What are the positives of the trip you were most pleased about?
In the India-Bangladesh joint statement that was released during the visit, I was struck by how it mentioned that this relationship goes far beyond a strategic partnership. We have taken this relationship to a new level that touches virtually every sector, as you can see from the many MoUs and agreements that came out of the visit. The gestures from PM Modi also underscored the warmth that now exists. I’ve dealt with a lot of bilateral visits over the years, and the fact that PM Modi broke protocol, and that he made it a point to attend a number of events, including the official ceremony to honour the contribution of some Indians during the War of Liberation in 1971, underscored that Indo-Bangladesh relations is a very special relationship. The MoU on defence cooperation, which attracted a lot of media attention, was a major new initiative. India also provided a fresh line of credit of $5 billion in addition to $3 billion that had been earlier provided, on very attractive terms.
In addition, a number of new initiatives to widen the scope of cooperation were taken during the visit. These have been clearly detailed in the MoUs and in the Joint Statement issued at the conclusion of Sheikh Hasina’s visit. Further progress has been made in the field of energy cooperation, road and rail connectivity, and a number of agreements were signed between companies in the private sector on both sides, totaling $9 billion.
What are you most disappointed about?
As I mentioned there were many positives, but we needed to see tangible progress in the case of the sharing of the water of the rivers we share with India, in particular Teesta. After protracted negotiations, it is not simply that we did not see the signing of the Teesta water sharing agreement, but it would appear that this may not happen at all in view of the statement made by Ms Mamata Banerjee that there is no water left to share with Bangladesh in the case of the Teesta. We have waited a long time – this agreement has been in the works for well over 20 years. We had negotiated and finalised the water sharing agreement on the Teesta with the UPA government ahead of the visit of then prime minister Manmohan Singh as far back as September 2011.
As a sovereign independent country, Bangladesh must deal with the central government in Delhi. It is for Delhi to sort out matters with the state governments. It is Delhi’s responsibility to ensure that Bangladesh gets its fair share of water. We enjoy rights as a lower riparian. If individual states divert water to the detriment of lower riparian states or independent countries, it is incumbent on the part of the central government to prevent this from happening. Delhi could have and should have prevented the construction of the Farakka Barrage as well as the Gazaldoba dam on the Teesta, which is primarily responsible for the reduction in the availability of water in the Teesta during the dry season.
It is unacceptable that vast tracts of land in Bangladesh bordering West Bengal are now left without water during the dry season, this has had a huge impact on the lives of millions of people and there is no light at the end of the tunnel. India today is loudly protesting the building of hydroelectric projects on the Brahmaputra within China; and has been very vocal in defending its rights as a lower riparian in its negotiations with Nepal, but it seems the same rights that it claims for itself as a lower riparian are not applicable to Bangladesh.
Previous Indian PMs, especially Dr Manmohan Singh, and more recently PM Modi himself, have spoken eloquently about the destinies of Bangladesh and India being inextricably linked together. These are very noble sentiments, but surely this should be reflected in something as highly emotive as water sharing. This issue, which should have been resolved 25 to 40 years ago, has now become increasingly difficult to resolve because of the continuous diversion of water in the upper reaches of the rivers that we share with India. What does this mean for our future? Much of the positive achievements in the relationship have been undermined by the fact that we now effectively find ourselves back to square one in the case of Teesta.
A point I have always stressed over 25 years of constant interaction and dialogues with Indians, inside and outside the government, is that water is a highly emotive issue in the relationship. I urged them at every opportunity, to do everything possible to ensure that Bangladesh gets its fair share of water, because the failure to do so will make it very difficult to mobilise public support for Indo-Bangladesh relations.
Is it only the issue of Teesta where we have reached such an impasse?
One of the top priorities in the case of cooperation, apart from the Teesta, was also the Ganges barrage. When the Ganges treaty was signed in December 1996, I was foreign secretary and accompanied then PM Sheikh Hasina to Delhi. At the time, it was clearly understood that an integral part of the process of augmenting the flows of the Ganges within Bangladesh would come through the building and construction of a barrage, and India would play a key role in mobilising the funding for this project. Twenty years later, we have made no progress, and it seems we are now going to have a fresh look at the work done so far on this project, so we are back to square one on this too. How much longer are we going to wait, and what will be the consequences of this wait? We need to address the issue of acute shortage of water during the dry season on a top priority basis.
Are you optimistic about the deals that have been struck?
The big success story in the India-Bangladesh relationship is energy cooperation, and we have taken this one step further through a firm agreement on importing hydroelectric power from Bhutan. We will enter into trilateral cooperation involving on the one hand, India and Bhutan, and on the other, India and Nepal. What will be very important for the successful implementation of these hydroelectric projects will be our ability to mobilise international financing. When we raised this issue in Delhi in February, we were assured that India no longer has any objections to multilateral funding or attracting FDI for such projects.
What perhaps should have been more clearly reflected in the agreements and joint statement is that we need to see a road map for the way forward. On connectivity issues, it was always my understanding that connectivity does not only mean connecting India through Bangladesh to the Indian Northeast, but it also means connecting Nepal and Bhutan to Bangladesh through India. There has been some progress, but a lot of work still remains to be done. My concern is that Bangladesh needs to be much more proactive in pushing issues of priority concern to us. We need experts who can work with the government and can give advice on not only the kind of language and agreements that would help our interests, but also with implementation issues. We need to rev up our diplomacy, we need trained experts and negotiators who can uphold our interests and ensure that this is an equal partnership, and that our sovereignty is respected and upheld.