India’s Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao’s visit to Dhaka: India’s response too slow to concerns of Bangladesh

India’s Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao’s visit to Dhaka: India’s response too slow to concerns of Bangladesh

India’s Foreign Secretary Ms. Nirupama Rao’s two day visit from 6th June to Dhaka was perceived as one which might achieve some concrete actions on Bangladesh’s outstanding issues with India.

Since the proposed visit of India’s Prime Minister to Bangladesh which is likely to take place “well before” the end of the year as stated by Ms. Rao, observers thought that she might indicate some conclusive results on some bilateral issues. But that expectation was dashed to the ground.

On 7th June, at the joint press conference, India’s Foreign Secretary bravely met the media and did not indicate any concrete results on bilateral issues which are of great importance to the people of Bangladesh.

What she said, in diplomatic language, means that the process of discussions would continue, although two and half years have elapsed in discussions between the two sides, much to the disappointment to the people of this country. People ask how long do the discussions would continue?

Let me discuss a few burning bilateral issues below:

Sharing of Teesta River Water & Other Rivers:

Bangladesh badly needs the Teesta water during the dry season (December to March). At time in December, water flow goes down to only 1,000 cusecs from 5,000 cusecs as India withdraws heavily water from the river.

India is seeking a 15-year treaty on Teesta water sharing. Although the two countries have exchanged draft agreement on sharing water of Teesta river in March 17 2010, it is reported the bottlenecks in reaching water sharing accord on Teesta hinges on several factors :

• Bangladesh seeks 50:50 share of its water after keeping 20% for river flow whereas India wants 43% of water, leaving for Bangladesh 37%, although it agrees leaving 20% for the river flow,
• Bangladesh does not in any way wish to tag the Feni river water issue with sharing of Teesta water as India wants.
• Bangladesh does not want construction of any irrigation project in India within 100 kilometres of its upstream flow and India does not agree and
• Bangladesh seeks that its observer will be stationed at the Gazaldoba, the place of sharing of Teesta water. But India thinks that the presence of Bangladesh observer to monitor sharing the water is unnecessary.

The top officials cannot decide on these issues because it needs political decision. Therefore Bangladesh got stuck on the Teesta issue until Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh visits Dhaka and decides with his counterpart on the issue.

Furthermore Bangladesh seeks a new comprehensive agreement with India on water sharing of Muhuri, Gumti, Manu, Khowai, Dudkumar and Dharla rivers as agreed in the 51-point Joint Communique following the visit of the Prime Minister to New Delhi. It is reported that talks on the rivers continue but there is no time-bound framework to complete the talks.

Implementation of the 1974 Land Border Agreement:

After independence, Bangladesh and India signed a land boundary agreement in 1974 that would have eliminated the enclaves. Three issues are involved:
• 6.5 kilometre and disputed lands are yet to be demarcated
• Exchange of enclaves
• Exchange of adverse possessions

The Joint Bangladesh-India Boundary Working Group, has been entrusted with the task of a deal. The Group agreed to continue talks on un-demarcated land border and disputed land and thereafter the issue of enclaves.

In January of this year, both the Home Secretaries met and assured that the issue of border demarcation including disputed border within two months or so but the India’s Foreign Secretary said that the discussion would further continue.

There are 111 Indian enclaves on the Bangladeshi side of the international boundary totalling around 17,000 acres, and 51 Bangladeshi enclaves on the Indian side totalling approximately 7,000 acres. The individual enclaves range in size from less than an acre to several square kilometers, and some contain counter-enclaves within enclaves.

Management of the enclaves has been difficult and inhabitants are often cut-off from vital state services on respective sides of the boundary. Furthermore, due to prolonged period of time, many lands have adversely possessed by nationals of both countries.

Therefore a new deal has to be agreed in which the possible territorial exchange would affect an estimated between 44,000 and 100,000 (44,000 Indian nationals within Bangladeshi enclaves and 100,000 Bangladeshi nationals in Indian enclaves) inhabitants.

They would be offered the option of accepting citizenship within Bangladesh or India if remaining within the former enclaves, or migrating to the territory of their original citizenship.

Although progress has been made by the Joint Border Working Group, there is no time period by which the deal would be agreed.

Border-Killing of Bangladeshi unarmed nationals:

Border -killing of Bangladeshi unarmed nationals by “trigger happy” Indian Security Force (BSF) arouses most passions and anger in Bangladesh and has been extremely damaging for India.

The picture of gruesome killing on 7th January of a Bangladeshi young girl Felani (15) returning with her father from his work place within India, her lifeless body hung from the fence for five hours before Indian troops hauled it away on a bamboo pole, demonstrates BSF’s brutality

According to Odhikar, a human rights organisation in Bangladesh, between January 1 to May 10, 2011, 12 young unarmed Bangladeshi nationals were killed by BSF. A culture of impunity prevails for BSF, says Kirity Roy, head of Manabadhikar Suraksha Mancha (MASUM), a Kolkata-based human rights organisation. The Bangladesh National Human Rights Commission has raised the issue in writing with its counterpart institution in India but no results have been achieved.

On the issue of border killing, Indian Foreign Secretary has stated that her government has decided to use non-lethal weapons to stop loss of life in some areas on experimental basis. One waits to see its implementation on the ground.

Trade Imbalance with India:

Trade imbalance for Bangladesh with India continues to be huge for years together. It is reported Bangladesh’s official imports from India during 2009-10 stood over $3. 2 billion while Bangladesh was able to export only $304.63 million. Besides formal trade, informal imports from India stand to billion of dollars.

To boost Bangladeshi exports, there has no substantive progress in implementing Bangladesh’s proposal to remove from Indian negative list of Bangladesh’s main exportable products together with non -tariff barriers.

Even the opening of “border hats” along the Indo-Bangladesh border has taken more than two years, much to the frustration to Bangladesh Commerce Minister.

Noted Indian columnist Kuldip Nayar in his recent article in a leading daily in Bangladesh after visiting Bangladesh in mid April writes: “ It (Dhaka) has given the transit facilities to enable northeastern states to have better and quicker connectivity with the rest of India… I have never been able to understand why New Delhi drags its feet when it comes to trade with Bangladesh …India is too squeamish when it comes to dealing with neighbours.”


Bangladesh has agreed regional transit /transshipment through its territory with India, Nepal and Bhutan. Although India has agreed to allow its territory for Bangladesh to use for trade to Nepal and Bhutan subject to signing of necessary protocols as stated by Ms. Rao, transit through Bangladesh has not yet been in operation for Bhutan and Nepal as they need India’s agreement to use Indian territory as transit.

India’s slow response:

In what was hailed as a strategic game-changer for the subcontinent, PM Manmohan Singh and Hasina had unveiled a comprehensive new vision during the Bangladesh Prime Minister’s visit to New Delhi in January 2010 for bilateral cooperation and a joint determination to resolve many of the long-festering disputes.

While Dhaka has moved quickly to address Delhi’s concerns on cross-border terrorism and connectivity to the North-East, it appears the implementation of the bargain on the Indian side has been lost in Delhi’s bureaucratic maze that can defeat even the most purposeful political directives.

The perception prevails in the minds of majority of people in the country that whatever Bangladesh has agreed, it is a one-way street for India. India ought to remove this perception by taking expeditious steps in settling some of the important bilateral issues on the basis of reciprocity.

As India’s slow pace frustrates its partners in Dhaka and generates political space for the opponents of Indo-Bangla friendship, New Delhi may not be conscious of the dangers of squandering, by default, a rare opportunity to transform bilateral relations.

Many friends of India in Bangladesh think that it would be a missed opportunity for India to create goodwill unless India delivers the goods within a reasonable period. Whether Indian Union government or state governments are responsible for the delay is not the point because the ultimate responsibility rests on New Delhi to facilitate the smooth implementation of outstanding issues quickly.

Observers expected a lot from this tour of India’s Foreign Secretary but regrettably the outcome of India’s Foreign Secretary’s visit to Dhaka was a disappointment. There remains a big question mark on the objective of the visit?

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

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