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Ties of tension

How trans-boundary rivers are affecting our bilateral relations

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19th-Jun-2017       
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Mohammad Amjad Hossain :
India has recently made an effort to further develop its friendly relations with Bangladesh amidst growing bilateral ties with China whom India considers a rival, both economically and militarily. That has been reflected during the four-day visit of Bangladesh Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina to India in April at the invitation of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, making it the first such visit after the BJP came to power in the central government in Delhi in 2014.
During her visit to India, a series of 22 pacts plus 12 business deals were signed between the two countries which include nuclear and defense cooperation, apart from infrastructure development in railway, ports, airports and technical facilities. The pacts also covered a broad range of subjects like battling terror, security and cross-border infiltration. To cover all these projects, India accorded a credit line of $4.5 billion, apart from $500 million earmarked for buying defense equipment from India. The Indian Prime Minister, Bangladeshi Prime Minister and Chief Minister of West Bengal inaugurated a rail and bus service to Bangladesh from India. The visit of Sheikh Hasina, Prime Minister of Bangladesh, takes place at a time when policy makers in India are increasingly worried about China's influence on Bangladesh. Both China and India are competitors in South Asia. Bangladesh has already achieved economic growth at 6% plus, but its high population density draws the attention of economic and military powers of China and India for the expanded market in Bangladesh.
During her visit, the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina honored 46 years Indian soldiers who were killed by Pakistan's marauding army during the Liberation War of Bangladesh in 1971. This is something that should have been done long ago during the initial ruling period of Awami League in 1972; however, it is still a good gesture from Bangladesh. Regardless, the issue of sharing waters from the Teesta and Feni rivers remain on  tenterhooks.
Sharing of waters from trans-boundary rivers from an upper riparian country constitutes an international obligation to lower riparian countries. Bangladesh incidentally is a lower riparian country but India being the upper riparian state, controls waters of trans-boundary rivers. According to BBC, the Indian Irrigation Minister plans to transfer water from the Ganges and the Brahmaputra to drought prone areas in India. He commented, "The interlinking of the rivers is our prime agenda, and we have got the people's support, and I am determined to do it on the first track." If this project is carried out, it will be disastrous for Bangladesh. Meanwhile, India has already diverted waters from many international rivers upstream which has left an adverse impact on the ecology of Bangladesh. The change of water flows in the upper riparian areas in India affects the environment and the hydraulic character of rivers in Bangladesh.
The water issue is one of the significant bilateral problems between Bangladesh and India which has been around since the inception of Bangladesh. The construction and implementation of a barge on the Ganges River in Murshidabad have caused serious problems to the lower riparian river, the Padma which has almost turned into a dead river. The Brahmaputra on Bangladesh's side known as the Jamuna is almost dead as well, whereas the Brahmaputra in Guwahati in India was brimming with waters as I had observed during my short visit to Guwahati in Assam from Kolkata in August of 2009. India which claims to be a friend of Bangladesh should respect and honor a lower riparian country sharing waters from trans-boundary rivers. There are plenty of international treaties and agreements to share streams from trans-boundary rivers. Historically, an international agreement, dating back to 2500 BC, saw two Sumerian city-states of Lagash and Umma reach a deal ending water sharing disputes along the Tigris River which is 1,740 miles long at the North West bottleneck of Baghdad of present Iraq. According to the FAO, more than 3600 treaties relating to international water resources had been concluded since 805 AD. Of them, the recent agreement between Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam regarding the formation of the Mekong River Commission in 1957 for cooperation with water resources is significant. The Indus River Commission between Pakistan and India sharing waters is another glaring example. A framework for the Nile River Basin was agreed in February of 1999 to fight poverty and develop the economy in the region by promoting equitable sharing of water resources from common rivers.
The 1997 United Nations Convention on Non-Navigational Uses of International Water Resources is one international instrument that significantly focuses on shared water resources. The convention established two key elements to guide the conduct of nations sharing water from shared rivers: equitable and reasonable use and the obligation not to cause significant harm to neighbors.
If BJP government goes ahead with implementing its pet project as indicated by the Water Resources Minister of India, it would have a devastating effect on Bangladesh. Therefore, Bangladesh government would be left with a fait accompli situation. During his visit to Bangladesh in June of 2015, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi committed by saying, "Our rivers should nurture our relationship, not become a source of discord." After two years of the BJP in power, the water sharing from the Teesta and Feni rivers is hanging in the balance because of the objection by Chief Minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee. This time, too, the Indian Prime Minister asserted by saying, "I firmly believe my government and Bangladesh's government will find a solution of water sharing from Teesta." However, only rhetoric does not solve water sharing problems between the two neighboring countries. Therefore, it is high time that the government of Bangladesh should consider internationalizing the issue as they did in connection to resolving the long dispute of demarcation of maritime boundaries at the arbitration court.
It is understood the trade deficit with India is a huge problem. No mechanism is in hand to solve the trade deficit between the two countries, where India is reaping benefits from Bangladesh by setting up India-based companies in Dhaka as liaison offices to trade with RMG products to be sent to the United States and Europe. Indian companies are utilizing Bangladesh's most favored nation status getting lower tariffs. Shipments come from Bangladesh, but the money goes to India. According to statistics, import from  India stands at $5.45 billion, whereas exports to India from Bangladesh amounts to $689.62 million during 2015-2016. The imposition of anti-dumping duty by India on the products of jute goods, yarn and hydrogen peroxide from Bangladesh has caused a further hindrance in reducing trade gap with India.
Leaders and policy makers in India agreed that Sheikh Hasina has gone the extra distance to improve relations with India but now is the time for reciprocity from Indian policy makers to maintain friendly relations with its neighbors.
The writer is a retired diplomat from Bangladesh. He writes from Virginia, USA.
- ICE Business Times, June 2017

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