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A watered-down trip

The PM’s Bangladesh visit has opened up trade between the two nations. But all is not a smooth flow.

india Updated: Sep 07, 2011 23:14 IST

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Bangladesh visit is likely to be remembered for what it did not deliver than what it did. An agreement to share the Teesta’s waters could have signalled a bonhomie in the bilateral relations and served as a marker for subsequent accords on sharing water from the 50-odd rivers that flow across the two countries. Little has been achieved since 1996, when the two worked out a deal to split the Ganga’s flow. Bangladesh reckons the Teesta irrigates 14% of its farms, and wants a much bigger lean-season flow. The two nations have managed to hammer out a stop-gap percentage share till joint studies yield actual division. This was to be the trophy deal of Mr Singh’s visit, till Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee refused to travel to Dhaka with him.

Ms Banerjee’s objection is that more water is being offered to Bangladesh than what West Bengal had initially signed up for. The concern is legitimate considering neither side knows how much of it actually flows through the Teesta. The Union water resources ministry points out that the upper riparian state will be at an advantage because four-fifths of the Teesta flows in West Bengal and Sikkim. This is apart from the bumped-up power supply to West Bengal from dams that will be built in Sikkim to deliver water to Bangladesh. Ms Banerjee isn’t convinced, she also wants to withhold the share of water Bangladesh will need to keep the river alive.

This should not, however, take away from the gains made during Mr Singh’s visit. Bangladesh’s textiles, its principal export, now have free access to a huge Indian market. It will bring some balance into the crazily distorted trade between the two countries: Bangladesh buys R9 worth of stuff from its giant neighbour for every R1 of goods it sends across the border. Mr Singh’s gesture in unilaterally freeing up imports from Bangladesh ought to prod the Indian textile industry, one of the largest apparel exporters in the world, to climb the value chain. The lower end of the Indian apparel market stands to gain from a new source of cheap supply.