The Guest Column

19th January 1997

India reaches out to her neighbours

by Stanley Kalpage

The government of India's prime minister Deve Gowda is making a determined effort to solve some long-standing problems with India's neighbours. Agreements on the sharing of the Ganges' water have been signed with both Nepal and Bangladesh. Soon after her election last year, Sheikh Hasina Wajed visited New Delhi and was warmly received. In a return visit to Dhaka, Deve Gowda announced that immediate action will be initiated on improving trade and economic relations. The Indo-Bangladesh water treaty has evidently opened the way for bilateral cooperation on a mutually beneficial basis in a range of other areas.

The Ganges

During the election campaign in Bangladesh both prime minister Sheikh Hasina and her arch rival, opposition leader Khaleda Zia, had promised to reach an agreement with India on the equitable sharing of the waters of the Ganges and other rivers, common to both India and Bangladesh. Sheikh Hasina's Awami League has been closer to India than Khaleda Zia's Bangladesh National Party. Sheikh Hasina's father, Bangabhandur Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, formed the Awami League after leading his country to independence from Pakistan in 1971.

Non-Congress governments have always shown greater readiness to solve the perennial water problem between India and Bangladesh which has even been raised at the United Nations in 1975 when a consensus resolution urged both counties to solve the problem through negotiations. With India controlling the Ganges water through the Farraka barrage, some 18 km upstream from the point of entry of the river into Bangladesh, both floods and drought have caused problems for Bangladesh as the waters were controlled by the Indian side at the Farraka barrage. Bangladesh has accused India of dragging her feet on a solution to the problem. In 1977, during the period of the Janatha government in India, the two countries agreed to share the waters of the Ganges with Bangladesh receiving some 34,000 cusecs (1 cusec is 28 litres per second) of water during the dry season. The agreement was criticised in India for compromising India's interests and expired in November 1982. Since then no serious attempt has been made to arrive at a long term solution to the Ganges water dispute.

More recently, in December 1996, Deve Gowda and Hasina Wajed signed a 30 year treaty between India and Bangladesh where the two countries have agreed to appoint a joint committee consisting of an equal number of representatives from each side to observe and record the daily flows below Farraka barrage, to submit all data collected by it together with an yearly report to both governments. The manner in which the water is to be shared is detailed in the agreement.

The water sharing treaty has been hailed as an 'historic' document and was greeted with euphoria in Bangladesh. However, it is being criticised by experts in India who say that it is based on outdated figures on the flow of water at the Farraka barrage. The treaty has been signed, they say, on the basis of the average availability of the water between 1949 and 1988 at the Farraka barrage. Since then however water levels have been steadily falling and there is not as much water for sharing as is projected in the treaty. The treaty is said to be in Bangladesh's favour and would spell trouble for West Bengal which needs the water to clear the sediments weighing down the Calcutta and Haldia ports. Jyoti Basu, the chief minister of West Bengal, played a critical role in promoting the agreement.


In the negotiations during Deve Gowda's visit to Dhaka both sides have agreed that immediate action will be initiated to improve trade and economic relations. A joint economic commission at the level of foreign ministers is to be convened at an early date. Mr. Gowda announced tariff concessions on 500 items to be effective from the first of March this year. New Delhi has also agreed to remove all non tariff and para tariff barriers under the SAPTA (South Asian Preferential Trade Agreement). Bangladeshi goods will thus have wide access to the Indian market. As with practically all her neighbours, India has a positive trade balance with Bangladesh. The removal of tariff and non tariff barriers on Bangladeshi goods imported into India should help Bangladesh to increase her exports to India and to reduce her unfavourable trade balanace.

The "Gujral doctrine"

India's recent agreements, first with Nepal and now Bangladesh, are part of her attempt to restructure her relations with neighbours in South Asia, other than Pakistan. It is in keeping with the 'Gujral doctrine' which postulates that India's South Asian policy should not be Pakistan-centred but should actively seek to promote friendly and positive relations with neighbours in the region. This would serve to isolate Pakistan and portray India as a bastion of democracy and secularism. Says Gujral, India's minister for external affairs, 'the (water-sharing) treaty opens a new chapter in South Asian co-operation and also the realization that we will only gain by co-operation."

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