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Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visits Bangladesh – issue of Teesta river.

The Coronation Bridge, also known as the Sevoke Bridge, is in  Darjeeling district of West Bengal.  This bridge was named to commemorate the coronation of  of King George VI in 1937 and was completed in 1941 at a cost of Rs 4 lakhs. The foundation stone of the bridge was laid by John Anderson, the then Governor of Bengal in 1937.  Locals call the bridge Baghpool, meaning tiger bridge, because of the two lion statues (bagh actually means tiger) at one entrance of the bridge.  This cantilever bridge or the river on which it lies has been the centre of all news during the recent visit of Indian Prime Minister.  Yes this bridge spans  across the Teesta River, connecting the districts of Darjeeling and Jalpaiguri. National Highway 31 runs across it.

Bilateral ties and relationship with neighbours is very important.  Bangladesh is a sovereign state located closer to the West Bengal – the country’s name itself suggests strong bond with Bengal but its chequered history has changed a lot in the relationship between the Nations.   The Countries share a long more than 4000 km land frontier.  The Country first broke away from India during the 1947 partition, then part of Pakistan, subsequently obtaining its independence in 1971.

In complex International trade, commerce and relations there could be impediments even for executing National projects.  For example, PM Manmohan Singh way back in Oct 2005 laid the foundation for the 4500 crore ONGC’s Palatana power project in Tripura – a 726 MW Gas power project in South Tripura.  There was major hindrance of moving the power plant equipment by road as the NH 44 is a hilly terrain with thousands of hairpin turns.  Bangladesh agreed to allow transhipment of heavy machineries through sea and land territory of Bangladesh to reach the landlocked Tripura.   They were moved through the Ashuganj Port of Bangaldesh.

At a time when the National capital was rocking politically and the climate was getting hotter, the Indian Prime Minister was on a State visit to the neighbouring Country signing a series of protocols, though the non-agreement on two major issues hogged limelight.  Our Prime Minister and  his Bangladeshi counterpart Sheikh Hasina signed a series of agreements in Dhaka on 6th Sept 2011 though the transit right and sharing of river water were non-starters.   The Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s entourage consisted of Ministers and officials and was hailed as historic in some circles raising hopes of resolution of many long standing contentious issues between the two Nations. 

The bilateral relations are fragile and India even when bigger and economically potent could not force things the way it would have liked.  The visit was hailed as a milestone but minor irritants and the sudden withdrawal of Mamta were spoilers.   However being Countries with long land borders, the important of land boundary agreement is significant.   Bangladesh has got enormous satisfaction on the trade front as India lifted tariffs on 46 textile lines from its sensitive list. This will go far in addressing Bangladesh's massive trade balance problem.

There are reports that Sheikh Hasina who is credited with good India Bangla ties could face hostile opposition for the let down on Teesta. Addressing the formal banquet in the evening, Sheikh Hasina declared that an "understanding" had been reached with India on Teesta and Feni river waters. It was in the making for long but still could not signed as a treaty is a great disappointment.   Bangla Press reports state that Sheikh Hasina broke protocol to greet Singh and his entourage at the Hazrat Shah Jalal airport  but the  absence of Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of West Bengal, was all too conspicuous as was the fact that the centrepiece of the Singh visit, a water sharing treaty on Teesta river would have to be put off for a later date.  Perhaps it was a political victory for the didi.

River Teesta  provides the lifeline to Sikkim flowing for almost the entire length of the state and carving out verdant Himalayan temperate and tropical river valleys.  The river also  forms the border between Sikkim and West Bengal before joining the Brahmaputra as a tributary in Bangladesh. The total length of the river is 315 kilometres (196 mi). The river originates from Tso Lhamo Lake in North Sikkim in the Himalayas.
The Teesta river is then fed by rivulets which arise in the Thangu, Yumthang and Donkia-La ranges.  Met by its main tributary, the Rangeet River,  it changes course southwards flowing into West Bengal. The river hits the plains at Sevoke, at a distance of 22 Km from Siliguri, where it is spanned by the Coronation Bridge which links the north-east states to the rest of India. The river then courses its way to Jalpaiguri and then to Rangpur District of Bangladesh, before finally merging with the mighty Brahmaputra at Fulchori.

Sharing of river waters has been the context of dispute between many States and Nations and hopefully this should not fall in to that dreaded category.   Though India and Bangladesh on Tuesday signed several pacts,  failed to ink the Teesta and Feni rivers water sharing accord.  There were reports of mutually acceptable basis and was expected to be part of the accord but Mamta Banerjee, who was supposed to accompany Singh for the  visit, refused to join the delegation to protest the final draft of the Teesta river water sharing agreement.  It could leave a serious negative impact !

Another big issue for Bangladesh and India which could not be resolved during the present visit is the transit facility for India.  India wants transit facility from Bangladesh for North Eastern India.   Bangla also stands to gain as it will get the fees of transit and will get the market of the North East India.

There is need for closer relations between the Countries especially on cross border insurgency and reining various militant groups under control. 

With regards – S. Sampathkumar.

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