Teesta, Land Boundary and Immigration

A Ray of Hope for India-Bangladesh Relations?

01 Jul, 2014    ·   4539

Sonia Hukil analyses the India-Bangladesh bilateral in the backdrop of Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj's recent visit to Dhaka

Sonia Hukil
Sonia Hukil
Research Intern
During her first visit to Bangladesh as the Indian External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj pledged to strengthen bilateral ties.

What are Bangladesh’s expectations from the new government in New Delhi? Bangladesh largely views Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a controversial, polarising Hindu-nationalist leader, whose pre-elections statements have instilled feelings of suspicion and resentment amongst them. Recently, when the media in Bangladesh ran reports of Modi attempting to establish a separate department in the India Ministry of Home Affairs to combat illegal Bangladeshi immigrants, the general public echoed a huge uproar of anti-Indian sentiments.

Bangladesh has long suffered a sense of non-deliverance from India on issues such as the failure in reaching a consensus on the sharing of Teesta River waters; the failure to implement the land boundary agreement and its protocol; and hindrances arising from the Indian immigration policies. This has contributed towards the erosion of reciprocity and goodwill that India had secured amongst the Bangladeshis. For Bangladesh, despite having several long-running issues to settle with India, lately, three issues top their agenda.

Teesta River Water Sharing Agreement
Water-sharing has been a contentious issue between New Delhi and Dhaka. India has consistently disappointed Bangladesh vis-à-vis the Teesta River water sharing agreement. Previously, India’s United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government failed to conclude the Teesta water sharing agreement amid West Bengal Chief Minister Mamta Banerjee’s opposition to the deal. The consequence of not reaching an agreement still affects Bangladesh. Bangladesh’s northwest region faces acute water shortages due to climate change. Therefore, dependency on the Teesta for irrigation, particularly during the dry season is rising. Bangladesh senses that intensive water diversion by India has led to its water scarcity situation—preventing Bangladesh to meet the demands of its rapidly-growing population. It is projected that it will dry up the Padma – one of Bangladesh’s three key rivers. Furthermore, the upper riparian India's withdrawal of the Teesta waters has severe environmental implications while simultaneously increasing the expenditures for Bangladeshi farmers by over 10 times.

Bangladesh also remains concerned of the poor water governance in the Teesta basin. Intense pressure from home has forced the Bangladeshi government to pressurise India to quickly resolve the issue. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, despite having had vehemently opposed the agreement in the past, have assured its positive intentions towards the agreement – that Bangladesh views with skepticism.

The 1974 Land Boundary Agreement 
Bangladesh feels that India has consistently disappointed Bangladesh in terms of honouring the Indira Gandhi-Sheikh Mujibur Rahman Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) of 1974. The agreement between the two countries to better demarcate the 4,000-kilometer border by exchanging small pieces of land has been ratified by the Bangladeshi parliament, but it awaits ratification by India. The implementation of this agreement is a priority for Bangladesh is the as they will receive 111 enclaves spanning 17,149 acres. Furthermore, people residing in the enclaves want recognition as citizens of the country inside which these enclaves are situated. The exchange of enclaves will make the India-Bangladesh border more manageable. Dhaka expects the BJP government in India to ratify the agreement this time around. Hopefully, Modi, with a full majority, may not have to look elsewhere to gather support for the implementation of the LBA.

Illegal Immigration
According to Bangladesh, inter alia, the most important facet in the New Delhi-Dhaka bilateral is the issue of illegal immigration of Bangladeshis into India. In part, the problem is due to the population of Bangladeshi migrants illegally residing in India. Bangladesh, however, raises serious doubts regarding this. Recently, former Bangladesh Prime Minister Khaleda Zia doubted its occurrence. According to Zia, many Bangladeshis do not migrate to India since they ‘all are doing quite well at home’.

Adding fuel to the fire, Modi, in his pre-election campaign, referred to the Bangladeshi migrants as “infiltrators” and called for immediate deportation post-victory. Such stances were a jolt for Bangladesh. The matter of illegal immigration negatively affects bilateral relations and Dhaka expects New Delhi to remain sensitive towards. Swaraj’s Dhaka visit confirmed relaxed visa policies for Bangladeshi nationals above the age of 65 and below the age of 13—making them eligible for a five-year multiple entry visa.

Will Dhaka Find Deliverance this Time Around?
It is true that Narendra Modi has exemplified charm in attracting a large number of Indian voters. The Lok Sabha Elections of 2014 placed him at the helm, but the Indian prime minister has to deliver to Bangladesh what they feel India has been reluctant to provide. A feeling of reciprocity and goodwill in the hearts and minds of neighbouring Bangladeshis is currently absent. Bangladesh feels that Modi must demonstrate his capacities as a statesman, secure India’s vital interests vis-à-vis respect, and identify and fulfill the aspirations of its neighbourhood – primarily Bangladesh.

Swaraj’s Dhaka visit may be seen as a step in the right direction to strengthen bilateral ties with the country. Whether New Delhi will deliver to Dhaka’s aspirations is to be seen. The unencumbered BJP government is expected to move beyond the political maneuvers and take a more responsible approach in resolving these pending issues.