The rains have hit again, and so soon after the hurricane. I drive past a scene in our small town. One elderly woman has her car stuck in the mud. I know this woman. Her next-door neighbour is helping push her car out of the mud. I know this man. Everyone in the town knows that these two people hate each other since the man’s dog bit the woman’s son, and the woman petitioned the town to have the dog destroyed.
The incident happened 16 years ago. And yet, there they are. She’s a school bus driver, and this is the first day of school. They’ve buried the hatchet for the greater good — slogging in the mud in his soiled work clothes; the man behind the car has my admiration. It’s hard to make peace after so long a silence.
Halfway around the world, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is making India’s head-of-state visit to Bangladesh in 12 years. Why did it take so long?
As a neophyte to the political intrigues and subplots that define the relationship between India and Bangladesh, I found the fact that no Indian prime minister has set foot on Bangladeshi soil in 12 years to be extraordinary. What sort of importance does India place on its relationship with Bangladesh if it does not officially drop by, except on historically rare occasions?
And what of Mr. Singh’s comments back in early July that at least 25 percent of Bangladeshis is anti-India? Why embarrass a government in Dhaka that is India-friendly? Still, I suspect that his remarks may not have been unintentional.
While most of you all know by now that my affection for Bangladesh doesn’t exactly make me neutral in these matters. Let me attempt to express my understanding (and opinions) about the issues at hand:
Water: This is a main sticking point. The Teesta is an important source of irrigation for West Bengal, and it seems that Mr. Singh does not have the political clout to pull of a deal that would give Bangladesh 50 per cent of the water that would naturally flow to Bangladesh if West Bengal had not dammed or irrigated the upstream portions. As of this writing, a compromise agreement that would have allowed 25 percent of the water to follow its natural course into Bangladesh had been taken off the table. India and Bangladesh share 54 common rivers. They have an agreement about sharing a total of one river so far. I would be surprised to see any agreement on this issue, due to the internal pressures Mr. Singh faces in India.
This interesting game of percentages continues in other areas where agreements must be reached. For instance, 15 percent of Bangladesh’s imports come from India, while less than one percent of India’s imports come from Bangladesh. The trade deficit is increasing, favouring further imports from India, and diminishing exports from Bangladesh. Part of this deficit is due to the bureaucracy in India, which forces Bangladeshi exporters to wait up to a month to get clearance from testing labs before clearance is given to import goods.
Like the damming of the Teesta, India’s tendency to dam the flow insures that it receives the lion’s share of advantages in trade. In contrast, the United States, halfway around the world, accounted for 22 percent of Bangladesh’s total exports. It seems odd that our American restrictions do not hamper the flow of exports from
Bangladesh, although product must be shipped as far as it can be shipped on this planet, while archaic practices in India make the flow of goods from next-door unnecessarily slow and unreliable.
And what does India want from Bangladesh? India actually wants to gain easy access to Bangladesh’s roads. Having read about the traffic safety conditions, I find this remarkable. I think that if India does sign any agreement that allows access, it must be accompanied by grants from India which would address safety, infrastructure, and the increased traffic flow. India should pay usage fees that would allow for adequate lighting and policing of these roads. This could actually be the best thing that comes from a treaty, a real modernisation of the highway system along an East-West corridor. The easing of Indian transit through Bangladesh is an opportunity to bring in revenue, but it needs to be accompanied by a parity in ease of border crossings, so Bangladeshis would be as free to enter India as Indians would be to enter Bangladesh.
Just as an aside, I have spoken to Americans who were denied re-entry on a multiple entry Indian visa after having visited Bangladesh. The problem doesn’t seem to stem from some sort of anti-Bangladeshi sentiment on the part of India, but on the organisation of border policies of India in general, no matter the traveller’s country of origin. In any case, from everything I have read, it seems that an agreement on easing transit through Bangladesh will not be accomplished on this visit.
Aside from the water issues, the real impediment to Bangladesh-India relations is the archaic bureaucracy in India which prevents things that should be practical and logical, like treaties, from ever actually happening.
The point is that if Mr. Singh hopes to strengthen bonds between his country and Bangladesh, he will also have to tackle the ponderous obstacles that India’s entrenched and antiquated way of doing internal government business have put in place. If this is his goal, I am sure he’ll encounter opposition.
As I re-read what I’ve written, and review comments that Indian readers have made in the past about the justification for murderous border guards versus smugglers, it occurs to me that perhaps the way the current system exists, smuggling is the only way for struggling Bangladeshi traders to be able to enter the Indian marketplace. Certainly if, as research indicates, goods are sometimes delayed by months from entering India, such illegal end-runs are necessary. Havascope, a black market tracker, reports that the black market trade between Bangladesh and India accounts for $2 billion more in revenue than the official trade between the two nations. I believe that one of the causes of the illegal border crossings that lead to the killing of harmless Bangladeshis is, therefore, the bureaucracy in India.
Who benefits from such ponderous bureaucracy? According to the Swiss Banking Association report (and who knows more about black market banking than the Swiss?) Indian-owned Swiss Bank account assets are thirteen times India’s entire national debt, and India alone has more black-market money than the rest of the nations of the world combined. A survey indicated that at least 45 percent of Indians reported having to pay bribes to get the bureaucracy to act.
Such widespread corruption would be difficult for a prime minister to tackle. If corruption is indeed part of the reason the flow of goods and services is impeded at the border, then Mr. Singh must build up the public will to approve treaties and agreements that may take many people’s corrupt hands out of the pot. In this context, we can better understand the words he “misspoke” back in May, when he claimed that “at least 25 percent of the population swear by Jamaat-e-Islami and are very anti-Indian.”
Perhaps his words were intended as a warning to those who grow fat off the Indian bureaucracy that they face a potential militant backlash unless they are willing to allow him the political room to manoeuvre.
Unfortunately, for the state of the world, an exaggerated threat, no matter how fictitious, can be a powerful bargaining chip. By making the statement he did, Manmohan Singh has invited the Bangladeshi negotiators to play that card. And if I were prime minister of Bangladesh, I would definitely make sure Mr. Singh understands that an effective and advantageous treaty, including border and water rights would go a long way to clip the claws of India’s enemies.
My instinct is that Mr. Singh is well-intentioned and sincerely wants to seize upon a historic opportunity to allow both nations to move ahead and prosper. What he can do is limited in scope by a corrupt political system at home, and the political squabbles that beset Bangladesh, which make it unlikely that the BNP would support any idea, even a brilliant one, if it were proposed by the AL or vice-versa. But hey, after 12 years, at least this is a start.
When I passed the house of my neighbours on my way back from the convenience store, I noticed that my neighbour’s car was still in the mud but that her next door neighbour’s car was gone. Did her neighbour let bygones be bygones and actually drove the woman to work? I would like to believe this is exactly what happened. I’m the sort who believes that when the chips are down, people will act according to their best instincts to their mutual advantage.
For all of our sakes, let’s hope this is especially true when the people (or nations) happen to be neighbours.
Frank Domenico Cipriani writes a weekly column in the Riverside Signal called “You Think What You Think And I’ll Think What I Know.” He is also the founder and CEO of The Gatherer Institute — a not-for-profit public charity dedicated to promoting respect for the promoting respect for the environment and empowering individuals to become self-taught and self-sufficient. His most recent book, “Learning Little Hawk’s Way of Storytelling”, teaches the native art of oral tradition storytelling.