Published:  12:00 AM, 18 March 2017

Water woes

Water woes

If India-Bangladesh relations are at an all-time high, why has there been so much uncertainty over Sheikh Hasina's visit to Delhi? It was postponed twice in two months-December and February and finalized only after the Indian foreign secretary's visit to Dhaka recently. The Bangladesh prime minister has finally agreed to come to Delhi between April 7-10, but there is a certain degree of unease in Dhaka over possible takeaways from the visit for Bangladesh.

Bangladesh has addressed all of India's security and connectivity concerns since Sheikh Hasina assumed office in 2009. The northeastern rebels, who had made Bangladesh their base, have been handed over to India or driven out.
Dhaka has also gone after the Islamist radicals who were using the country to attack Indian targets. There has been considerable boost to intelligence sharing on terrorist movement and on fake currency rackets. The use of the ports at Chittagong and Mongla for connectivity to the Northeast has been allowed, the scope of the inland waterway transport further cemented by a worthwhile coastal shipping agreement. With or without a formal transit agreement that serves India's purpose, but Dhaka is considering formalizing transit.

This was Indira Gandhi's expectations from a friendly neighbor in the East which would help restore pre-partition linkages and deny any Indian rebel a base. This prompted her to buy into the suggestion of Tripura's first Chief Minister, Sachindra Lal Singh, of backing a Bangalee freedom movement.

Singh told me in a 1986 interview that Delhi would never appreciate "my Bangalee sentiments, my feelings for fellow Bangalees in bondage". So, he said, he had to hard sell how a friendly Bangalee nation in the East would be a wonderful thing for India's security and economy. Bangladesh's former foreign minister, Dipu Moni, summed it up nicely: "Amader swapno ebong sartha, dui ek (Our interests and dreams are similar)". But this cannot be a one-way traffic. Hasina must get what she wants from India if Delhi expects Dhaka to do more. Bangladesh is predominantly a country of peasants who depend on agriculture and for whom water is a huge issue.

Since they constitute a majority of the electorate, Hasina cannot afford to overlook them and the water issues that they hold dear. Not the least because she faces parliamentary elections in less than two years' time. India is willing to oblige: both Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi value the friendship of Bangladesh and would be happy to see the Teesta and the Ganges barrage deals sealed.

Singh and Modi understand the importance of a friendly regime in Dhaka that saves India the headache of securing its Northeast from insurgent activity and gets it the right kind of connectivity to develop the region. The trouble lies not in Delhi, as was the case before, but in Calcutta. A whole generation of Bengali leaders were sympathetic to Bangladesh's cause. That still continues. So a Bharatiya Janata Party leader like Tathagata Roy pitches hard for Bangladesh's rights as a lower riparian and wants Dhaka to get its fair share of river waters. This is born not just out of nostalgia but also a sense of Statecraft. If Hasina gets what she wants from India, it will help strengthen the India-friendly regime in Dhaka. But the West Bengal chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, has steadfastly opposed both the Teesta water-sharing pact and the Ganges barrage that Bangladesh proposes to build downstream in its own territory. Hasina has sought Indian funding, even though Chinese banks are ready with cash to fund it. This barrage will store water and use it to flush tributaries in western and southwestern Bangladesh during the lean season. Indian experts say that the barrage may improve navigability upstream in the Indian Ganges but Banerjee says it may add to the bank erosion.

Contrary to the positive initiative by the late Jyoti Basu which helped India and Bangladesh sign the Ganges water-sharing treaty in 1996, Banerjee has consistently played spoilsport. Hasina has insisted that she wants some 'positive movement' on the waters issue during her Delhi visit - if not agreements, then, at least, an MoU or a prominent mention in the joint declaration of the bilateral intent to sign agreements after details are worked out. In view of the post-demonetization animosity between Modi and Banerjee, it is unlikely that the latter will oblige.

India may sign 40 agreements and MoUs with Bangladesh during Hasina's visit. But if Teesta and the Ganges barrage do not figure among them, Hasina will face much flak back home for 'giving India too much and getting very little in return'. It is time both Modi and Banerjee took a fresh stock of the issues at stake. Modi has to do his bit to get Sikkim to release enough water in the Teesta while Banerjee has to recognize the rights of the lower riparian that Roy has been reminding us of.

Hydrologists and river experts describe Banerjee's opposition to the Teesta pact and the Ganges barrage proposal as 'political'. That may explain why she kept the Kalyan Rudra report on Teesta under wraps. She is expected to further harden her stance given her fierce opposition to Modi. Modi is said to be considering a tough response. He may consider going ahead with the Teesta and the Ganges barrage pacts because such a move will split India's left of centre Opposition. The Congress and the Left would have to back Modi, not the least because these are Singh's initiatives. For Modi, who likes to use foreign policy for domestic gains, a pact with Bangladesh that splits the domestic opposition is a great gain.

The BJP has nothing to lose and much to gain. Modi will manage to keep India's sovereign commitment to a friendly neighbor and prevent Dhaka's possible drift towards Beijing that Delhi often worries about. Banerjee, and not the BJP, rules West Bengal. So any destabilization here through mass protests will work against her and not the BJP. Speculation is rife that Bangladesh has refused to sign a defense cooperation agreement that India wanted and has, instead, pitched for an MoU. Some say this may be Dhaka's signal of impatience with the delay in getting the Teesta and the Ganges barrage deals through. Others suspect a Chinese hand, especially after hackles were raised in Delhi over Bangladesh's purchase of two Chinese submarines. Hasina cannot afford to upset either China or her army by pushing for a defense cooperation agreement with India at this stage. But she cannot afford to upset India either, especially in the run-up to national elections. An MoU on defense cooperation that can be developed into an agreement later suits her at the moment.

But if I have correctly read the signals emanating from Dhaka, Hasina is sagacious in not wanting an agreement by upsetting Banerjee. In 1996, in spite of facing criticism from other parties, she dispatched her then foreign minister, the late Abdus Samad Azad, to meet Basu with a request to pilot the Ganges water treaty. Basu managed to convince North Bengal's satrap, A B A Ghani Khan Chowdhury, and then advised Delhi to go ahead with the agreement.

Even though there are indications that Modi may overrule Banerjee if push comes to shove, Hasina is keen on taking her along in much the same way as the land boundary agreement. Like her late father, she understands that India's border states are as critical to Bangladesh as Delhi itself. The hunt is on in Dhaka for the right kind of special mediator who is on the same wavelength as Banerjee. Hasina will no longer repose her trust in Oxbridge diplomats or in the US-educated Moni.

Banerjee will do well to listen to President Pranab Mukherjee and the Tripura chief minister, Manik Sarkar, or to saner counsel in her party and not to those for whom Bangladesh as a proud Bengali nation is an anathema. Her party, the prefix 'All India' notwithstanding, is a Bengali regional party anchored in Banerjee's Bengali persona. If her grip on Bengal strengthens, she can further expand into eastern and northeastern states.

For that to happen, she gains as much from a friendly and secular Bangladesh as anti-Hindutva politics. If Hasina fails to get the water deals and that impacts her poll prospects and leads to an Islamist regime in Dhaka, it will only strengthen the forces of Hindutva in Bengal that Banerjee stridently opposes. The writer, BBC's former bureau chief for East & Northeast India, is a senior editor of the and a consulting editor for Myanmar's Mizzima group

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