Border row with Bangladesh resolved but water gap remains

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh being received by his Bangladesh counterpart,Sheikh Hasina, at the airport in Dhaka on Tuesday.  

In the midst of a summit marred by an acrimonious, eleventh-hour collapse of a critical water-sharing agreement, India and Bangladesh have succeeded in demarcating their land borders — a long running source of friction between the two countries, and a nightmare for the estimated 200,000 people who have been trapped in a citizenship limbo.

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his Bangladesh counterpart, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, presided over the signing of a new land border agreement, which promises to end the bitter — and sometimes bloody — dispute that cast a dark shadow over the relationship between their countries for more than three decades.

The two leaders also signed a vision statement laying out a long-term roadmap for transforming the often-troubled relationship between India and Bangladesh. In addition, India agreed to allow duty-free imports of 46 lines of ready-made textiles from Bangladesh, which is expected to address its skewed balance of trade.

“This is a historic moment in our relationship,” Sheikh Hasina told journalists.

Bloody border

Indira Gandhi and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, founding president of Bangladesh and Sheikh Hasina's father, agreed in 1974 to demarcate the border between the two countries. Later, the two governments arrived at shared maps of 4,096 km — but disputed enclaves left 6.5 km unresolved.

India has 111 enclaves, spread over 17,158 acres, in Bangladesh, with an estimated 150,000 residents; Bangladesh has 51 enclaves, covering 7,110 acres inside India, with a population of about 50,000. In addition, 38 patches of Indian territory spread over 3,000 acres are in the possession of Bangladesh, while some 50 patches of Bangladesh territory measuring about 3,345 acres are held by India.

Legacies, historians say, of lands put up as stakes in chess-games between the Rajas of Cooch Behar and Rangpur in the 18th century, these territories were not accounted for at the time of the partition of India. They thus became enclaves when the princely states joined the new countries.

The enclaves have often been sources of dispute. Last October, for example, some 200 homes in the enclave of Garati were set on fire by a mob. In 2001, friction over the enclave of Pyrdiwah pushed bilateral relations to a dramatic low after 15 Border Security Force personnel were killed and their bodies mutilated.

Bangladeshi diplomatic sources say the negotiations in the run-up to Tuesday's summit were hard-fought, with Dhaka insisting that the exchange of lands in adverse possession as well as enclaves be simultaneous. New Delhi's negotiators, the sources said, initially insisted on a deadline only for enclaves, but later conceded Dhaka's claims.

Water dispute still hot

Even though both Prime Ministers said they were happy with their meeting, Bangladeshi officials in private made clear their unhappiness with New Delhi's failure to deliver on a promised agreement on sharing the waters of the Teesta river — a critical issue for Sheikh Hasina, who has come under intense domestic pressure for making better relations with India a keystone of her government.

New Delhi had agreed to a deal, which would have given Bangladesh 48 per cent of the Teesta's waters, setting a precedent that would have helped resolve pending disputes over 53 other rivers, including the Feni.

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, however, rejected the deal, and cancelled her plans to travel with Dr. Singh to Bangladesh, saying the agreement would hurt farmers in the State.

Newspapers have said Ms. Banerjee believes the agreement will grant Bangladesh upwards of 33,000 cubic feet per second, or cusecs, of water each year instead of some 25,000 cusecs she had agreed to in earlier discussions.

The Centre, however, says Ms. Banerjee was briefed on the discussions. “No actual figures on river flow were to be fixed at this stage,” a top Indian government official told The Hindu, “because the two countries do not yet have agreed figures. The agreement was only interim, and would have established principles and a joint mechanism to administer them, not a final settlement.”

Bangladeshi officials told The Hindu that they were unaware that the deal was off until Monday, and expressed anger at what they described as a “let-down.”

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Printable version | Jun 13, 2021 12:34:57 AM |

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