Delhi, Dhaka and a hostage-taker

The significance of the Prime Minister’s visit to Bangladesh has been obscured by the hubbub over the West Bengal chief minister’s refusal to accompany him to Dhaka. Mamata Banerjee was not pleased with the agreement on sharing the water of Teesta river negotiated by New Delhi and Dhaka. The removal of an important treaty from the summit’s menu was disappointing indeed. Nevertheless, the importance of the raft of agreements to be concluded by the two Prime Ministers should not be underestimated.

The protocol on demarcating the boundary and the resolution of the problem of enclaves and adverse possessions remove two of the thorniest issues between the two countries. These problems have been around since 1947. Solutions remained elusive even after the independence of Bangladesh in 1971. Of the 4,096-km boundary, a mere 2.4 km remains undemarcated. This may seem trivial. But, despite an agreement signed between Indira Gandhi and Mujibur Rahman in 1974, both countries found it politically and psychologically difficult to take a rational view of the problem. The present agreement not only
disposes of a lingering problem but also sets
the stage for more effective border management.
Enclaves and adverse possessions were more tricky problems. Enclaves are small pockets of one country’s territory surrounded completely by the territory of the other. Adverse possessions refer to land used by Indians and Bangladeshis which are actually located in the other country. The solution is straightforward: enclaves will be merged with the territory within which they are located. India will give up around 70 sq. km. of enclaves inside Bangladesh and will, in turn, acquire about 30 sq. km. of Bangladesh’s enclaves. Adverse possessions, amounting to a total of about 28 sq. km., have also been rationalised. Under the agreement, India will get nearly 16 sq. km. of territory.
The other major agreement pertains to trade. India has agreed to remove several items — many of which relate to the garment sector — from the negative list of imports from Bangladesh. The Indian textile industry had bemoaned these moves and demanded more “protection”. But New Delhi had to take a wider view of its interests. The overall balance of bilateral trade is heavily tilted in India’s favour. India’s exports to Bangladesh in the fiscal year 2010-11 stood at $4,570 million while its imports from Bangladesh amounted to $512 million. If anything India could go even further in giving Bangladeshi goods freer access to its markets.
Equally important is the recognition of the need to strengthen connectivity — by road, river and rail — between the two countries. Prior to 1947, Bengal, Assam and other parts of the Northeast were linked by an integrated transportation network. This atrophied in the years after 1947, though it did not become completely dysfunctional until the 1965 war between India and Pakistan.
Following the liberation of Bangladesh, efforts were made to restore connectivity. But, as on so many other issues, the two countries were not able to seize the moment. The resurrection and upgradation of transportation links will work to the benefit of both sides. India can access its own northeastern states through shorter routes, while Bangladesh can traffic with Nepal and Bhutan besides India. A formal treaty may take a while. In the meantime, both countries can take several steps in this
All of this reflects a convergence of strategic views in New Delhi and Dhaka. India realises that its emergence as a global player hinges on its ability to manage its relations with neighbours. This can best be done by pushing for closer economic ties, even if it requires unilateral concessions, coupled with sustained political engagement. Bangladesh recognises both the unprecedented opportunity presented by India’s economic growth for its own
developmental aspirations and the futility
of a confrontational course.
The recent agreements, if fully implemented, will not only transform India-Bangladesh relations but also serve as a model for wider efforts at advancing regional cooperation and integration.
But there is more to do. For one thing, both countries need to ensure a complete follow-through on the agreements. In the past India-Bangladesh relations have reached turning points but failed to turn. Too often, good intentions have foundered on the rock of bureaucratic sloth and political short-sightedness. The fate of progressive accords signed by Indira and Mujib should be read as a cautionary tale by both sides.
For another, India needs to get back to the Teesta negotiations without delay. The question of river waters has always cast a long shadow on our ties with Bangladesh. India’s unwillingness to go the extra mile in speedily resolving the dispute over waters released from the Farakka barrage contributed in no small measure to the souring of the relationship from the mid-1970s. New Delhi’s latest attempt to tackle the Teesta waters dispute came a cropper mainly because of Ms Banerjee’s grandstanding. It cuts a sad contrast with the manner in which the Ganga waters treaty was concluded in 1996. The then chief minister of West Bengal, Jyoti Basu, played a crucial role in helping negotiate that treaty. Basu’s week-long trip to Dhaka in December 1996 broke the gridlock and paved the way for a historic accord.
To be sure, New Delhi could do more to involve the states in foreign policy issues that directly impinge upon them. But it is equally incumbent upon the concerned states to shed their provincialism and take a wider view of the national interest. Getting this balance right will be crucial to India’s efforts in recasting its ties in the neighbourhood.

Srinath Raghavan is a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi

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