I venture to pen my thoughts on an issue knowing fully well that a recent Facebook posting critical of the Indo-Bangladesh MoU which allows India to draw water from the Feni River to the tune of 1.82 cusec, cost the life of a Buet student at the hands of some reprobates belonging to the BCL cadre.
India’s request to use the Feni River water was granted quite quickly (contrasted with the inordinate delay in giving Bangladesh full control of Teen Bigha, or the much promised but yet to be delivered Teesta water in the dry season). Draft of an MoU on Feni River was prepared in 2011. It was supposed to be signed in 2011 when the Teesta deal was also supposed to be signed—but was ultimately signed on October 5, 2019. We hope that this would stop the clandestine way the people along the Indian side of the border were drawing water from the Feni River through underwater pipes into India.
It is a true manifestation of the current Bangladesh-India relationship. The gesture is noble; it was on humanitarian grounds, to meet the need of the people of Sabrum in Tripura, where drinking water has become scarce. And why not? We cannot forget the contribution of the people of Tripura to our Liberation War, and neither should one forget the fact that at one time in 1971, the number of Bangladeshi refugees in that state had outnumbered the state’s population.
However, it is not the proposed quantity of water, a meagre 1.82 cusecs, that is important, but the symbolism of our gesture. It was done to ameliorate the shortage of potable water faced by those residing across the border. And by doing this we can claim to have been more caring to our Indian neighbours than some of the Indian states have been towards each other. Remember, the Cauvery issue between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu is yet to be resolved.
However, this is not the first time we have demonstrated our empathy for our close neighbour. At least on one instance not long-ago, Bangladesh had allowed the transportation of essential goods to the northeast free of charge, but with precious little in return.
One cannot overlook the fact that a good part of Bangladesh suffers from lack of water in the dry seasons and a glut of it in the monsoons. There are parched throats in Bangladesh too; large swathes of land have been rendered fallow owing to salinity and desertification due to Farakka. Similar has been the consequences of depleted flow of water in the Teesta during dry season. But the reduced flow of Teesta in dry seasons is manmade rather than natural. The answer to a very important question as to why does the Teesta River run dry in non-monsoon months has been aptly answered by some Indian researchers—and that is, there are more dams than needed. And the dams are built to run hydro-power project in the upstream of the river; diversion of water at Gajaldoba Barrage to the Mahananda river through a link canal adds to the depletion of flow downstream in the dry season. The Gajaldoba Barrage has as much damaging consequences on Bangladesh as the Farakka dam.
And all that we get to hear from our Indian interlocuters, particularly after the prospect of reaching a deal on the Teesta in 2011 was scuttled by Mamata Banerjee’s intransigence is what our prime minister was informed by the Indian prime minister this time too, that is, the Indian government was working with the stakeholders in India for concluding the agreement as soon as possible. Modi cannot do without Mamata (the other stakeholder) on board; this is in stark contrast with Modi doing away with Article 370 where he did not feel compelled or obliged to take the other stakeholders on board!
Let us also take the question of transit. It was a longstanding demand of India for geo-economic as well as strategic reasons to allow a land bridge between its eastern part and the Seven Sisters. That was acceded to and transit of Indian goods through Bangladesh commenced formally in June 2015. But reportedly, our territory has been used to carry Indian goods since 2014 on the basis of the 2010 Hasina-Manmohan MoU. It had taken considerable time to determine the various charges Bangladesh would levy on India for the use of its facilities, but not before it was pontificated to us by one of the PM’s advisors that demanding tariff for the use of transit was against WTO rules, and that it was only the uncivilised and uneducated that demanded transit fees. In contrast, Bangladesh is yet to get permission for transit to Nepal and Bhutan.
It is odious to expect or demand return for a humanitarian act, but going over the many MoUs and agreements between the two countries or the list of Indian wishes we have fulfilled (some detractors would say demands we satisfied or requirements we met), as a Bangladeshi one wonders if there is anything of substantial long-term benefit for Bangladesh granted by India so far. Except perhaps, the Land Boundary Agreement which was signed after a prolonged procrastination by India (its excuses propped up by a very convenient pretext of “legal and constitutional reasons”) in July 2015, there is nothing of comparable reciprocity that Bangladesh has received.
The foreign minister is reported to have described the state of Bangladesh-India relationship as that of a husband and wife. If that be so, then only one party seems to be benefitting from the relationship.
Brig Gen Shahedul Anam Khan, ndc, psc (retd) is Associate Editor, The Daily Star.