Following Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s much-awaited two-day visit to Dhaka, on 6-7 September, New Delhi’s last-minute inability to sign a long-awaited water-sharing deal on the Teesta and Feni river waters came as a significant shock to Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government. The impetus for the visit had built up for some 21 months, since January 2010, when the two prime ministers had met in Delhi and issued a historic 51-point joint memorandum on bilateral cooperation. The biggest disappointment had to do with the long-discussed land-transit deal, which would allow India access to the Northeast through Bangladesh and would result in significant fees for the Dhaka government. The fact that this deal did not come to fruition was obviously due to India’s inability to conclude the Teesta deal.
The failure to sign the water-sharing agreement came due to the dramatic U-turn taken by West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. The newly elected Banerjee expressed her disapproval over the Teesta water-sharing deal at the 11th hour and dramatically pulled out of the Indian delegation. Reportedly, the chief minister felt that there was unacceptable difference between the initial draft of the agreement and its final version: while the West Bengal government had decided to share 25,000 cusecs (cubic feet per second) of Teesta waters with Bangladesh, the final agreement had increased that figure to 33,000 to 50,000 cusecs. Even if Banerjee’s stance was genuinely geared towards safeguarding the interests of her state, she failed to convince Bangladesh that her objection to the Teesta deal was not due to a personal irritability towards New Delhi.
A deal on water-sharing has long been seen as of central importance for Bangladesh because the Teesta River barrage, at Gozaldoba in India, controls the river’s flow to the lower riparian country. Bangladeshi experts say that often India’s control over the water leads to floods downstream during the rainy season and droughts during the dry season. They also maintain that the erratic supply of water disrupts agricultural production, creates health hazards, changes the hydraulic character of the river downstream and alters the ecology of the northern part of the country generally. Given the failure to conclude an agreement on water-sharing, critics quickly dubbed Manmohan Singh’s Dhaka visit a failure – and suggested that it has partly wasted the opportunity that Prime Minister Hasina created in January 2010.
While it is true that the Teesta failure has cast a shadow over Prime Minister Singh’s trip, the visit did lead to some important decisions that have improved bilateral relations. One of the thorniest of these has been the decades-old row about chitmahals, the 162 enclaves along what is today the India-Bangladesh border that have existed since pre-colonial times. India has 111 enclaves, mostly in Rangpur and Kurigram districts of Bangladesh, with around 37,000 residents; while Bangladesh has 51 such enclaves within Indian territory with around 14,000 residents. Now, enclaves within Indian territory will become part of India, while those within Bangladesh will be part of that country; further, members of these communities will be given the option to choose their citizenship.
Other significant agreements to come out of the Indian premier’s visit included those dealing with bilateral trade. Prime Minister Singh announced that 46 garment products from Bangladesh would now be given duty-free access to the Indian market – a significant move that will go a great distance in correcting a trade imbalance that has long been massively in India’s favour. Currently, India exports goods worth USD 4.5 billion to Bangladesh, while quota restrictions imposed by New Delhi have allowed Bangladesh to export just USD 500 million worth of goods. This relaxation means that Bangladesh, the world’s third-largest garments producer, can tap into India’s equally large retail industry. Many are now suggesting that the announcement could not have come at a more opportune time, with the European and American markets both still under the cloud of recession.
Some of what took place during the Dhaka trip will have larger regional ramifications, as well. The two countries inked an agreement, for instance, that will allow passage of trucks carrying goods from Nepal and Bhutan to land-customs stations in Bangladesh. Through this agreement, Nepal will be able to use the railway line that connects the border towns of Radhikapur in West Bengal to Birol in Dinajpur, Bangladesh.
In fact, far from the ‘failure’ the trip has been designated in some circles, the two countries signed at least 10 agreements, including a commitment to future cooperation in trade, connectivity and water resources. Prime Minister Singh also gave assurances that discussions on water-sharing would continue until ‘a mutually acceptable, fair and amicable arrangement’ on the Teesta (and Feni) was reached. Prime Minister Hasina also responded on an optimistic note, terming the visit ‘fruitful’ and noting that the two countries ‘have gone a step further’.
Of course, India-Bangladesh relations cannot be judged by one state visit alone. Despite the failure to ink two important deals, Manmohan Singh’s Dhaka visit should be seen as a forward movement towards better ties, and the partial follow-up to Sheikh Hasina’s historic visit to India in January in 2010. Pending issues can indeed be resolved in the future, as long as the relationship remains dynamic and forward-looking.
~ Haroon Habib is a journalist and author in Dhaka.