India piles up old promises in Dhaka
By Syed Tashfin Chowdhury
DHAKA - A three day-visit to Bangladesh by Indian President Pranab Mukherjee was keenly anticipated by both sides, more specifically by Bangladesh primarily as Dhaka is the first international destination to be visited by Mukherjee since assuming office lasting July.
Also, this was only the second visit by an Indian president to Bangladesh in the last 40 years, after president Varahagiri Venkata Giri visited in 1974.
However, Mukherjee flew back to India on March 5 leaving Bangladesh with "unrealized promises" from Delhi on a number of outstanding but important issues like the ratification of the Land
Boundary Agreement, the sharing of water from the Teesta river, border killings and others.
During his three-day trip, Mukherjee inaugurated the commissioning of broad gauge locomotives and tank wagons of Bangladesh Railway and a comprehensive sewerage system in Tangail, and committed a US$200 million Indian grant for construction of the Padma Multipurpose Bridge that is to link Dhaka with the west of the country.
He also awarded the Bangladesh Liberation War Honour Award through a ceremony attended by Bangladesh President Zillur Rahman, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and other ministers. At this ceremony, Mukherjee assured Bangladesh, "We will walk with you as an equal partner, shoulder to shoulder, arm in arm."
Despite being moved by Mukherjee's words, Bangladesh cannot deny that outstanding disputes regarding issues like denial of a fair share of common rivers, the exchange of enclaves and persistent border killings of Bangladeshi citizens by the Indian Border Security Force, among many others, have not been resolved by India.
One of the highly prioritized among these was the exchange of enclaves and adversely possessed lands, which would have been exchanged as far back as 1974 when Bangladesh's premier Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his Indian counterpart, Indira Gandhi, stipulated that the Indian enclaves in Bangladesh and vice versa should be exchanged "expeditiously" without claim to compensation for the additional area going to Bangladesh through the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA).
Although the Bangladesh government ratified the agreement on November 27, 1974, the Indian government has not done so, though an additional protocol to the LBA was signed in Dhaka during Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visit to Bangladesh in 2011.
With the LBA hangs the fate of over 51,000 people living in the 111 Indian enclaves in Bangladesh and 51 Bangladeshi enclaves in India along the 4,096-kilometer long border.
Diptiman Sengupta, general secretary, India chapter of the India Bangladesh Enclaves Exchange Coordination Committee (IBEECC), told Asia Times Online that "enclaves people do not have the basic necessities, cannot vote, cannot own land and cannot travel to foreign lands as they do not belong to any country".
He hoped that if the LBA is ratified, these people would finally enjoy these rights of citizenship from the country in which their enclaves are already located.
During his visit, Mukherjee told Dhaka that the LBA is likely to be ratified during the current budget session of the Indian parliament. Sengupta also wants to believe Mukherjee's words, as he listed the lengthy five-step process that the ratification will have to go through.
"The ratification would need to be passed by the cabinet first, then the lower house of the Indian parliament, followed by the parliamentary standing committee. Then it would go to the upper house of the parliament and finally, it would require the president's signature to be a part of the Constitution," said Sengupta.
"We are hopeful after 65 years, following the formation of India in 1945, that this may happen, as already the cabinet has approved the ratification on February 16."
While the LBA may see some resolution in the near future, fair sharing of water from 53 rivers, including the Teesta, remains unaddressed.
At present, India and Bangladesh are giving priority to the Teesta river water sharing issue. Both countries had earlier asked for 55% of Teesta water during the lean period (October-May). Bangladesh finally asked for a 50% share, to which Delhi seemed to have agreed.
Dhaka was anticipating the signing of the Teesta agreement during Singh's visit in 2011. But it did not happen at the last minute as India's West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee objected to it, leading to disappointment on either side of the border.
While not specifying any deadline for this issue during his visit, Mukherjee told Dhaka that as "discussions are underway with the West Bengal state government", the agreement may be signed soon.
However, M Inamul Haque, chairman of the Institute of Water and Environment, told Asia Times Online that any such deal would not help either side in any way as "the total quantity of water that flows through the river at varying seasons is yet to be determined by both sides. Most likely, such an agreement would turn out to be nothing more than a long-term study project," he said.
Haque alleged that already a significant supply of water from the Teesta is being diverted inside India "for irrigation of 900,000 hectares of six districts in North Bengal. This is affecting 600,000 hectares of land in the Bangladesh side."
Before agreeing on the Teesta river water sharing, "both sides need to be rational about what they want from the deal," he said.
On the problem of border killings, the Indian side has given assurances of restraint at the border, but according to Odhikar, a Dhaka-based human-rights organization, 34 Bangladeshi citizens have been shot and 90 were injured by India's BSF at the border.
Amena Mohsin, professor of International relations at the Dhaka University, said that though India has repeatedly emphasized the "peaceful coexistence", "we find reasons to doubt their accounts as we see border killing going on unabated."
Syed Tashfin Chowdhury is the Editor of Xtra, the weekend magazine of New Age, in Bangladesh.
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