Sunday, May 6, 2012

Bangladesh Is South Asia's Standard-Bearer

The former 'basket case' is more moderate on religion and more pragmatic on development than its peers.

Despite its 160-million strong population, Bangladesh can find it hard to elbow its way onto the global stage. It's in an area where India is cast in the lead as the dominant economy, Pakistan plays the intermittent villain, and Sri Lanka and Nepal feature in cameos as countries with uncertain futures. Yet when U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton touches down in Dhaka Saturday—the highest ranking American official to visit in nearly a decade—she'll encounter a country that can teach a lesson or two to all other regional actors.

The world's third-most populous Muslim-majority country stands out as a model of moderation. Unlike in virtually every other country in the Muslim world, Islamists in Bangladesh are on the defensive. Seven people, including high profile leaders of the Jamaat-e-Islami, South Asia's most powerful Islamist group, face war crimes charges for their role in slaughtering Bangladeshi patriots, Muslim and Hindu alike, during the country's 1971 war of independence against Pakistan. 

Current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed's father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (1920-75) led that struggle, which claimed 3 million lives according to the Bangladesh government. The trial reveals the government's willingness to deal with one of the most painful episodes in the young nation's history. It also shows its refusal to allow Islamists to label the regime as "anti-Islam" for pursuing them, a form of blackmail that often obstructs justice in other places. 

In a similar vein, Bangladesh can boast one of Asia's best records of fighting Islamist terrorism. The South Asia Terrorism Portal estimates that only nine people have lost their lives since Ms. Hasina swept to power at the end of 2008. In the four years before that, terrorists claimed 56 lives at home, while the Bangladeshi terrorist group Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami (or HuJi-B) carried out high-profile terrorist strikes in India.

Much of Bangladesh's success in confronting the most intolerant elements within its own society comes from crafting an inclusive national narrative. Unlike Pakistan, Bangladesh does not define itself by faith alone. Most Bangladeshis see no contradiction between being proud Muslims and proud Bengalis. This self-confidence gives the country the ability, which some other Muslim societies lack, to push back against extremism. 

Then there's the down-to-earth pragmatism present in Dhaka's approach to development. Over the past five years, the economy has expanded on an average of 6% per year. Unlike India, which is hobbled by socialist-era labor laws that interfere with hiring and firing, Bangladesh has built a world-class apparel industry that employs more than 3.5 million people and supplies global brands like H&M, Walmart and Tommy Hilfiger. Thanks to this, the country is already the world's second largest exporter of readymade garments after China. If it plays its cards right, Bangladesh, more than any other South Asian nation, could attract a fresh wave of labor-intensive manufacturing looking for cheaper alternatives to China. Goldman Sachs lists Bangladesh among its "Next 11," countries that have the potential to become major economies. 

And after years of tensions with its bigger neighbor, Bangladesh is now being practical and seeking to normalize ties with India. The two countries have already settled long festering territorial disputes and opened up trade. A landmark transit agreement would place Bangladesh at the heart of a potentially dynamic growth corridor encompassing northeastern India and a newly democratizing Burma. This is currently being stymied by Indian politician Mamata Banerjee, who as chief minister of the West Bengal state that borders Bangladesh opposes an allied water-sharing agreement with Dhaka.

Still, Dhaka and New Delhi are pushing for this agreement and it could succeed, possibly ushering in a new peace dividend in the region. At any rate, Dhaka's pragmatism in its foreign relations stands in contrast to India, which can't always suppress its preachy rhetoric of nonalignment (toward the West), as well as Pakistan, which often sputters in a sea of Islamic fundamentalism and knee-jerk opposition to India. 

That said, Bangladesh is hardly free of problems. Ms. Hasina and her chief opponent, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party's Khaleda Zia, have created a poisonous zero-sum politics, which has come to the fore again in recent days. The BNP is up in arms at the disappearance of one of its leaders last month and they blame Ms. Hasina's ruling party. They have shut down the country with crippling national strikes four times in the past month. 

No one knows how the BNP official in question disappeared, though, and a string of similar disappearances reflect a deteriorating law and order situation. Either law enforcement is engaged in extra-judicial actions, or vigilantes can roam free with impunity. Neither is encouraging. 

Meanwhile, the Islamist threat has been reduced but not eliminated. The BNP remains at best ambivalent and at worst actively sympathetic toward Islamist forces similar to those that have helped drag Pakistan in a downward spiral. And though Bangladesh's army deserves some credit for keeping its distance from politics since late 2008, it's by no means certain that the country's latest experiment with democracy, barely three and a half years old, will last. The military first seized power in 1975, and has done so repeatedly since.

But for now, these worries can take a back seat. This weekend, a country once dismissed by former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger as a basket case, gets to show one of his successors how wrong it has proven him. 


River-linking Project : Experts stay concerned

Find Pranab's assurance far from reality.


Indian Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee yesterday reassured that India's river-linking project will not harm Bangladesh as it does not include any Himalayan river that flows down to Bangladesh.

Many Bangladeshi analysts contest his view and say the project has already affected Bangladesh with India diverting Teesta water to Mechi River in Bihar through the Mahananda. 

India has been diverting water from the Teesta to the Ganges basin though the water was supposed to feed the Brahmaputra river in Bangladesh, said Engineer M Inamul Haque, former director general of Water Resources Planning Organisation (Warpo). 

“If they say they are not doing anything that harms us, it is not true. We have already been affected for diversion of Teesta water,” said Inamul, a leading hydrologist in the country. 

India has recently completed a survey on linking the Ganges River with the Sundarbans and is conducting another survey on the Manas-Sankosh-Teesta-Ganges project. 

It also initiated another survey on the Brahmaputra after the Indian Supreme Court had asked the Indian government to go ahead with the river-linking project. 

While India keeps Bangladesh in the dark about its projects on trans-boundary rivers, different websites, independent studies and international reports give a gloomy picture, just the opposite of what the Indian high-ups are saying. 

A report titled “Mountains of Concrete” published by non-governmental organisation International Rivers in 2008 says, “As many dams are built in the Himalayas, on every tributary and every river, the downstream impacts will extend from the mountains to the plains and all the way to the estuaries.” 

“A large number of dams in the basins would cause dramatic transformations in the patterns, quantity and quality of flows,” it says.

A group of Bangladeshi experts conducted a study five years ago to ascertain the impact of the Indian project that involves linking 30 major rivers and diverting the water of the Ganges and the Brahmaputra.

About 30,000 square kilometres of Khulna and Barisal divisions, and parts of Rajshahi and Dhaka divisions will be severely affected, says the study. The capital also falls in the danger zone.

“We basically conducted a qualitative study based on information from several sources. The effects could be even worse,” said a senior analyst, who was involved with the study. 

Biodiversity, agriculture and industry in the Ganges Dependant Area (GDA) -- both sides of the Padma River -- and parts of the Meghna River bank will be badly hit if India implements the river-linking project. 

The GDA alone covers 20 percent of the country and is home to around 30 million people. 

The river-linking project aims to divert river water from India's north-eastern region that witnesses an annual rainfall of 3,500mm to its west, a region with annual rainfall as low as 700mm. 

“If we want to ascertain the impacts of the river-linking project, we need details. But we do not know what they are doing,” Dr Ainun Nishat told The Daily Star earlier. 

During Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's India visit in January 2010, Bangladesh and India signed a treaty on bilateral cooperation that includes sharing of river waters.

Bangladesh allowed India to use water of the Feni River for its plant in Tripura after the two countries resumed talks for sharing the water of Teesta and Feni rivers last year. But India has still kept Bangladesh waiting on signing the Teesta water-sharing deal.

In the meantime, India went ahead with its river-linking and Tipaimukh hydroelectric projects. It did not even inform Bangladesh about the formation of a company to implement the Tipaimukh project. 

Pranab yesterday told the Bangladesh prime minister that a subcommittee under the Joint Rivers Commission will be formed to conduct a study on the proposed Tipaimukh dam. Bangladesh will be informed about the findings to clear confusion from people's minds about the project.