Photo:Maitreyee Express,Dhaka-Calcutta train, by Subir Bhaumik.
Awami League led Grand Alliance has won the parliamentary election in Bangladesh in 2008 with a landslide (¾th) majority. The party will soon form a new government which will have to shoulder massive responsibility of rebuilding the national economy. They are coming to power at an stage when the world economy is suffering from serious recession. The unpredicted energy crisis of recent time, ongoing food crisis and global warming are also major challenges they have to confront.
Bangladesh is surrounded by India, a large neighbor from almost three sides – East, West and North. All rivers flowing through Bangladesh originate from India. In 1971 India provided shelter to about 10 millions refugees; it trained our liberation force, provided arms and also fought side by side with our liberation force to win independence against Pakistani occupation force. But unfortunately over the years the relation between two neighborly nations grew increasingly bitter. Many major issues have reached the stages of conflict. A small neighbor of a huge population and economy suffers a great deal due to continued disputes over critical issues.
Mr. Pronob Mukherjee, the Indian Foreign Minister is due to visit Bangladesh soon. He will be possibly the first major political dignitary to visit after the new government, hopefully under the leadership of Sheikh Hasina, the daughter of Bangabndhu. Critics of Awami League consistently blame it for pro a Indian attitude. Critics always say that India finds it more comfortable to deal with the Awami League government. But the records say otherwise. It was Bangabandhu which could make Indian Army leave Bangladesh territory within a short time. It was Hasina government which could successfully conclude Ganges water sharing treaty. It was Hasina Government which could take decision against pipeline exports of gas to India ignoring pressure from the US and the Indian government.
Now with Awami League led Mahajote government in place and Indian Foreign minister coming for talks both the countries must sincerely endeavor to dispel doubts, confusions from peoples mind and create or better mutual trust and confidence to settle entire gamut of bilateral disputes. The issues which require urgent attention are discussed below.
Water sharing issues:
Bangladesh as lower riparian country suffers a great deal from the unilateral withdrawal of water By India on the upstream. Many Bangladeshi rivers have dried out and extensive areas of Bangladesh are on the verge of desertification. Strong Indian diplomacy does not permit Bangladesh to raise this issue in international forums. The Hasina government in 1996-2001 was successful in concluding the renewal of the Ganges water sharing treaty. But there has been allegations that India does not always honor the treaty. During lean period Bangladesh share of water is not always allowed to flow. We understand that one of the major focus of Frakkha barrage was to maintain navigability of Kolkata port round the year. But if Bangladesh and India can negotiate extensively through increasing water flow to Bangladesh rivers two Bangladeshi ports Chittagong and Mongla can be use as transit port of India. On the other hand Bangladesh agriculture and economy can have a shot in the arm with all rivers getting back their all season navigability. During the discussion with the Indian FM the water sharing issue must be discussed. India must not proceed any further with Tipai Mukh barrage. The Joint River Commission must be truly active.
Boundary Disputes Resolution:
India is huge country. It must not try to encroach Bangladesh territory or try to grab Bangladesh resources at offshore or onshore. On top of various disputes of land boundary disputes the maritime boundary disputes in recent times have soured our relations. Why Indian ships have to encroach Bangladesh territory for surveying when two nations have engaged into dialogue to resolve maritime boundary disputes through discussions. India and Bangladesh both claims ownership over Energy rich South Talpatty. It is not very much difficult to find solutions pursuing scientific investigations to be carried out by third party experts under UN supervisions.
India is carrying out investigation and exploration in dispute waters of the Bay of Bengal for a long time and has discovered some resources which may fall under Bangladesh territory. Bangladesh took some initiatives to start exploration but the Indian authorities had not only opposed but also frustrated Bangladeshi efforts through discouraging oil majors in not participating in Bangladeshi initiatives. Issues of the maritime boundary disputes must feature in discussion with Indian FM. We must demonstrate that we are sovereign and have equal rights. We must be treated with proper importance by India as well. India, Myanmar and Bangladesh can make joint efforts to harness offshore petroleum resources and share. India as the larger nation must take the lead to resolve disputes. Modern science has afforded several proven technology to carry out appropriate survey to gather information required to resolve territorial disputes. Bangladesh is suffering from serious energy crisis. It has to harness its potential petroleum resources in the Bay of Bengal for its long term energy security. In this situation India must not create impediments through creating undesirable obstructions.
Combined Efforts to Combat Terrorism:
Neither India nor Bangladesh should be used as base to train terrorists and launch attack into other country by the terrorists. They must make efforts to locate such hide-outs of the terrorists and wipe them out. Many Bangladeshi criminals find many Indian states as safe hide outs and carry terrorism acts by guiding their cadre inside. Similarly there area reports that Indian secessionists taking shelter inside Bangladesh carry anti Indian activities. If both the countries are serious and mean business then there are no reasons why this nuisance can not be eliminated. During Indian FM’s visit this issue must be included in discussion and discussed thoroughly. Blaming and counter blaming must be replaced with proper ground level actions.
Transit, Transhipment and Related Issues:
We understand that for their massive economic benefit India is pressing for transit from Agartala, Assam to Benapole, Chittagong for several years. They also want to use Chittagong port. India was also very much interested for natural Gas pipeline from Myanmar across Bangladesh to Delhi via West Bengal. But India is now is creating various obstacles to trade of Bangladesh with Nepal and Bhutan through their corridor, India has also obstruction exports of Bangladeshi goods to Indian market through various tariff and non tariff barriers. India must change its attitude of taking all benefits from small neighbors and giving away nothing. We understand India for its own greater benefit needs stronger neighbors. They are big brother no doubt but their role must change from rude brother to true sensible big brother.
For any discussion regarding transit India first ensure that trade with Nepal/Bhutan and Bangladesh is not impeded by Indian actions. Why Nepalese or Bangladeshi trucks carrying export commodities can not travel to destinations through Indian Territory? Bangladesh must need guarantee that India will not try to transport security force and military goods through corridor to combat the activists in Tripura, Assam, Meghalaya, Nagaland, and Mizoram making Bangladesh territory to terrorist attacks. If these are taken care and Indian Government invest in setting up appropriate communication infrastructure we find no problem why Bangladesh should not gain from transit and trading.
India must also remove all barbed wire from international border before the contract for transit is negotiated. India must also remover all tariff and non tariff barriers of Bangladeshi export commodities in efforts to reduce trade deficit of Bangladesh.
Energy Sector Cooperation:
Both the countries can be immensely benefited if they can strike meaningful energy cooperation deals. Once the offshore boundary disputes are resolved the countries must endeavor to delineate the subsurface resources. Many petroleum resources in bordering areas may have common structures. There are many instances in the energy world for joint development and sharing of resources. There are no reasons why this can not happen in case of Bangladesh and India. One classic example is Slada–Rukhia structure. These gas fields can be developed much more economically if India–Bangladesh can ink a joint development agreement and carry out further appraisals after 3D seismic. Similar situation may be existing in several other fields at offshore and even at onshore. Instead of disputing over maritime and boundaries two countries must cooperate in developing petroleum at dispute areas. If the present disputes persistent it will not benefit any country. Bangladesh can train its energy sector professionals in various energy institutes, private sector energy companies of both countries can work together. Bangladeshi professionals going for training in USA. UK, Canada and Norway can never utilize the technology learned in Bangladesh. Indian situation is much similar and the lessons learned from India can be more useful.
A section of Bangladeshi theoreticians oppose mining, oppose offshore petroleum explorations. Their actions directly or indirectly help those who try not to develop Bangladeshi resources. Many do not possibly realize that Bangladesh can not have the luxury to keep its fortune buried for silly reasons while the national economy stagnates for the lack of energy supply. New Bangladesh government must do everything possible to start coal mining and petroleum exploration in the offshore at the earliest. Cooperation among India & Bangladesh in positive intent in this context will be very useful.
Mr P. Mukherjee will be coming at a critical time. Indian attitude towards its small requires major change. India will only gain if democracy stabilize in Bangladesh and Bangladesh economy grows to support massive Indian market. The Seven sisters around Bangladesh can be immensely benefited through border trade with Bangladesh. Let the Indian FM’s visit give positive signals for improvement of Indo-Bangladesh relation. For Hasina and his government developing relationship with India on the basis of sovereign equality and getting all its due will be a major challenge.