INDIA-BANGLADESH: TRADING LAND FOR WATER?

By June 10, 2015 No Comments
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Recently, newspaper headlines about India- Bangladesh relations, varied from “Where Bangladesh Hoists Indian Tricolour flag” (about Bangladesh enclaves in India Today) to “India Plucks a Pearl from China’s ‘String’ in Bangladesh” (Columns in thediplomat.com e-magazine). However what strikes at the bottom-line of this new paradigm shift in Indo-Bangladesh Relations is that the change in priorities of the policy makers from land and political egotism to water and economic possibilities.

This can be argued at four different levels, because while on one hand India-Bangladesh ratified land swap deal, they have concludes as many as deals relating with water: (1) the signing of a memorandum of understanding between the University of Dhaka, and India’s Council of Scientific and Industrial Research for joint research on oceanography of the Bay of Bengal. (2) The bilateral agreement that will grant Indian cargo vessels use of the China-backed Chittagong port and Mongla port in Bangladesh. This agreement was reportedly under discussion between the two sides and scheduled to have been signed as early as 2011, (3) Modi assured Bangladesh of finding a mutually acceptable solution to the sharing of Teesta and Feni river waters soon and it appears that Bangladesh’s political leadership has taken Modi’s words seriously and unanimously. (4)Earlier in July 2014 India chose not to challenge the ICJ decision of Indo-Bangladesh maritime border dispute awarding more portions of maritime territory to Bangladesh. indo-bangla

The Honourable Prime Minister of India, who began his Bangladesh journey with the words “Hello Bangladesh. I bring with me the affection and goodwill of the people of India”, had ensured his team of policy makers and diplomats worked on trans-civilizational elements to make these efforts possible. The two countries concluded as many as 22 agreements and memorandum of understanding (MoU) covering diverse areas of cooperation, including trade and investment, road, railways, waterways, energy and power cooperation, security, science and technology, communication and cultural exchange. Some of the existing pacts were also renewed.

The history of the relationship started years before but the last weekend had come out with a refreshed and polished face of it. The Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, knowing the fact that neighbors play a vital role in ‘making India’, has already emphasized India’s ties with its neighboring countries. Bangladesh and India are South Asian neighbors. While Bangladesh holds the eighth position in population, India holds the second of it. They are common members of SAARC, BIMSTEC, IORA and the Commonwealth. The two nations were strong allies during the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971. India and Bangladesh are close strategic partners in counter-terrorism. They are also the largest trading partners in South Asia.

As the debut overseas trip of the new government, Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj visited Bangladesh in June, 2014. There she concluded several agreements to boost ties which include;

  • Easing of Visa regime to provide 5 year multiple entry visas to minors below 13 and elderly above 65.
  • Proposal of a special economic zone in Bangladesh.
  • Agreement to send back a fugitive murder accused from India.
  • Provide an additional 100 MW power from Tripura.
  • Increase the frequency of Maitree Express and start buses between Dhaka and Guwahati and Shillong.

Later on the visit of the prime minister to Bangladesh on 6 June, they signed an agreement to simplify their 4,000-km border and clarify the identities of 52,000 living in enclaves, over four decades after the neighbors first tried to untangle complex territorial rights set down in 1713. Both Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha have unanimously passed the Land Boundary Agreement as its 100 th constitutional amendment. According to the agreement signed, the two countries will exchange 200 tiny enclaves which include 111 Indian enclaves in Bangladesh and 51 Bangladesh enclaves in India.

Under the agreement, each country will take over most of the enclaves on its territory and residents will have the right to stay where they are or move to the other side of the border. The territories in Assam, West Bengal, Tripura and Meghalaya come under the ambit of the bill.

Even though the process should definitely involve many complexities, the move to sign the agreement deserves applause. The borders will be safeguarded promptly and will mitigate major humanitarian problems as the residents in the enclaves and others on their behalf had often complained of the absence of basic amenities and facilities. The utmost aim of the bill is to provide a stable and tranquil environment for cross-border cooperation with Bangladesh. The bill is passed considering the will and wishes of the people. Though the enclaves swap, the residents can choose their citizenship. So they won’t be in a hazard. It’s all upon what the residents decide. The whole new deal is envisaged to help neighbours consolidate mutual benefits and promote confidence in building better and effective cross-border relation.

Adding more to the bill, India and Bangladesh have mutually agreed for the bus transport through the countries. The Prime Minister had flagged off the trip on last weekend. The bus services Kolkata-Dhaka-Agartala and Dhaka-Shillong-Guwahati — will link West Bengal to three North Eastern states of India via Bangladeshi capital Dhaka. During the flag off ceremony on the first day of Modi’s visit, the prime ministers of both countries have handed over symbolic tickets. The launch of bus services will boost the connectivity between people of both the countries. The residents of border areas will be immensely benefitted out of it. The trade, business, transit and development will also be enhanced by the launch of these bus services. Altogether, these trans-civilizational contents are the real highlights of the renewed relationship between the two nations. The benefits of trading away of land border issues for the development of ‘ocean-based blue economy and maritime cooperation’ in the Bay of Bengal charted out the methods of cooperation.

Perhaps, there may be other allied reasons which facilitated this shift in paradigm such as the recent analytical trope of maritime security in the context of India-China competition and India’s Act East Policy. Whatever be the shared contribution of the various reasons, the refreshed Indo-Bangladesh relations shall be one real example how economic interests and co-operation in resource sharing can lead to better living of a nation’s subjects. The same shift, unfortunately, is unlikely to happen with China and Pakistan given the existing socio-political narratives about the situations. The trans-civilizational elements which worked in the positive movement of Indo-Bangladesh relations are missing in the case of Indo-Pak or Indo-China relations. After the Indian prime minister’s visit to China during May 2015, the Chinese foreign spokesperson Hua Chunying said that “it is not easy to resolve the China-India boundary question, as it is an issue left over from history”.

Adv. Kanmani K S – (inputs from ndtv, economic times, the Hindu, first post and mea.gov.in, Eurasianreview.com, thediplomat.com, Indian Express and World Politics Review, bdnews24.com)

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