Integrated development, politics and social empowerment in India and beyond

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Jamila Verghese
Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

The prolonged impasse hitherto on critical issues like trade, transit, water, border demarcation and management and security relations has done little good to either side. Both have paid grievously for the opportunity cost of delay.

Cooperation in a Time of Uncertainty

Bangladesh and India have much to share and learn from one another as each has accomplishments of which it can be proud.

By B G Verghese

Indo-Bangladesh Track II Overview Paper, 12 October, 2009

It is propitious that the threads of Indo-Bangladesh dialogue are being picked up after a gap in time caused by the 30 month interregnum of a caretaker administration in Dhaka and general elections in India. New regimes are in position in both countries. In Bangladesh, the Awami League was restored to office with a huge margin over the previous BNP-Jamaat-i-Islami combine while the Congress-led UPA coalition came back with a comfortable majority, no longer dependant on whimsical Left support from the outside. Strong governments with decisive mandates can and must now deliver. The recent visit of the Bangladesh Foreign Minister to Delhi for talks with her counterpart and other Indian Ministers has broken new ground and created conditions conducive for purposeful implementation. This opportunity must not be missed.

The prolonged impasse hitherto on critical issues like trade, transit, water, border demarcation and management and security relations has done little good to either side. Both have paid grievously for the opportunity cost of delay. The experience has no doubt imparted a mutual sense of sense of urgency to not merely mending fences but building synergy through collaborative endeavours. Underlying this is another new and compelling challenge that is not without its opportunities: climate change. After considerable number crunching and debate the facts can no longer be spurned. The effects of global warming are now measurable and increasingly menacing. The South Asian Himalayan-Karakoram-Hindu Kush region, encompassing SAARC and the Tibetan plateau beyond, are particularly vulnerable in terms of the predicted immediacy and severity of the likely impacts.

Climate change will especially affect energy, water, food security and flooding. Disasters are forecast as a result of sea level rise and storm surges along the coastal belt, together with aberrant rainfall, increased sedimentation, flood and drought on account of glacial melt, glacier-lake and debris-dam outbursts in the mountains. The poor will be hardest hit. While this much can be forecast, none of it will be precisely predictable and even less manageable by any single country. There has to be greater cooperation in a time of uncertainty, more so as climate change does not respect frontiers and the region is drained by trans-boundary rivers. A Japanese saying goes, “It is written in the garden, ‘Don’t pluck these flowers’. But it is useless against the wind, which cannot read”. Do we read the wind?

It hardly needs emphasis, though often forgotten, that poverty is an ecologically unfriendly and often unsustainable condition, as life is eked out at the very margins of survival. It also breeds numbers. Therefore, high growth is necessary not only as a human right and an imperative for equity and social justice, including gender justice, but as a key strategy for combating climate change. But this growth must have a low carbon footprint through the adoption of adaptive and mitigative strategies that keep emissions down. While this certainly does call for additional financial flows, technological transfers and trade access across IPR and other protectionist barriers, there is much that can be done collaboratively in the neighbourhood. India and Bangladesh must therefore stop playing beggar-my-neighbour. We have done that for years to our own detriment, totting up assumed small order gains against huge real, though possibly unseen, losses.

This then is the backdrop to the efforts that must now inform efforts to make good lost ground and forge ahead in confronting a common peril. The first hurdle is the barrier of a clear trust deficit. Rather than indulge in recrimination and apportion blame for past errors of omission and commission, the two sides should move forward decisively to eliminate old road blocks.

Any nation state requires well defined and secure boundaries. Sixty years after Partition and nearly 40 years after the liberation of Bangladesh we are yet to settle our land and maritime boundaries and exchange enclaves. These are avoidable sources of discord. After prolonged effort, only 6.5 kms of land border (some of it riverine) remain to be demarcated. While it is a sad reflection on both sides that the matter is still pending, more tragic is the fact that in order to avoid piecemeal constitutional amendments and ratifications to legitimize each small transfer (as the transaction does not entail secession of territory but only a final delimitation of the crude Radcliffe Line), even the mutually agreed demarcated strips and enclaves remain in adverse possession.

The simple answer lies in expediting settlement of the outstanding 6.5 km of disputed boundary, if need be by freezing the outstanding riverine boundaries at the current low season median river line or on the basis of any other commonsense principle. The local population could be guaranteed all rights if they find themselves in a new territorial jurisdiction or assisted and generously compensated to resettle on the other side within a finite period. Such a process would be greatly assisted were Bangladesh to take urgent steps as contemplated to repeal or amend the Vested (Enemy) Property Act that has sequestered minority properties. The liquidation of enclaves will go a long way to improve border management as would the construction by India of a flyover or underpass to link the Dahagram and Agarpota enclaves with the Bangladesh mainland through the intervening Tin Bigha area in India to facilitate sovereign Bangladeshi movements without let or hindrance.

The maritime boundary probably poses a more ticklish issue and involves possession of South Talpatty or New Moore Island (now with India), which marks the point is from where the sea boundary is drawn. The two sides have advanced differing principles for delimiting the mariime boundary. The spatial differential in the result is fairly modest but relatively more valuable to Bangladesh in view of its concave coastline that hems its EEZ between the Myanmarese and Indian median lines. In the absence of an accord, India has already filed its claim line before the UN Committee on the Law of the Sea. However, even if that is broadly accepted, as likely, India could as a gesture consider the possibility of sharing the potential of the “disputed” area in terms of fishing, any offshore oil or gas discoveries and possible naval rights. Little might be lost. Much could be gained. Bangladesh has pleaded that it should not be denied this “protein dividend” in view of the dietary importance of fish to its territorially confined people.

Transit and trade offer major win-win prospects. Trade prospects have improved with incremental steps taken by India to liberalise the trade regime and deal with non-tariff barriers. Trade facilitation remains less than satisfactory, with poor and dilatory border controls and red tape, especially on the Indian side, that encourages smuggling and illicit transactions. These in turn entail a loss of legitimate revenue to the exchequer and have spawned mafia gangs that pose an extended danger. Even a simple motor vehicles act is yet to be signed. This, together with limited rail and road connectivity and other facilities has needlessly enhanced transaction costs.

Transit has been another bone of contention, whether by road, rail inland water, power transmission lines, gas pipelines or optic fibre corridors. All these are at present routed from the Indian heartland to the Northeast through the circuitous and tenuous Siliguri neck, a strategically vulnerable choke point. It would be far easier and cheaper to transit through Bangladesh or via Chittagong, the Northeast’s traditional entrepot. But then India should be prepared to enhance Bangladesh’s road and rail access to Nepal and Bhutan which should also be enabled to export power to it in return through a mutually beneficial Eastern Himalayan energy grid. Even if the political imagination has been there, political will has been lacking.

Indeed, with the construction of the Jamuna Bridge at Sirajganj, this selects itself as the natural and optimal crossing from West Bengal to the Northeast and on to Myanmar and South East and East Asia. Unending argument about the best alignment for the proposed Asian Highway and Trans-Asian Railway from Thailand to the sub-continent appears fatuous. Only economic and market friendly routes will work. The restoration of previous road and rail crossings connecting India and Bangladesh has been far too grudging. Supply creates demand and market stimulus within an expanding trade regime will ensure viability. Transit would also dramatically move the finances of Bangladesh Railways from the red to the black, with India willing to finance gauge conversions and modernization in its own interest. Further IWT and inter-modal linkages, as to Akhaura-Agartala, would also be mutually beneficial as India would pay to maintain and improve the waterways while Bangladesh would gain by investments, employment, income generation and handsome service charges.

Water relations have sadly stalled after the landmark Ganges Treaty which, regrettably, is still not delivering scheduled lean season flows across the Gorai hump to the Khulna region, as intended. As far back as 1997, India had at an international conference convened post-Farakka by the Bangladesh Government, expressed willingness to support it in finding solutions to this problem. That offer presumably still stands. But nothing has moved and even the Ganges Treaty has not been reviewed as provided for. This suggests a worrying political gap between problems and solutions. The agitation mounted in Bangladesh by disgruntled political elements on the alleged disastrous consequences of the proposed Tipaimukh dam on the Barak/Meghna in Manipur, appears to be based on a complete disregard of the facts. This could once again queer the pitch as did a raging campaign against the Indian concept of Inter-Linking Rivers some years ago, although it was made clear that the Himalayan links mentioned were not to be considered for the present and certainly not before consultation with the other riparians.

It is noteworthy that Tipaimukh first came on the table soon after the formation of the Joint Rivers Commission in 1972 as Bangladesh sought flood regulation of the Barak in India to moderate inundation in Sylhet. There is today no irrigation component in the 1500 MW hydro-cum-flood moderation Tipaimukh project, which awaits financial closure, which means that no water will be abstracted from the river. In effect, regulation by the dam will lower the flood peak by up to 20 per cent and augment lean season flows by 30 per cent or more. (with benefits to navigation, fisheries, irrigation and salinity control). Should there be any residual problem or doubt India would surely be willing to discuss this and effect appropriate changes in design or operational procedures to avoid wonton injury to Bangladesh. Indeed, there is no reason why Bangladesh should not be invited to station an observer at the dam site and any subsequent diversion structure at Fulertal 100 kms downstream, near Silchar, should an irrigation component be added, as once contemplated. Indeed, canals extended across the border from Fulertal could be jointly designed and managed on mutually agreed terms of cost-benefit sharing. Such canals would make good any shortages of lean season flows feared in some of the other small common rivers flowing into Bangladesh from Tripura and Cachar, thus obviating further controversy about sharing these streams.

Both sides have made fresh but, strangely, separate studies, each within its own territory, with regard to the monthly discharge of the Teesta on which they have built separate irrigation systems without sufficient water to meet the full requirements of either. It so happens the two national readings do not mesh, with the Bangladesh flow-readings showing an unexplained dip in April and October. Rather than prolong the stalemate, the obvious thing to do would be for the two parties to undertake a joint study of discharge during the limited period of unreconciled flows in order to resolve the problem. Subsequent augmentation of Teesta flows could meet part or all of the overall water deficit. Meanwhile, it would make a good deal of sense to operate the two Teesta barrages and irrigation systems in tandem under joint management.

Likewise, there has been no discussion about “sharing” the huge but virtually virgin Brahmaputra that flows through territory with limited arable land whether in India’s Northeast, Bhutan or Bangladesh. Here the relevant issues relate to floods, salinity control, navigation, and possible trans-boundary diversions. Reports of Chinese plans to divert northwards to the Gobi and Beijing Plains the waters of the Tsang-po (mistakenly called the Brahmaputra) in Tibet, are utopian and at best greatly premature and highly exaggerated. That red herring need not detain us here. But there are possibilities of trans-basin diversions of Brahmaputra waters to the Ganges basin within Bangladesh itself and/or through India via potential Brahmaputra-Sun Kosi- Teesta-Mahananda links through mutual consultation and to mutual benefit. Such diversions, based on monsoon storages in Arunachal and Bhutan, would moderate floods and improve lean season flows, thus enhancing salinity control. Bangladesh has also expressed interest in the Kosi High Dam project in Nepal that is to be jointly studied by that country and India.

These proposals still leave open the question of preventing marine inundation in Lower Bengal, and especially the Sunderban, on both sides of the border on account of storm surges and sea level rise. Almost a third of southern Bangladesh already lies below the high tide level and is protected by sea walls and embankments, as in West Bengal. Can these be raised and better regulated? Can this objective be achieved by newer plantations or through better mangrove management to create a natural, vegetative defence against the ocean? This suggests itself as one area of close cooperation between Bangladesh and India along with better joint cyclone forecasting and warning systems and disaster relief protocols.

Even while managing “natural security” as a result of climate change, there are major problems of national security that come from cross-border liaisons involving terror, ideological subversion, gun and drug running, and grant of voluntary or involuntary sanctuary to proscribed groups like ULFA. Beyond these is the influx of Bangladesh immigrants into India which has created formidable problems of land, employment, identity, ethnicity and demographic change that have bred turmoil, violence and insurgency. No doubt Bangladesh has occasionally made similar complaints. Border fencing will not do. The answer lies in cooperative border management and a determination to prevent clandestine movements which have hitherto remained largely unacknowledged though the stark reality is there to see. This is not about short term distress migration but regular migration, sometimes in transit to even greener pastures further west. The numbers may be disputed, But the figure is large. There cannot be an unregulated labour flow, though this has sometimes been argued. Work permits have been mooted, but these can only be granted against registered jobs in the organized sector and on the basis of time-bound work visas.

More rapid development in Bangladesh will create more jobs and opportunity and act as a check dam in relation to labour outflows. This is where expanding commerce with India and joint investments and transit are so important, even if these alone do not provide a complete answer. Bangladesh sees opportunities for trade and investment in India’s Northeast, and these should certainly be exploited as Bangladesh enjoys certain locational and other comparative advantages in relation to the near-landlocked Northeast. But this cannot mean preferences or partial monopolies but has to be built on the basis of market logic.

Meanwhile, thought might be given to promoting bilateral growth poles or growth triangles between Bangladesh and India, including Myanmar, Bhutan or Nepal where feasible. Eastern India, the Northeast and Bangladesh are so large territorially and in terms of numbers that viewing them as a single indivisible entity can delay progress. In many cases, simple, low-cost solutions for last mile problems of connectivity or infrastructure could trigger brisk trade and investments and establish necessary backward and forward linkages. These could in turn stimulate larger growth. One can configure a number of potential bilateral growth poles such as fuelled by the Tipaimukh project, or Chittagong with Tripura and the CHT as its hinterland, or natural resource and market complementarity between the Garo Hills and Sylhet, where the La Farge Plant offers an example of what can be done.

Over and beyond this, India’s Look East policy, properly implemented in concert with other regional groupings like BIMSTEC, the BCIM (Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar) Forum or Kunming Initiative and the Eastern GBM region, offers great opportunities that could ameliorate current political problems and divides by enlarging the cake sufficiently to satisfy competing ethnicities and aspirations. The CHT’s plantation possibilities, combined with those of Tripura and Mizoram in India and the Chin Division of Myanmar could offer opportunities of scaled up agro-processing based on low-cost hydropower, with an international outlet through Chittagong port.

It is appropriate that Bangladesh should have the best of relations with its neighbours, in Southeast and East Asia as much as with the West in furtherance of its own economic development, trade and security interests. This poses no threat to India and it would be mistaken for anyone to see China as balancing any seeming Indian hegemony in SAARC.

Bangladesh and India have much to share and learn from one another as each has accomplishments of which it can be proud. Institutions like the Grameen Bank and BRAC and Bangladesh’s flood modelling are exemplars and India is not without similar achievements in various fields, satellite imagery and the IT and Pharma sectors being a few. We have failed one another as squabbling neighbours. Now circumstances demand that we join hands as good neighbours in order to build a better and more secure future for both our peoples and the SAARC region. There is no time to lose.

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