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Water a thorny issue for Bangladesh govt

“Our relations are beyond what happens on a particular issue. The agreements will be signed sooner or later,” said Bangladesh foreign secretary Mijarul Qayes, playing down the failure to conclude arrangements for sharing of waters in Teesta and Feni, during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s bilateral visit. Varghese K George reports.

india Updated: Sep 06, 2011 23:41 IST
Varghese K George

“Our relations are beyond what happens on a particular issue. The agreements will be signed sooner or later,” said Bangladesh foreign secretary Mijarul Qayes, playing down the failure to conclude arrangements for sharing of waters in Teesta and Feni, during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s bilateral visit.

Earlier in the day, he had called in the Indian envoy for a clarification on India’s change of mind in the last minute.

That’s, however, for the record. Bangladeshi officials and leaders of the ruling Awami League say water sharing was a much-awaited item for them and India’s inability to deliver on it has put the government on back foot.

The roadblock was for Teesta alone — as West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee opposed the countours of the arrangement — but the entire subject of water-sharing got sidelined in the process.

“Talks on water sharing has been going for the last 20 months, starting from PM Hasina’s visit to India in January 2010. Everything was finalised and it came as a bolt from the blue,” a minister said. “This puts us in an awkward position,” he said, expressing fear that the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) may try to mobilise anti-India sentiments.

Voices from the BNP already indicate the direction. “India has never shown cooperative attitude,” said Hafizuddin Ahmad, a vice president of BNP. Singh is scheduled to meet BNP leader Khalida Zia on Wednesday.

BNP has been critical of the Awami League government’s policy of improving relations with India. Last year, while talks about allowing transit for India’s northeastern states came up for discussion, she had declared “no foreign vehicle should be allowed in Bangladeshi soil.”

Her party had also opposed the move to start a power plant in Bagerhat as a joint venture between the two countries. BNP and Islamist grouping within Bangladesh has argued that better relations with India will lead to Indian domination and have been particularly critical of transit to northeast India through Bangladesh.

A senior Indian official said the arrangement for Teesta was worked out as an interim mechanism, in percentages rather than in absolute quantities.

“Joint measurement of water flow has never been conducted. The idea was to have an interim agreement, measure the water flow jointly and then conclude a final agreement,” he said, adding that bilateral relations will not have any serious impact due to the last minute changes.

“Water and trade are our primary areas of concern as security and transit to northeastern region are India’s two concerns,” said another minister. “We are tad disappointed,” he said.

India tried to salvage the situation by concessions in trade but Hasina will need more to sustain her pro-India policies.