Hoi hoi, hai hai, or don’t believe the hype

by Jyoti Rahman

Published in BDnews24 on 17 January 2010.

The Prime Minister returned from India to a ‘showdown’ arranged by the Awami League to receive her at the airport. At least on TV, it seemed as if she had returned from exile, not a state visit to a friendly country. Balancing this hoi hoi, the opposition BNP has said that the PM had abandoned national interests in New Delhi. No doubt we’ll see more hai hai.

To cut to the chase, my view is, ‘Don’t believe the hype’. As far as Bangladesh is concerned, there really is nothing in the communiqué that is irreversible, or that has altered things significantly in one direction or the other.

An explicit commitment by India to halt Tipaimukh would have been good, and the promise that ‘no harm will come to Bangladesh’ is a non-credible, non-binding statement.  But this is how things stood before the PM’s trip, so she hasn’t signed anything away.

On the other hand, the communiqué doesn’t require Bangladesh to seek the resolution of the maritime boundary demarcation solely through bilateral means. This is an important right the PM has retained for Bangladesh, and this should be acknowledged.

On the rest of the issues — use of the ports, transit, security deals, etc. — two points should be made. Nothing has been done that cannot be reversed by a future government.  And there is absolutely no reason to believe any of it is definitely going to hurt Bangladesh.

The communique is 51 paragraphs long, running over 4 A-4 pages in normal font.  The first 16 paras are just formalities of who attended, mutual thanksgiving etc.

Para 17, discussing terrorism, is the first one where we have something of substance.  The operative sentence of the para is this:

Both leaders reiterated the assurance that the territory of either would not be allowed for activities inimical to the other and resolved not to allow their respective territory to be used for training, sanctuary and other operations by domestic or foreign terrorist/militant and insurgent organizations and their operatives.

There is absolutely nothing here that would be harmful to Bangladesh.  Bangladesh has no business in those conflicts, has no territorial ambition on India, and should remain free from such entanglements (whatever may have happened in the past).

Para 18 discusses the border:

Prime Ministers agreed that the respective border guarding forces exercise restraint and underscored the importance of regular meetings between the border guarding forces to curtail illegal cross border activities and prevent loss of lives.

On the one hand, it is significant that the Indian PM has acknowledged that there are losses of lives at the border.  On the other hand, the communique fails to distinguish the clear perpetrator of violence (the Indian BSF) and its victims here.

Para 20 is about land boundary:

Both Prime Ministers agreed to comprehensively address all outstanding land boundary issues keeping in view the spirit of the 1974 Land Boundary Agreement. In this context, agreed to convene the Joint Boundary Working Group to take this process forward.

Nice sentiment, but read between the lines and it seems the bureaucrats will be left to themselves, and the process will go on forever.  Bottom line: no change either way.

Para 21, about maritime boundary, is crucial for Bangladesh:

Both Prime Ministers agreed on the need to amicably demarcate the maritime boundary between India and Bangladesh. They noted the initiation of proceedings under Annex VII of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and, in this context, welcomed the visit of a delegation from Bangladesh to India.

India has traditionally insisted on settling all disputes with its neighbours (including with Pakistan over Kashmir) bilaterally.  There was a significant probability that India would have insisted Bangladesh withdraw from the UN arbitration over the maritime boundary.  It seems that Bangladesh stood firm, and the communique does not limit Bangladesh to a bilateral solution.  Of course a bilateral solution would be welcome.  But if it doesn’t suit Bangladesh, she retains the right to continue with the UN arbitration.  This is an important achievement that ought to be acknowledged.

Paras 22, 23, 24 and 26 are about transit, with the important sentences being:

Bangladesh will allow use of Mongla and Chittagong sea ports for movement of goods to and from India through road and rail. Bangladesh also conveyed their intention to give Nepal and Bhutan access to Mongla and Chittagong ports.

A lot is being said about ‘giving up the ports’.  That seems to be alarmist at best, and demagoguery more likely.  Giving up something means no longer having it.  It’s not like the ports will cease to be there for Bangladeshi vessels.  That said, it is legitimate to ask, do we have the capacity to handle extra load in these ports?  Chittagong port is one of the least efficient in the world as it is, and significant reforms are needed in its operation (independent of whether Indians and Nepalis use it).

I believe there are two things to note here.

First, what is the nature of duty to be paid on goods that are unloaded in Chittagong and then transported to India or Nepal?   Will Bangladesh be allowed to charge duty on them at the rate that goods imported into Bangladesh are charged?   It’s important to have a clear and precise answer to this.

Second, there is nothing here that Bangladesh cannot revoke unilaterally. This is a Communiqué, not a legally binding treaty.  If some future government decides that the transit arrangements are not working for us, they can always be revoked. One corollary of this is that if BNP genuinely opposes transit, they should make a categorical promise that if elected, they should revoke it. Another corollary is that if the transit is really beneficial to India, the threat to revoke transit rights is a credible threat in any future negotiations over, say, water rights.

Water is the subject of paras 27-31, with one important sentence being:

The two Prime Ministers directed their respective Water Resources Ministers to convene the Ministerial level meeting of the Joint Rivers Commission in this quarter of 2010.

There will be a Joint Rivers Commission meeting before March.  One can only hope that there is a Cabinet reshuffle before then, or we send some tough bureaucrats, because not many have confidence on our current Water Minister.

The other important sentence, about Tipaimukh, is:

The Prime Minister of India reiterated the assurance that India would not take steps on the Tipaimukh project that would adversely impact Bangladesh.

This is a non-binding, non-credible, practically meaningless statement. Bangladesh gained absolutely nothing here. If Tipaimukh was a problem on Jan 10, then it is still a problem today. And if on Jan 10, one believed India would do no harm to Bangladesh, then they didn’t need Dr Singh’s solemn words. This is very much a live issue on which the trip has changed nothing whatsoever.

Para 32 is about electricity:

The Prime Minister of India agreed to supply to Bangladesh 250 MW electricity from its grid.

I presume Bangladesh will buy this electricity at the market price. Given the energy crisis, this is a good short-term measure. But this isn’t an alternative to building domestic capacity.

Paras 33-38 are about trade:

With a view to encouraging imports from Bangladesh, both countries agreed to address removal of tariff and non-tariff barriers and port restrictions and facilitate movement of containerised cargo by rail and water.

This kind of ‘agree to address’ statements have been made in the past, and is hardly exciting.

Para 39 says India will lend Bangladesh US$1 billion for a range of projects. Para 41 says the two countries will celebrate the 150th anniversary of Tagore’s birth jointly. Paras 42-48 are about the importance of being friends with each other and the world. Para 49 is about the prisoner exchange treaties — the only binding ones — signed the previous day.   Paras 50-51 are niceties.

It is important to note that the communiqué didn’t mention anything about rice. In 2007-08, the global rice market were severely disrupted when India unilaterally imposed an export ban. Export bans are counterproductive, irresponsible, populist measures. And as a major rice consumer, this kind of irresponsible act can have major consequences for Bangladesh.  In fact, I’d argue that to the extent that the harm from Tipaimukh is uncertain and in the future, while the damage from a rice export ban is certainly felt here and now, this is an issue that should have been at least acknowledged in the communiqué.

Since BNP is going to make a lot of noise denouncing the trip, will they at least raise this important issue?

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One response to “Hoi hoi, hai hai, or don’t believe the hype

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