Did we fail to detect political dynamics of India?

Did we fail to detect political dynamics of India?

We are deeply disappointed not to have agreement on water sharing on Teesta and Feni Rivers. We are disappointed because we had been given hope for them for the last eight months. The Prime Minister’s visit to Dhaka was hyped as the heart of resolving water sharing issue on the two rivers.

Records tell us that Bangladesh could not sign any water agreement either with the Congress or BJP led government in New Delhi.

It is noted that water-sharing agreement on the Ganges either in 1977 or in 1996 was concluded with governments, not led by Congress or BJP. The 1977 Ganges Water Agreement was concluded with Janata government led by Morarji Desai and the 1996 Ganges Water Treaty with the United Front coalition government led by Deve Gawda in New Delhi.

In fact the Indira Gandhi of Congress objected to the 1977 Ganges water agreement at the time and after its expiry in 1982 it was not renewed by the Congress government.

Although leaders of Awami League in Bangladesh and the Congress in India have worked together during the 1971 Liberation War, after independence Indian Congress government hardly showed any soft stance towards bilateral issues, such water sharing of the Ganges or maritime boundary in the Bay of Bengal. Increasingly Sheikh Mujib’s independent foreign policy was misunderstood by India.

Water agreement is symbolic of continuing friendly and warm bilateral relations between the two nations that began with the last year’s visit of Bangladesh Prime Minister to New Delhi and perception is very important for people. It is the perception that counts for people. On that score, India failed miserably, although in reality heaven has not fallen because of the lack of the agreement on Teesta and Feni rivers.

After all, sharing of water of the rivers is related to few months of dry season. When we need water in dry season, we don’t get it but when we do not need water during summer and monsoon, we get enough of it to the point of flooding, destroying houses, roads and river banks and embankments.

Even the importance of the land boundary agreement with exchange of enclaves and adverse land possessions under the 1974 Indira-Mujib Agreement was diminished because water sharing agreement had been seen as the high profile event of the visit.

Some fundamentals need to be noted. India is a federal state where powers are distributed between states and the centre according to the constitution. That limits the powers of the centre on certain subjects. Bangladesh is a unitary state and very few realise the complexities of state-centre relations. It is to be appreciated what Bangladesh government can do with ease, Indian central government cannot do unless states give consent on state-subjects. For example duty free goods from Bangladesh cannot avoid payment of sales tax in Pachimbangla.

Furthermore Manmohan Singh’s government is a coalition one consisting of more than 20 parties including the Trinimool Congress of Mamata Banerjee’s of 19 MPs. Therefore New Delhi cannot afford to annoy politically Ms. Banerjee. It needs her support for survival.

In recent months the Manmohan Singh’s government became much weaker because of corruption scandals. Anna Hazare’s hunger strike on Lokpal bill has badly bruised the government.

We have failed to perceive the views of Mamata Banerjee on the sharing of Teesta waters as the river directly affects at least four districts of Pachimbangla because of water diversion works at Sikkim on the Teesta river.

It may be recalled that former Chief Minister Jyoti Basu was one of the architects of the 1996 Ganges water Treaty. It demonstrated the importance of views of Pachimbangla on sharing of the Ganges river.

Given the fragility of the Indian coalition government, how did we expect the Prime Minister of India can deliver what we had hoped for?

We have relied too much on Indian Prime Minister’s visit because the visit of the Prime Minister took place after 12 years. Furthermore Prime Ministers can only decide on sensitive issue and others cannot. It is the concentration of powers on the Prime Minister that has a lot to do in a parliamentary form of government.

Why is it that South Asian Prime Ministers do not meet regularly as the European do? The Presidents and Prime Ministers in Europe meet without gun-salute, without pomp and splendour. Why poor countries have to go through so much expenditure for a visit of the Prime minister to another South Asian country? This needs to be discontinued.

It is the unhealthy culture and tradition of South Asia where a prime ministerial visit takes place after years. They should meet as often as necessary to resolve bilateral issues.

The visit of the beleagured Indian Prime Minister was not conducive to expect water agreement on Teesta river with Bangladesh when we noted that the chief minister of Paschimbangla was not coming during the visit.

Bangladesh wanted in 1974 to fix the boundary of the rivers that constituted boundary between India and Bangladesh. The issue exists as of now and the boundary of the rivers needs to be fixed with latitude and longitude along the existing deepest channel. One the boundary is fixed the deepest channel may move but that does not change the boundary and each country will have innocent right of navigation through the deepest channel.(Bangladesh has a fixed boundary with Myanmar on the Naaf River).

Regional approach needs to be taken in the area of water resource development, flood control and river management including water pollution and anti-salinity measures. There is nothing on a regional level at the present time

Exchange of data and information on the condition of flows of trans-boundary rivers on a regular basis and to process them in a manner in cooperation with each other which facilitates the utilisation of waters by both countries. Introduction of floor warning mechanism to lower riparian-countries is imperative. No offensive constructional work by either side on the bank of border- rivers should be undertaken so as to alter the course of the rivers.

Bilaterally we have Joint Rivers Commission but that institution does not work according to satisfaction. We have to create a “Himalyan Rivers Commission” with Nepal, Bhutan, India, China and Bangladesh for conservation, protection and utilization of waters by people of all countries.

Politics everywhere are holistic, interconnected with underlying pressures and India is no exception. We need to assess the right time to get the fruitful outcome out of a visit and we failed. The asymmetry in size and resources of India dominates the political scene of Bangladesh and rhetoric can produce toxic atmosphere. What we expect from India is heavy doses of common sense in resolving bilateral issues.

Bangladesh’s geographical proximity with India and China has been an asset. Bangladesh, India and China share many of the challenges that will shape our region in the years ahead. There are avenues for collaboration to take advantage of opportunities that will unfold with the 21st century. It is clear that we can and should do more together.

By Barrister Harun ur Rashid
Former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva

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