Has Dhaka given more to Delhi?

Kamal Ahmed | Update:

After the grand and much hyped trip of prime minister Sheikh Hasina to India, what have we received at the end of the day? Perhaps no one has put it more succinctly than the prime minister herself, albeit in Hindi: “Didiki saath baat hui. Pani manga lekin electricity mila. Kuch tou mil gaya.” (“I spoke to didi. I asked for water but got electricity. At least we got something!”)

Sheikh Hasina said this while addressing a reception accorded to her by Indian ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s research institution, India Foundation.

Having been a close ally of the previous Congress government, BJP’s arch rival in India’s domestic politics, it is quite significant for Sheikh Hasina to receive such a warm reception by BJP. One may also point out that none of the Congress-backed organisations had accorded such reception to her when they were in power.

The Bangladesh government, however, has not revealed much details of the visit. At yesterday’s lengthy press conference, much of the prime minister’s deliberations were political. There was nothing much outside of the joint statement issued by the two PMs and published by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA). The 62 para statement mentioned various MOUs, commitments and expectations on at least 10 issues. Though the ministry’s portal mentioned that 22 agreements and MOUs had been signed, several more supplementary MOUs had been signed on the side.

So one can hardly blame the Bangladeshi official who on 8 April during the trip, told the media that he “hadn’t been able to count all the agreements.”
Cooperation can never be unilateral. It is a matter of exchange. Bilateral deals are a matter of give and take. But it hasn’t been possible to tally the accounts as yet for two reasons. One is that no one is possibly attaching too much importance to those issues. The other is that the Teesta water sharing issue is such a matter that counts most. Former Bangladesh high commissioner to Delhi Tariq Karim termed this a ‘litmus test’. And the present high commissioner Syed Moazzem Ali said, “Even if the deal isn’t signed during this visit, at least a timeframe must be set.” But neither has the test been passed, not has any timeframe been set.

The West Bengal chief minister has muddied the waters further by bringing up an alternative proposal. When the two countries had agreed to a draft on Teesta in 2011, she hadn’t mentioned any alternative then. For the sake of politics, she is just using the excuse of her state’s interests.

Mamata instead has offered to export 1000MW of electricity. Perhaps the water from which Bangladesh is deprived will be used to generate the electricity which she is so eager to sell to Bangladesh. In short, she will make a profit by selling electricity to the people who thirst for the same water flowing through Teesta.

People’s survival is involved in the sharing of waters between the two countries. It is not just a matter of Teesta. It includes water management encompassing 54 shared rivers and the Ganges Barrage. The joint statement makes no specific mention about any of those.

Many question whether Teesta is the only bone of contention between the two countries. The question is more or less ignored. Is it because that if all attention is focused on Teesta, no one will delve into the details of the few dozen agreements and MOUs which have been signed? No one can deny the fact that Bangladesh has done a laudable job of alleviating India’s security concerns. This security issue has been extended to the defence sector as well. This indicates change in Bangladesh’s geopolitical strategic stance.

Regarding regional or global partnerships, the joint statement makes no mention of SAARC, the regional association initiated by Bangladesh. It mentions the sub-regional groups, BBIM (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal) and the Bay of Bengal Initiative, BIMSTEC (Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand). There is also commitment to support India in its aspiration of permanent membership of the UN Security Council. China is openly opposed to this.

India has made an incursion into the military hardware procurement of Bangladesh which so long had been China’s forte. Experts have pointed out that military technology of other countries is not compatible to China’s military equipment and technology. In the whole South Asian region, India only has such defence cooperation with Afghanistan, according to all available records. It may be another matter if any secret defence deal exists with any other of the neighbours.

Initiatives or projects in the energy sector feature most prominently in the joint statement. There are Indian government and private sector initiatives to export electricity, diesel, liquefied gas and gas through pipeline to Bangladesh. Most of the official credit offered by India will go into infrastructure for the energy and communication sector. This includes a trans-boundary pipeline, facilitating India to carry fuel from one part to another. There is also an agreement to build an LNG terminal in Kutubdia.

Again, $600 crore of the $900 crore investment proposed by Indian private sector businesses, is in the energy sector. It will dramatically increase dependence on India in the energy sector. Given the aspect of energy security, Bangladesh’s future security has become inextricably linked with India. Bangladesh’s aggrieved energy sector entrepreneurs say that if the government would have extended them the facilities they are extending to the Indian investors, they could have increased the countries own capacity (Banik Barta, 10 April 2017).

The statement also mentions setting up of a separate economic zone for India in Mirserai of Chittagong. There is mention of increasing the number and the capacity of customs offices at the border as well as integrated checkposts. India said it would consider the matter of withdrawing anti-dumping duty on Bangladesh’s jute exports.

The joint statement terms the minimum export value placed on certain items of Bangladesh as ‘discriminatory’. It is hard to understand how the large business delegation from Bangladesh and the officials of the Commerce Ministry have agreed to term the minimum export rates determined by themelves as ‘discriminatory’. The inordinate trade imbalance continues heavily in favour of the neighbour.

The connectivity proposal calls for an increase in communications by road, railway, river, sea and air. However, due to its higher capacity and experience, Indian transport companies will certainly be the winner.

As part of development partnership with Bangladesh, India has offered US$ 450 crore in credit. This is referred to as third line of credit in the statement. Veteran experts have cast their doubts about India’s credit conditionalities, saying these slow down the process of implementation.

Among a conglomeration of goodwill words and formalities, the statement also says that medical treatment of 100 freedom fighters will be facilitated in India every year. And 10 thousand students who are the offspring of freedom fighters will be given scholarships in next five-year.

In order to consolidate the partnership, there will be regular high-level meetings in the sectors of security and defence, commerce, health, power and energy, and transport and connectivity. The preparatory meeting for the joint consultative commission led by the foreign ministers will be held in Dhaka, according to the statement. There is also commitment for cooperation among law enforcement agencies, intelligence agencies and security forces for tackling terrorism and not to allow each other’s territory to be used for the purpose. We have undoubtedly gone the extra mile to assuage all security concerns of India.

It is not surprising or unexpected for a greater economy to reap greater benefits. But there should be a degree of fairness. In multilateral relations, alongside economic considerations, it is important to have a balance or fairness when it comes to geographical issues and natural resources, human resources, and security. So the question naturally arises, have we given more than we got?

* Kamal Ahmed is a journalist and consulting editor at Prothom Alo
*The article, originally published in Prothom Alo Bangla print edition, has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir

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