Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Khaleda, too, blurs distinction between rights and privilege

THE assertion by the leader of opposition in parliament and Bangladesh Nationalist Party chairperson, Khaleda Zia, at a public rally in Lalmonirhat on Monday that ‘if they [India] refuse to give Bangladesh its share of Teesta water, let them know that they would not enjoy transit’ is indeed loaded with feel-good sound bites and even nationalistic fervour. According to a report front-paged in New Age on Tuesday, she also asserted that ‘nothing can go unilateral.’ The problem is that she seems to have blurred the distinction between rights and privileges, just as the Awami League-Jatiya Party government apparently has. Equitable share of Teesta for Bangladesh, a lower riparian country, is guaranteed by international laws and conventions on the trans-boundary rivers; India’s refusal to give the next-door neighbour its due share is, thus, an international crime. On the contrary, whether to grant India transit through its territory or not is a matter of choice for Bangladesh. If India gets it, it would be a privilege on India’s part. Neither the ruling nor the opposition party seems to acknowledge this very simple truth.

Tagging transit with Teesta water will be as irrational and anti-people as terming development of infrastructure as the precondition for transit, as done by the finance minister the other day, will be. As we have argued in these columns time and again, whether Bangladesh should allow India transit through its territory needs to be consequent upon a number of factors; suffice it to add, getting due share of Teesta water from India must not be one of them since, as mentioned before, it is our right guaranteed by international laws and conventions on trans-boundary rivers. First, in an era of greater interconnectivity, Bangladesh needs to put transit with India in the perspective of intra- and inter-regional connectivity, making sure that the transit route connects it with as many as countries as feasible. Second, Bangladesh needs to dispassionately analyse the benefits, economic and otherwise, to be derived from the transit route; the benefits need to be equal, if not more, than what India stands to gain. Third, Bangladesh needs to ensure that expected economic gains do not override existing security concerns; in no way, should transit with India or any other country be allowed to undermine national security or sovereignty.

Above all else, to grant India transit or not should be made consequent upon change in its attitude towards Bangladesh, which has not been friendly, to say the least. According to media reports, in the first 22 days of February, the Indian Border Security Force abducted 18 Bangladeshis. The dead body of at least three of them were later found while another managed to escape from BSF captivity. BSF excesses and atrocities on the border, suffice it to say, are not the only irritants that India has given rise to and sustained over the years; there are more, e.g. huge imbalance in trade, Tipaimukh Dam on the trans-boundary river Barak, non-tariff and para-tariff barrier on Bangladeshi products, dispute over maritime boundary, etc.

It is thus disappointing that the opposition leader sought to employ nationalistic rhetoric to an essentially anti-people stance that her party has taken. She would have done well had she demanded that the government should in no way put transit and Teesta water in the same bracket, and move international opinion to force India into giving Bangladesh its due share. She could also have demanded that the government should initiate an exhaustive and inclusive dialogue on the transit issue, both inside parliament and in public forums involving politicians, academics, experts, journalists, etc, to forge a national consensus.