September 20, 2011

Missing a historic chance

By Praful Bidwai

Monday, September 19, 2011 

Did India snatch defeat from the jaws of victory during its prime minister’s first visit to Bangladesh in 12 years? The answer is largely yes, although the visit also registered some gains. On balance, the Indian leadership squandered a historic chance to overcome mutual distrust and transform the India-Bangladesh relations to a point where they reflect the potential for exemplary cooperation between the two neighbours, with huge benefits to both and to the South Asian region.

The visit’s biggest vitiating factor was West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who adopted an unreasonable and parochial stand on sharing the waters of River Teesta and pulled out of the trip. Could her obstinacy and temperamental behaviour have been anticipated? Was enough groundwork done to prepare her for an equitable sharing of the river’s waters? There are two divergent accounts of this. One says Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s representatives, including National Security Adviser Shiv Shankar Menon, tried hard to convince Banerjee that the interests of her state, in particular, the North Bengal districts, were being taken care of in the Teesta agreement with water shared in a 52:48 ratio between the two countries. Banerjee first agreed, but suddenly raised micro-level issues, such as sharing the flows during the lean season. During that season, West Bengal, she insisted, would concede no more than 25 percent of the flow at a barrage called Gazaldoba, which lies 90 km inside Indian territory. Menon took this proposal to Bangladesh for discussion.

But meanwhile, Banerjee abruptly decided to boycott the trip. She is reportedly extremely keen to build a base for her Trinamool Congress party in North Bengal, where the Left and the Congress are traditionally strong. According to the second account, the Central government failed to reassure Banerjee sufficiently, and could have done so had it worked harder on the larger picture. At that picture’s centre is the historic wrong India committed by unilaterally diverting the waters of the Ganga by building a barrage at Farakka in 1975. This was grossly unfair in and of itself. Worse, the diversion caused enormous losses of food and fisheries production in Bangladesh for almost two decades. According to Ashok Swain of Sweden’s Uppsala university, Farakka changed the river’s hydrology, “disrupted fishing and navigation, brought unwanted salt deposits into rich farming soil, [and] affected agricultural and industrial production ...”, causing an annual loss estimated at 2 to 2.5 percent of the GDP. This is equivalent to the effect of the entire Information Technology sector being taken out of the Indian economy! Even worse was the human tragedy, including large-scale displacement, destitution and forced migration.

Farakka became a symbol of Indian domination and stoked anti-Indianism in Bangladesh, which the Right cynically exploited. Anti-Indianism entered the mainstream. Banerjee could have been persuaded to understand the importance of undoing this blunder. She might even have comprehended the inequity of the current Teesta water-sharing pattern, under which India reportedly has access to about 32,000 cusecs (cubic feet per second) of water during the lean season for eight million people, while Bangladesh must make do with just 5,000 cusecs for 20 million. Unfortunately, such a focussed effort was not made. Even if it had been, it’s conceivable that Banerjee would still have been obstructionist – for wholly narrow, short-term political reasons. As a last resort, the Centre could have asked for more time to negotiate a satisfactory Teesta accord, and still tried to get Banerjee on board. That didn’t happen. The Teesta failure is a huge setback to the cause of radically reforming Indo-Bangladesh relations.

Singh’s Dhaka visit was billed as a game-changer, which would pave the way for a Bay of Bengal community, including Burma, and provide greater linkages with Nepal and Bhutan, thus promoting South Asian integration. It would also greatly facilitate transit and trade between India’s northeast and the mainland. Transporting 45 percent of all goods to the region through waterways, roads, rail and air links via Bangladesh would yield enormous savings in fuel and time. The advantages of developing this backward and restive northeast cannot be overstated. India must reverse the damage by negotiating fair and equitable agreements on all the shared rivers with Bangladesh as quickly as possible. India must acknowledge that Bangladesh has legitimate concerns about some Indian dam projects such as Tipaimukh in Manipur. These must be addressed in a cooperative spirit. The Bangladesh government has acted positively on India’s demands on transit and security. It has refused to provide sanctuaries to insurgent groups from the northeast, enabling the agreement now being reached with the United Liberation Front of Asom.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has gone out of her way to meet Indian requests, often at the risk of being branded unacceptably pro-Indian. India should do more than reciprocate all this. Indian policymakers need to remind themselves of the Gujral Doctrine, a worthy principle which held that India’s dealings with all her neighbours barring Pakistan must go beyond strict reciprocity, to generously unilateral gestures. (I would argue this should apply to Pakistan too, especially in trade and people-to-people exchanges, but that’s another matter.) The Gujral Doctrine created goodwill for India, and helped counter the charge that India has a Big Brother-like attitude towards its smaller neighbours and doesn’t hesitate to interfere in their internal affairs, as it did by sending troops to Sri Lanka, imposing an embargo on goods going to Nepal, and militarily intervening in the Maldives. It’s imperative that India rectify not just the image, but the object (its relations).

As India-Bangladesh relations go, it is not enough for New Delhi to rest on the small gains made through the various agreements signed in Dhaka on the land boundary, biodiversity conservation, economic cooperation, and a $750 million loan for trade infrastructure, etc. India must correct the huge imbalance in bilateral trade, with a deficit of $4.5 billion vis-à-vis a country that’s 15 times smaller in economic size. Readymade garments make up 80 percent of Bangladesh’s exports. In 2008, India started giving “duty-free” access to them, but still levied a countervailing duty of 4 to 12 percent, thus taking away with the left hand what was given with the right hand. The garment quota was raised from eight million pieces to 10 million last year, but Bangladesh exhausted this year’s quota in the first six months.

India still has 480 items on its “negative” trade list for Bangladesh. But if all these were to be given true duty-free access, it would cost India a paltry $5 million loss in revenue, according to a 2008-09 estimate by the Centre for Policy Dialogue in Dhaka. Such access would greatly boost investment, growth and employment in Bangladesh, with immense benefits for regional integration. India must develop imaginative strategies in trade, economic and cultural cooperation, education and action to combat climate change. Bangladesh is one of the world’s most climate change-vulnerable countries. Parts of India’s East Coast are equally vulnerable. Cyclone Aila, which devastated large swathes in Bangladesh and India’s Sunderbans, showed this in 2009.

As a precondition for this change of stance, India must stop seeing itself primarily as part of the global Big League and relate seriously to the South Asian region to which it belongs, geographically, culturally and strategically.

The writer, a former newspaper editor, is a researcher and peace and human-rights activist based in Delhi. Email:

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