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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 42, October 8, 2011

And Quiet Flows the Teesta!

Saturday 8 October 2011, by D. Bandyopadhyay

Muchkund Deubey’s essay entitled “Indo-Bangladesh Relations—Failure of Leadership on the Indian Side” (Mainstream, September 17, 2009) is a seminal contribution to the literature on this subject. It is erudite. It is factual. It gives a comprehensive coverage to the twists and turns of our relationship with our friendly neighbour. And most significantly, it exudes deep empathy for Bangladesh, its people and its culture. Such a learned and cultured piece of diplomatic writing couldn’t have come from any other person than the scholar-diplomat Muchkund Dubey. I regard it as the best reference material on the issue. Bravo, Muchkund, bravo!!

I have no hesitation in confessing that I am a layperson in the rarefied realm of foreign policy and diplomacy. From the point of view of the uninitiated, the foreign policy of any country should always try to protect the basic national interests while promoting peace, amity and friendliness with other nations. One also realises that in a longstanding friendly relation-ship one has to occasionally follow the dictum of “give and take”. But such “give and take” should be reciprocal. It cannot be one-sided in either way.

Way back in the mid-nineties of the last century, Bhabani Sengupta enunciated a doctrine for his leader, I.K. Gujral, that was christened as the “Gujral doctrine” which in unsophisticated language meant giving unilateral concessions to one’s neighbours to secure amity. The flip side of that doctrine was that it opened up the possibility of “arms-twisting” or “squeezing” to get undeserved and unreciprocated concessions often approaching “blackmail“ or “coercive give away”. West Bengal is suffering badly from the evil effects of this one-sided doctrine. The Ganga Water-sharing Agreement, signed with Bangladesh under the Gujral doctrine and effusively supported by the then Chief Minister of West Bengal, Jyoti Basu, is one such example. His half-baked statistician Minister in charge of Finance in the State doled out false figures of how much water would flow down the river Hooghly to sustain the Calcutta Port. In this euphoria there was one dissenting voice. The then Chairman of the Calcutta Port Trust, Bikram Sarkar, predicted that it would bring about disaster for the Calcutta Port. He became a persona non grata with Jyoti Basu and the Left Front Government. That is another story.

Only 40 years ago when the plan for the Second Hooghly Bridge was conceived, there was a technical controversy as to whether the bridge should be high to allow the passage of ships below it or a low one to save cost. Looking into the interest of the Calcutta Port the government opted for a high-cost high bridge. Even at that time one could see ten to fifteen ships anchored in the mid-river waiting for berth in the port. Today as one crosses the beautifully constructed high bridge, one would not find a single ship waiting for berth. In fact there is no ship in the dock. The river is getting silted due to lack of flow of head water so much so that not even a 5000-tonner can negotiate the river.

Not only the Calcutta Port, the condition of the Haldia Port is equally bad. It has already ceased to take in oil tankers. These ships offload their cargo way down at the mouth of the river Hooghly at high sea and small vessels bring the cargo to Haldia to be pumped to refineries inside the country. That is the net effect of the Gujral doctrine on West Bengal and eastern India. The planners are now thinking of a third port almost on the high sea to save the maritime trade of West Bengal and eastern India including the North-Eastern States.

THIS horrendous experience had to be borne in mind with regard to the proposed Teesta treaty. The constituency of the Chief Minister of West Bengal happens to be 18 districts of this State including the Calcutta metropolitan area. She cannot, as the Chief Minister of the State, sacrifice the interests of the population of six districts in North Bengal. Huge investments have been made for the Teesta Barrage and the wide network of canals to carry the Teesta waters to these districts for the purpose of irrigation of the vast tracts of rain-fed agricultural land. Such huge investments would go waste. Jyoti Basu was only interested in projecting himself as a great leader. He never had the interests of the State in mind. He thought that sacrificing the interests of the Calcutta Port he would etch out a small niché for himself in the granite of history as a great statesman. It is good that he is not alive; otherwise, he would have had cardiac arrest to know that he is already a forgotten figure in West Bengal

Muchkund Dubey censured Ms Mamata Banerjee in a highly polished diplomatic lingo. He writes: “It is very sad that we are fast reaching a situation in the governance of the country where every agent or entity involved in the decision-making process has a veto.”

With due respect to my friend Dubeyji, may I remind him that India is a Union of States? It is a federal country with a strong unitary bias—but nonetheless it is federal in character. While craftsmen in South Block fashion our foreign policy, they seem to think that India is coterminus with the jurisdiction of the NDMC. The country, unfortunately, is slightly bigger in size than the NDMC. No one can design a foreign policy totally ignoring, nay, sacrificing the basic interests of a constituent State. While duly acknowledging the skill, dexterity and competence of the Foreign Service officers in preparing our foreign policy, one should bear in mind that the basic interests of the country, including those of the constituent States, should be fully protected while advancing our hand of friendship to our neighbour.

I fully endorse Dubey’s point that the internal discussions on the proposed Teesta treaty should have been led by a Minister of the Union Government like the External Affairs Minister or the Minister of Water Resources with the Minister of State in the PMO as an observer. The matter was far too sensitive to be handled by a retired Foreign Secretary.

Another point espoused by Dubey is also controversial. He writes: “As a lower riparian, Bangladesh finds itself at the receiving end of the bargain and hence insists on reaching an agreement through which it can withdraw water as a right and not at the mercy of India, the upper riparian.”

What is happening is an indisputable fact of geography. India did not create the geographical boundaries of Bangladesh. It inherited the boundaries of East Pakistan after the liberation war. No treaty can at this stage change or alter the geographical location of that country. It cannot hold India responsible for its geographical disabilities and disadvantages. Bangladeshis must learn to live with it without grumbling or without always blaming someone else. Moreover, they have two mighty rivers, waters of which have not been touched by India so far. They are the Brahmaputra and Meghna. Why don’t they utilise the waters of these two big rivers for their internal development without allowing those waters to go down to the Bay of Bengal? They should come up with some good schemes to utilise the waters of these two rivers. If need be India should help them with technical and financial assistance. They seem to be more interested in the waters of the rivers which we have tapped at the upper reaches.

One should not forget the history. Sir Cyril Radcliffe gave the Muslim-dominated Murshida-bad district to India only to save the Calcutta Port. In line he gave the Hindu-dominated Khulna district to the then East Pakistan. In doing so he exceeded his brief in dividing the country on the basis of district-wise Hindu-Muslim population.

What Radcliffe did for the Calcutta Port, we frittered that away in the name of good-neighbourly relationship. In return we did not get any gratitude nor abiding friction-free good-neighbourly relations. What Mamata did was good for West Bengal and India, notwithstanding the contrary views of the mandarins of South Block.

Architect of ‘Operation Barga’ during the Left Front Government in West Bengal, the author was Secretary (Rural Development) and Secretary (Revenue) in the Union Government. Now retired, he is currently a Member of the Rajya Sabha representing the Trinamul Congress.

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