Sheikh Hasina visit to India: Needed a landmark agreement on water sharing, better border management
Overall, many of the vexing problems of long standing can be mitigated quickly by bold and quick measures, denying ammunition to detractors of India-Bangladesh ties on both sides and letting our relationship flourish to its full potential
India and Bangladesh have developed the closest of relations in the last few years but their cooperation and interaction are still far below potential. Prime Minister Narendra Modi took a very bold step by bringing the long-pending Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) to a successful conclusion but other and consequent issues persist for the opposition in Bangladesh to make political capital and rouse anti-India sentiment.
Border management and water sharing are two of the longest-standing bones of contention. Both are squarely the responsibility of the Indian government. Therefore, it will be useful if substantial progress can be made in both these areas in the forthcoming bilateral summit with Modi when Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina when she visits India September 5-8
Inefficient and loose border controls from our side have been the primary problem. During the last regime of BNP under Begum Khalida Zia, India capitulated to its demand that the proposed border fencing should be erected not on the international boundary but 150 metres inside Indian territory, leaving large tracts of territory along the 4,906 km border open to Bangladeshi settlement.
Border guards, BSF of India and BGB of Bangladesh, should have additionally placed highly visible fluorescent markers along the length of the international boundary and patrolled within 10 metres of the Indian side of it. The markers could have been equipped with and linked by infrared sensors which would trigger an alarm at the nearest BSF outpost whenever it was breached. Similar surveillance markers could have been placed midstream of riverine borders.
Upgradeing border crossing points
It should have been emphasized by the Indian government that it is their responsibility to sensitise their citizens about the hazard to life and limb contingent upon their illegal crossing of the international border. Indians now living and working within this 150-metre strip are now left by BSF to the mercy of Bangladesh as they close the Indian border gates at sunset and leave their fellow Indians outside to depend on Bangladeshi resources in medical and other emergencies.
The entire area is thus exposed to gradual Bangladeshi settlement. The Indian border management agencies should set up Indian clinics and school services within the 150-metre line to support the Indian nationals. Indians trying to breach the fence from our side should be apprehended and indicted for damage to state property, but Bangladeshis who reach and try to breach the fence must be treated as illegal infiltrators and saboteurs. Coordinated BSF-BGB patrolling will be easier if done together on either side of the international border. The recent extension of BSF jurisdiction to 50 km inside India is only an admission of colossal failure on their part to stop infiltration, trafficking and smuggling.
India must also upgrade all agreed border crossing points into checkposts. It is not rocket science but this work has been pending now for over twelve years now. This will enable smooth transit of people and goods as active links will be maintained between our missions and posts in Bangladesh with Indian immigration and customs authorities. Only when this is complete can the proposed BBIN (Bangladesh Bhutan, India and Nepal) 1 Motor Vehicles Agreement be implemented. So, the matter must be dealt with urgently as it disrupts our effort to create regional supply chains and integrate the BBIN economy and transport infrastructure, telecommunications and energy systems, to the detriment of all.
River sharing, link canal
Sharing of our 54 common rivers also requires a bold and decisive approach from the Indian government. Since the principles of water-sharing have been agreed to by both countries and incorporated into the still unsigned Teesta agreement, those can be extrapolated to create a single agreement to share all river resources on the same principles. That will be a landmark decision like the conclusion of the LBA between the two countries.
Efforts to augment Teesta waters on the Indian side may be doomed to failure but it will be very easy and simple to achieve if a link canal is made linking the Jamuna in Bangladesh to the Teesta upstream of the Bangladeshi barrage, thereby optimizing the output of the barrage there and returning the water to the Jamuna which the Teesta meets further downstream. Having completed the Padma Bridge, this will be another feather in the cap of Bangladeshi engineering and is well within her own capacity to undertake. Irrigation may also be provided to northern Bangladesh if desired.
Cattle shippers from India to Bangladesh are termed smugglers by us and traders by them. Bangladesh earns a cess on each imported head. India has a licensing requirement for the export of livestock; so, this trade can be legitimized if Indian dealers are encouraged to take export licenses.
Similarly, an agreement for settlements in national currencies will boost both border and normal trade, reducing smuggling to a minimum.
Fast action needed
India should establish a phytosanitary testing facility at Petrapole and Akhaura Dawki so that shipments of perishables from Bangladesh can be cleared quickly and not left to decompose at border points while samples are sent deep inside India and reports take days to be made available at the border point.
Overall, many of the vexing problems of long standing can be mitigated quickly by bold and quick measures, denying ammunition to detractors of India-Bangladesh ties on both sides and letting our relationship flourish to its full potential. We hope that the two leaders will be wise and farsighted in their discussions to leave a legacy of warm friendship and deep understanding for future generations to build upon.
(The author is a former Indian deputy high commissioner in Bangladesh. Views are personal.)