By Sirshendu Panth
While the contentious Teesta river water sharing pact needs to be thrashed out in the long term for the sake of better India–Bangladesh bilateral relations, Prime Minister rendra Modi’s impending two–day visit to Dhaka carries huge prospects of future cooperation, especially in the backdrop of the long–awaited Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) to be inked, experts here say.
With the Teesta accord, which Bangladesh considers very important, not on the agenda, diplomatic experts are banking on the land swap deal – set to be concluded on June 6 on day one of Modi’s visit – as a “significant chapter” in India–Bangladesh relations, which could in turn pave the way for fresh openings in bilateral ties.
The historic LBA provides for transfer of 111 adversely held enclaves with a total area of 17,160.63 acres to Bangladesh, while Dhaka is to transfer 51 such enclaves with an area of 7,110.02 acres to India. Over 51,000 people reside in these enclaves and are now virtually stateless.
“The Teesta accord is very important for Bangladesh. But the successful completion of the LBA will improve prospects for fresh openings and herald more close cooperation, and issues like the Teesta deal will seem feasible,” Om Prakash Mishra, professor of intertiol relations at Jadavpur University, told IANS.
Former Indian high commissioner to Bangladesh Vee Sikri said the LBA would be the high point of the visit as it would help in taking bilateral relations into an era of connectivity. “Flagging off the Shillong–Dhaka via Guwahati and Kolkata–Dhaka via Agartala bus services, dialogue on a train service between Khul and Kolkata and negotiations for a coastal shipping agreement ebling smaller vessels to go to Bangladesh are expected to strengthen connectivity and help in the development of the country’s north east,” Sikri told IANS.
“It will help in connecting West Bengal, Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan into a sub–regiol growth area,” Sikri told IANS.
The visit is also expected to be a reaffirmation of the Bharatiya Jata Party led tiol Democratic Alliance government’s consistent stand about the primacy it attaches to the country’s neighbourhood in its foreign policy. Bangladesh is the fourth neighbouring tion – and significantly, the first Muslim majority country – that Modi would tour since becoming prime minister last May.
But despite the LBA success, it is the stalled Teesta deal that is getting negative attention ahead of Modi’s visit.
The perception in diplomatic circles is that while the West Bengal government has been kept on board on consultations regarding sharing of the Teesta waters, which runs through lower riparian neighbour Bangladesh, the necessary support from Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s state has not been forthcoming.
This prompted the decision not to keep the signing of the accord on the agenda as “much distance is yet to be travelled” by both sides on arriving at an agreement.
Banerjee has already said she would be going to Bangladesh on June 5, a day before Modi reaches Dhaka, and returning the next day after signing of the LBA. “It is not on the agenda,” the chief minister said on Monday when asked about talks on the Teesta deal.
Unlike the erstwhile United Progressive Alliance government, which had seemingly burnt its fingers on the deal by not keeping Banerjee abreast of all developments, the NDA regime is unwilling to act unilaterally by keeping the stubborn and egoist leader of the border state in the dark. In September 2011, Banerjee had embarrassed then Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh by pulling out of his delegation to Bangladesh over the water sharing agreement, forcing India to drop it from the agenda.
Banerjee’s strong opposition stemmed from fears that the treaty could spell disaster for the northern part of her state by triggering an acute shortage of irrigation water in the lean months from December to April. The Teesta origites from Tso Lhamo Lake in North Sikkim, flows for virtually the entire length of the Himalayan state, then runs through Darjeeling and Jalpaiguri districts of West Bengal, before merging with the Brahmaputra in Bangladesh.
In February, however, the ice seemed to be melting as Banerjee visited Bangladesh and assured Prime Minister Sheikh Hasi that the Teesta issue will be resolved in the foreseeable future. Modi discussed the matter with her during his recent trip to West Bengal.
To win Banerjee’s support, the centre has also reportedly promised a package for construction of reservoirs to store water for irrigation in North Bengal in the dry season. But with the state scheduled to hold the assembly polls next year, she is now in no mood to hand over any emotive issue to the opposition Left Front to encash upon.
However, Sikri did not consider the delay in the Teesta accord as a problem. “Earlier, the LBA had its own constraints. But Modi succeeded in taking all stakeholders, including Mamata Banerjee, on board.
“May be he can repeat the success with regard to Teesta. May be within a year we will be ready with the pact which can be signed when Sheikh Hasi comes visiting,” Sikri said.