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What Dhaka wants

Sentinel Digital DeskBy : Sentinel Digital Desk

  |  13 April 2017 12:00 AM GMT

With 11 deals and 24 MoUs signed during her four-day India sojourn, Bangladesh premier Sheikh Hasi back in Dhaka has expressed satisfaction that she had come to seek ‘friendship’ and got it in full measure. But her Civil Aviation and Tourism minister has vented unhappiness in no uncertain terms over the failure to close a deal on sharing Teesta river waters. For this continuing standoff, minister Rashed Khan Menon has squarely blamed West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee for ‘spoiling Prime Minister Sheikh Hasi’s India visit’. This is a hangover since 2011 when the two countries came close to signing a deal to share Teesta waters 50:50, only for Mamata Banerjee to red flag it by protesting that northern Bengal will go dry. Back in 1996, the two neighbours had agreed to share Ganga waters on the same 50:50 formula after years of complex negotiations. Since then, there has been nothing further to show on this front, even though both share the waters of some 54 rivers. Arguing that Teesta waters during dry season are meagre even for Bengal farmers, Mamata Banerjee has offered to share waters of four other rivers, but for Dhaka it seems to be Teesta or nothing. Mindful of the political stakes Sheikh Hasi has riding over a Teesta deal, the rendra Modi government has pledged to fast track such a deal soon — though it cannot force the West Bengal government on this subject under state jurisdiction. Clearly, the impasse has much to do with political rivalry between the regimes ruling at New Delhi and Kolkata. It remains to be seen whether Mamata Banerjee bargains for her support by wresting an appropriate ‘package’ from the Centre in the coming days. The Bangladesh Opposition is expectedly scornful of what Sheikh Hasi actually got from the Indian leadership. Begum Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh tiolist Party (BNP) has termed the defence pact signed as a a ‘sellout and extreme betrayal’. According to the BNP, the deal will expose Bangladesh’s security system to India.

On the defence front, New Delhi’s anxiety had been rising ever since Beijing siglled readiness to go for a ‘strategic partnership’ with Dhaka. Chi has been the major supplier of defence equipments to Bangladesh for long; but ever since it supplied two submarines last year, there has been speculation it is gearing up to build a val port in Bangladesh. So the defence agreement signed during Sheikh Hasi’s visit is being viewed as key takeaway for New Delhi, under which India will collaborate with Bangladesh to set up manufacturing and service centres for common defence platforms, offer a line of credit to help buy Indian defence equipments, provide expert training and technical-logistic support, and strengthen joint military exercises. Sheikh Hasi’s India visit, coming as it does seven years after 2010, was indeed marked by significant bilateral camaraderie. Among other things, the two sides inked treaties on subjects ranging from civil nuclear cooperation, energy, infrastructure, information exchange, cyber security and border posts. Bilateral linkages are set to deepen through cross border power and fuel supplies to feed rising industrial demand in Bangladesh; One such agreement was struck between Numaligarh Refinery Limited (NRL) and Bangladesh Petroleum Corporation for sale and purchase of diesel through the proposed friendship pipeline from Siliguri to Parbatipur. New Delhi offered a total 5 billion dollar worth of credit to Dhaka this time, which takes the combined credit support to about 9 billion dollars in last four years. To put it into perspective, Beijing is reportedly offering Dhaka credit support over nine times larger. While the economies of both India and Bangladesh have been clocking growth rates above 7 percent, and despite the two neighbours sharing a 4,000 km long border, their bilateral trade stood at just 6.76 billion dollars last year. By FICCI’s estimate, this trade volume could easily be raised four-fold. Dhaka continues to have issues with the balance of trade being overwhelmingly in India’s favour, as well as other irritants including cross-border movement of its citizens and strong action by BSF personnel. Considering Sheikh Hasi’s uncompromising stand against jihadis and Indian rebel groups operating on Bangladeshi soil, the onus is on New Delhi to shore up her position. By January 2019, Bangladesh will be going for elections again. The elections in 2014 was boycotted by the BNP, but it may yet return in tandem with hardline Islamists. This means that the rendra Modi government can only push Dhaka so far and no farther on the influx issue, something that will keep the issue boiling in Assam.

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