India´s proposal for allowing more dry seasonal flow of the Ganga into Bangladesh in exchange for gaining the right of transit to reach the Northeast from the Indian mainland is a subject ready made to pull down precariously situated governments in Dhaka. It was perhaps this late realisation that led the Indian side in the recent negotiations to back-pedal on what has been a constant in New Delhi´s stance vis-a-vis Dhaka. In fact, the “transit for water” issue was very much a part of the Indian position at the beginning of the most recent negotiations which led to the Farakka accord of December. During his first visit to Dhaka in July, Indian Foreign Secretary Salman Haider unequivocably linked Ganga water-sharing with overland access to the Northeast. When asked about the link between transit and sharing water, Mr Haider said, “Transit occupies a pivotal consideration in our thinking.”
During the time of Begum Khaleda Zia´s government in August 1992, India proposed that Bangladesh allow rail and road traffic rights, the use of the seaport and airport in Chittagong, and export of Bangladeshi natural gas to India, all in return for increasing the Ganga´s flow for Bangladesh at Farakka. Early 1994 saw some new features added to the old proposal: supply of electricity to India from gas-operated power plants in Bangladesh and setting up of petroleum, chemical and fertiliser factories along the border to supply the Indian market.
Export of natural gas was not really a new proposal, India having asked Bangladesh in 1980 to examine the possibility. Even the mere consideration of such a suggestion incited such a backlash that President Ziaur Rahman was forced to reject India´s proposal out of hand. The railway transit matter was raised by New Delhi several times during the period of Gen H.M. Ershad (1982-1990), and the World Bank too brought it up during the feasibility study of the jamuna Multipurpose Bndge(which crosses the Jamuna/Brahmaputra west of Dhaka, sec Nov/Dec 1996 Himal). Gen Ershad, in his turn, refused to consider the proposal after deliberating over the likely political fallout.
The matter of transit for water created a huge outcry in Bangladesh once again, most vociferously from the Bangladesh Nationalist Party of Khaleda Zia, this time sitting in the opposition. The ruling coalition headed by Sheikh Hasina Wajed and supported by Gen Ershad handled the matter very gingerly. In the course of negotiations, the Indian side seemed finally to have understood the need not to insist on transit.
And so, during his visit to Dhaka in September, Foreign Minister Inder Kumar Gujral insisted that India was not considering transit in exchange of water. This was a significant swing from the previous stance as reiterated by his own Foreign Secretary—in all probability, India was trying to bail out the new government in Dhaka, which is regarded as more sympathetic to New Delhi than the other political forces in the country.
Country to Standstill
It is the perception of threats to security, of course, that is behind the Bangladeshi sensitivity on the question of water and transit. Firstly, as a lower-riparian country, Bangladesh regards its right to the Ganga waters as non-negotiable. Any attempt to link this historical right with a modern need of India is, obviously, a non-starter.
There is concern that “transit” could emerge as a security threat for Bangladesh. India wants transit for the faster transportation of goods and passengers to and from its seven Northeastern states of Assam, Arunachal, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura. Insurgency has been a long-term problem in most of this region, and the proposed transit may also be used lor transportation of military hardware and soldiers. This will have serious repercussions in Bangladesh´s internal security and may destabilise the government, it is felt.
With its widely-regarded soft spot for India, the Awami League would have found it even harder to accept the transit-for-water deal for how it would be read domestically. It would also have been difficult for such an agreement to have the backing of its junior partner in the ruling coalition, the Jatiya Party of Gen Ershad. Even if this coalition were to have agreed to the initial Indian proposal, the opposition BNP could have been expected to bring the country to a standstill.
There is also widespread agreement among the Bangladeshi intelligentsia that if Dhaka were to sign a transit-for-water deal, it will be impossible to walk away from it in future, even if India were to stop releasing the promised water at Farakka due to its own domestic compulsions. The belief is that Bangladesh´s at tempt to close the future transit corridor—howsoever justified— would lead to Indian intervention.
All in all, a transit-for-water deal would have been a unique situation even on a global context, in which a powerful upper-riparian exacts unreasonable concessions from a weaker downstream state. It is fortuitous, therefore, that the Indian Foreign Minister should have understood the need not to pressure Bangladesh on the matter. Whether there has been any undisclosed understanding between Dhaka and New Delhi, however, is not known.