Time For India To Boost Ties With Bangladesh

Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s April 7-10 trip to India was an important one. Perhaps, it was Hasina’s last visit to the neighbouring country ahead of the next General Election in Bangladesh. People across the South Asian country thought that their PM would be able to strike the “Teesta River water sharing” deal with India. Although Hasina’s visit failed to meet the expectation, the outcome of her visit is not negative.
The two neighbours signed a temporary contract on sharing waters of Teesta in 1983. But, the deal expired in 1985. Then, it was decided that India would use 39% of the river water, while Bangladesh would use 36% and the remaining 25% would be used in maintaining the natural flow of the river.
Due to various reasons, the volume of Teesta water stored in reservoirs, built in Gajoldoba, was just around 4,000-5,000 cusecs during the dry season. As per a report, reservoirs in Gajoldoba managed to store only 550 cusecs of water in the last 10 days of the month of March 2014 and 315 cusecs in the corresponding period next year. Now, the question is: if the eastern Indian province of West Bengal had this much water in dry season, then what would be the scenario in case India agreed to share Teesta water with Bangladesh? That is why Chief Minister of West Bengal Mamata Banerjee refused to sign the Teesta pact with PM Hasina.
During her meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Premier Hasina in New Delhi, Banerjee raised two issues. She requested the Indian government not to sign Teesta pact with Dhaka without discussing the issue with the government of West Bengal and to invite north-eastern Indian province to Sikkim to take part in the discussion on water sharing. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Modi made clear that his government would resolve the Teesta issue as soon as possible.
As far as the domestic politics of Bangladesh is concerned, the availability of Teesta water is a very sensitive issue. It is also a sensitive issue in India, especially in northern part of West Bengal. Prime Minister Hasina wanted to strike the deal with India before facing General Election in 2018 and the Indian premier was eager to share Teesta waters with Bangladesh mainly to counter China’s growing influence in South Asia.
The Indian government had expressed serious concern when Chinese President Xi Jinping, during his visit to Bangladesh last November, announced that Beijing would provide Dhaka with two submarines. New Delhi considered President Xi’s announcement as a part of China’s plan to corner India (in its own backyard) by increasing its influence in the region. After Xi’s trip, India sent a number of senior officials to Dhaka with various proposals.
During PM Hasina’s recent visit, her Indian counterpart Modi praised the Awami League government in Bangladesh for making serious efforts to punish terrorists involved in anti-India activities. Hasina, too, informed Modi that majority of Bangladeshi people are still thankful to India for its role in the liberation of their country in 1971. However, forty-six years is a long period. Today, a large number of people in Bangladesh harbour anti-Indian attitude. To counter these people and other extremist Islamist outfits, it is important for New Delhi to maintain cordial ties with the Hasina government. It is also important for India to compromise with Bangladesh over some issues in order to counter China’s influence on the neighbouring country.
As expected, New Delhi showed urgency over signing trade and defence deals with Dhaka during Hasina’s visit. That is why India and Bangladesh signed a comprehensive defence agreement for 25 years. A senior Indian External Affairs Ministry official recalled that Prime Minister Modi stressed upon “blue economy” in 2015. As per Modi’s plan, it is crucial for all the countries in the region to work together for maintaining peace in the Bay of Bengal and other parts of the Indian Ocean. The official claimed that the Indo-Bangladesh defence agreement would allow the two countries to jointly explore energy resources beneath the ocean, provide security to fishermen, protect marine environment and face disaster.
This time, India sanctioned a loan of USD 500 million for Bangladesh, as Dhaka would spend the money for the development of railway and roadway infrastructures. In recent times, India has not given such huge amount of financial aid to any country. Moreover, Bangladesh will get 20 years to repay this loan, with a grace period of five years, and the interest rate will be just 1%. Prime Minister Modi expressed hope that the move would help strengthen bilateral ties.
Although it was not possible for India to sign the Teesta pact, Prime Minister Hasina did not return empty-handed. We have to admit that Teesta is not the only issue. The main problem is to share river waters. If necessary, the two countries should discuss about sharing waters of a total of 54 rivers flowing from India to Bangladesh. Sometimes, politics takes a back seat and diplomacy the front seat.

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