Teesta failure may bleak India-Bangladesh relations


The recurrent whine about the stalled Teesta water sharing agreement may obscure the real progress India and Bangladesh are making with each other.

A meeting between the two foreign secretaries – the quiet Ranjan Mathai and the Andrew Marvell-quoting flamboyant Mijarul Quayes – in Delhi on Wednesday underscored the distance the two countries have travelled together. Speaking to journalists later, Quayes said, “The positive disposition at the highest levels has elevated our relationship as neighbours to a partnership.”

That’s actually true. While Dhaka was bemoaning the loss of Teesta, India and Bangladesh have been building ties, in the most pragmatic of ways. Mathai told Quayes that India was looking to sign three major documents – ‘Protocol to amend the Double Taxation Avoidance Convention’ (DTAC), a comprehensive ‘MOU on Health Cooperation’ and a MOU on implementation of ‘Small Development Projects’.

The last is particularly important. This is a peculiarly Indian jugaad innovation, which has worked very well in the violence torn southern and eastern provinces of Afghanistan. Mathai listed out the progress – border haats, renewal of inland water transit and trade protocol, power exchanges between the two countries, etc.

Bangladesh continued to press India on Teesta agreement and the land boundary agreement but, recognizing the domestic political difficulties, will “give India the space it needs.” The stalled Teesta agreement featured prominently in the discussions, Quayes said. The ratification of the land boundary agreement has also been delayed in India, because the UPA government has failed to bring the opposition BJP and ally Mamata Banerjee on board. There was some expectation that the LBA might be brought in for approval during the monsoon session of parliament but that’s unclear.

However, India is obviously trying to sweeten the bitter pill for Bangladesh – of the $1 billion line of credit for Bangladesh, India has converted $200 million into a grant. This was announced by former finance minister Pranab Mukherjee when he visited Dhaka. Quayes also said India had reduced the interest rate on the soft loan to 1 per cent, which makes it much easier for Bangladesh. On the outstanding issues, Quayes listed the Tipaimukh Dam, water agreements and the river linking projects as continuing sources of concern to Dhaka.

Quayes said they had raised the issue of BSF firing on the border. India has maintained that the infiltrators from Bangladesh side are not always villagers straying across, but people with criminal intent. Bangladesh says Indian forces should catch the offenders and jail them, but not kill them.

In an attempt to improve communication, India and Bangladesh, he said, were trying to revive an old practice of local governments interface, to make it easier for panchayats etc to deal with each other and the problems of infiltration.