existing Ganges Treaty between India and Bangladesh. They also raised concerns about unilateral control of an international river by India, and think that the dam will reduce the flow in Surma-Kushiara-Meghna rivers during dry season and will increase during rainy season.

Terrorism : Both the countries have accused each other of harbouring insurgents. Government of India (GoI) has prepared a list of 119 alleged terrorist camps within Bangladeshi territory while Dhaka alleges that there are 39 terror camps on Indian soil. In fact, Chittagong Mayor Moinuddin Chowdhury has publicly admitted about terrorists of SIMI, ULFA & LeT in Coxbazar & Chittagong Hills. On top of this, growing Islamic Fundamentalism and anti-India sentiments add fuel to these fiendish developments. A recent validation is that on 10th July, 2009 Jibon Singh alias Timir Das, the self-styled chairman of the Kamtapur Liberation Organisation (KLO), an underground separatist outfit, was arrested in Bangladesh.

The China Factor : China has become Bangladesh’s number one trading partner, dislodging India from that spot. In 2007, the total Sino-Bangla trade was USD 3.5 billion. Beijing has also become a principal source of funds for Dhaka’s infrastructure development and nuclear technology. In fact, already in 2005, the Bangladesh-China Cooperation Agreement on Peaceful Use of Nuclear Energy has been signed. China also trains the armed forces of Bangladesh & is the largest supplier of military hardware. Thus, looking at Beijing’s strategy in South Asia, India cannot afford to ‘miss-the-bus’.

Possible Solutions ??
To overcome these problems, acceleration of trade and commerce between the two countries is probably the most acceptable solution. Way back in 1994, the Indo-Bangladesh Joint Business Council had identified a body of high-prospect sectors like chemicals, fertilizers, engineering and electronics, computer software and others. Presently India imports raw jute & anhydrous ammonia & exports food materials, capital goods & software. About 15 % of Bangladesh’s imports are from India. But Bangladesh laments in having a large trade deficit vis-à-vis India. In this regard, tariff and Non-tariff Barriers (NTBs e.g. certification & standardization of commodities and quantitative restrictions) need to be eased so that both the countries garner benefits from each other.
The platforms of SAARC (1982) & BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, in 1997) need to be maximally utilised for mutual benefit. A third of the 136 million strong Bangladesh’s population is supposedly under the poverty line. GDP per capita is below USD 400. Hence vibrant trade and commerce is imperative for Bangladesh. Furthermore, India can help Dhaka extract oil & gas reserves in the Bay of Bengal since energy is acutely necessary for India.
Last but not least, we must encourage Track II diplomacy to lubricate the existing frictions, although problems like that of Taslima Nasreen do exist which need to be handled with care.

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