Political consensus on the land boundary agreement and the sharing of Teesta must be forged soon
The return of Sheikh Hasina to power in Dhaka in 2009 had presented New Delhi with an historic opportunity to consolidate bilateral relations. Yet, despite Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s diplomatic investment in the relationship, India has so far failed to deliver on the two most pressing matters for Dhaka. With Bangladesh headed for elections soon, that window of opportunity may be about to close. The Teesta water-sharing arrangement and the land boundary agreement (LBA) have been scuppered, by West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and the BJP respectively, who are yet to come on board. The prime minister’s reported promise to Bangladesh Foreign Minister Dipu Moni last week that Delhi would work out a political consensus that is mindful of Dhaka’s interests on the sharing of the Teesta, and BJP leader Arun Jaitley’s assurance that his party would internally discuss the LBA, were the right gestures. However, Delhi must move soon from verbal assurance to concrete action.
The LBA requires an amendment to the Constitution, since it involves territorial exchange. The deal would see Indian and Bangladeshi enclaves in each other’s territory swapped to make the land border contiguous. The BJP’s argument, that India is giving up more enclaves than Bangladesh and thereby losing more territory, misses the point. The existence of the enclaves has been an abiding humanitarian tragedy for the inhabitants, deprived of basic amenities from either state. Moreover, at a moment when Hasina’s government is battling to secure Bangladesh’s identity as a secular state, India’s main opposition party should not allow narrow political compulsions to obscure the bigger picture. In the case of the proposed Teesta water-sharing treaty, Delhi’s failure to deliver has not only put on hold the overland transit route to the Northeast sought by India through Bangladesh, but has also became a major embarrassment for Hasina.
Trade between the two countries has grown, with Bangladeshi exports at an all-time high at $565 million, utilising Delhi’s grant of expansive market access. Bangladesh is also set to get 500MW of power by September 2013 with inter-grid connectivity, even as Delhi’s $1 billion credit line to Dhaka flows smoothly. Nevertheless, none of this will amount to much if Delhi fails Dhaka on the two things that matter most.