“Bangladesh cannot wait forever to solve the Teesta problem”

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Dr Imtiaz Ahmed, professor of international relations at the University of Dhaka, talks about Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s ongoing visit to India and what to expect in the future of Bangladesh-India relations in an interview with Shuprova Tasneem of The star of the day.

Will importing fuel from Russia be a major topic of discussion during the Prime Minister’s trip, and can this affect our relations with other nations?

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In light of the Covid pandemic and the Russian-Ukrainian war, the focus will certainly be on energy security. India still maintains relations with Russia and has not approached sanctions as the West wanted. Bangladesh would certainly like to know how we can benefit from this relationship.

At the same time, be aware that any energy insecurity in Bangladesh would also become a problem for the West. Our main export markets for ready-to-wear (RMG) products are in the United States and Europe. If we are energy insecure and it costs us more to produce RMG products, it will also increase their costs and reduce their profit margins. So I think it will be a win-win situation for all if we can solve our energy problems, either through a good relationship with Russia by buying directly, or through India’s help, especially with regard to the mechanisms payment and others.

How important is Bangladesh in India’s Look East policy, especially given India’s current relationship with China?

The importance depends on how much honey there is in the jar. If there is more instability and less economic development, that interest will die out. Ultimately, geopolitics does not create human beings, it is human beings who create geopolitics. Bangladesh’s growth momentum over the past 15 to 20 years, despite the obstacles faced, is what makes other countries interested in us, including India.

Bangladesh has now succeeded in convincing the world that what interests us is economic development. It comes from our long-standing goal of becoming a peaceful country – a goal that was set by the father of the nation. So whether we have ties with India, China, Japan, the United States or Russia, it’s all based on an economic relationship, not security or military development. At the same time, Bangladesh guarantees that we will not allow anyone to use our territory against anyone else. This is what leads to favorable ties with Dhaka regardless of power in India, as the current regime has delivered on its promise, especially when it comes to countering the insurgency coming from the northeast. So I don’t think Delhi or Beijing are worried about Bangladesh’s ties with others, because a military alliance is never on the cards.

Some fear that Bangladesh is too dependent on trade with India for essential goods. What is your opinion on that?

No country would want to depend on a single source. We have had failures in this respect, particularly in terms of importing onions, which forced us to turn to Egypt and Pakistan. We have already opened a channel with Russia for wheat, so I don’t think that’s really a problem. The problem is that whenever we discuss trade or connectivity, we fall back on traditional links and use a piecemeal approach.

Political will is needed to see the big picture. To date, we haven’t been able to integrate the technology and talk about creating new structures. For example, we are currently discussing updating British-era railway structures. But with existing technology, it is not difficult to think of a high-speed train between Dhaka and Delhi. There are countries that have changed their entire geographical composition like that, like China. So why don’t we think about it?

The first thing that needs to change is our mindset. We are very careful when it comes to planning and investing in long-term projects. The fact that India is devoting huge resources to the conflict with Pakistan could be one of them. There are about half a million soldiers in Kashmir alone, that’s unthinkable. But beyond funding, there is also a lack of imagination. Technology has given us the ability to not be slaves to geography, and we should take advantage of it. The possibilities in this region are immense.

Although there are discussions on other water sharing treaties, we are still no closer to a resolution on the Teesta.

I can’t speak for the policy makers, but it’s possible they think that if we go ahead with other water sharing deals we can mitigate the Teesta issue and come back to it later . But if we fail to resolve the Teesta problem and move forward with other agreements, there will of course be criticism, and the government will have to deal with it. One estimate suggests that the livelihoods of 20 million people are affected by the River Teesta. If we allow their concerns to hover for so long, even if there is a draft agreement, and if we move on to other rivers that affect fewer people, it will certainly become a political and partisan issue.

So why is the Teesta problem not solved? We need to have frank discussions with Delhi on the Sikkim factor. According to a prominent Indian hydrologist, there are 30 to 32 small and large dams for hydropower which are estimated to affect about 5% of the water flow from each of the dams, resulting in low seasonal flow that pours out in Bangladesh. Mamata Banerjee’s claim around Teesta is all about that – without factoring Sikkim into the calculations.

Will they deconstruct the dams? Of course not. But Bangladesh can try to solve this problem by storing the rainy season rain/flood water and letting it flow during the winter. There are environmental and monetary costs: one calculation suggests they will be around $1 billion. Although China showed some interest, India immediately feared it. One way to solve this problem is to create a consortium where different stakeholders can provide funding and expertise for this infrastructure. India must accept that Bangladesh will not wait indefinitely to solve this problem.

Will Myanmar and Rohingya refugees be part of discussions in Delhi?

Absolutely. The point that some of us are also raising is that now that there are talks about a tripartite engagement on the Rohingya between China, Myanmar and Bangladesh, why can’t Delhi organize the same? This is something I think our Prime Minister would point out this time, especially since we haven’t seen much progress on this issue. Since India has good relations with Bangladesh and Myanmar, it can play a vital role. Take, for example, Turkey’s involvement in talks between Russia and Ukraine to open a Black Sea corridor for grain export, which has helped it become one of the big players negotiations in this conflict. Playing a similar role in the Rohingya issue could also boost India’s global status. This is particularly relevant now after the two ICJ judgments recognizing the identity of the “Rohingyas” and the United States calling Myanmar’s military actions against the Rohingyas “genocide”.

Why have we stopped talking about border killings?

It’s very unfortunate. If a smuggler is unarmed, you can arrest him, but killing him is not permitted under the Indian Constitution or international law. And then there are the killings of civilians like 15-year-old Felani Khatun. Yet during the Galwan dispute on the Indo-Chinese border, not a single shot was fired. Why is that? Due to a 1996 agreement between China and India which stipulates that no one can carry firearms for two kilometers on either side of the border. So if it can be done there, why can’t we do it at our borders?

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