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India, Bangladesh settle border rows, but thorns exist

Last updated on: September 06, 2011 21:43 IST's Sanchari Bhattacharya, who is travelling with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Dhaka, reports on the outcome of Dr Singh's deliberations with his Bangladeshi counterpart Sheikh Hasina

India and Bangladesh on Tuesday finally laid to rest the niggling boundary issues that the two nations have grappled with since Partition.

The decision to resolve all outstanding border rows came after a one-on-one meeting between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his Bangladeshi counterpart Sheikh Hasina, followed by delegation level talks.

In a protocol to the 1974 land boundary agreement, the two countries have decided to address the issues of undemarcated borders in three sectors, the exchange of enclaves and handing over adversely possessed territories.

"Both our countries have now demarcated the entire land boundary as well as resolved the status of enclaves and adversely possessed areas," Dr Singh told media personnel during a joint press meet with Sheikh Hasina.

He added, "Relations between India and Bangladesh enjoy our highest priority.

There is a national consensus in India that India must develop the best possible relations with Bangladesh".

India also gave in to Bangladesh's long-standing demand of fixing the imbalance of trade (India's export to Bangladesh is worth $3.84 billion, Bangladesh's import to India is worth $ 406.3 million).

New Delhi will now allow duty-free access to 46 textile tariff lines from Bangladesh, which were earlier in the sensitive list.

India will also allow people in the Bangladeshi enclaves of Dahagram and Angarpota 24-hour unrestricted movement through the Tin Bigha corridor.

The PM added that projects worth $750 million had been identified under the $1 billion Line of Credit that was extended by India to Bangladesh last year.

The two nations also inked an agreement and several memorandums of understanding on a variety of fields including conservation of Sunderbans and Royal Bengal Tigers, cooperation in the fields of renewable energy, fisheries, universities and fashion.

But despite pledges of bonhomie and friendship by the premiers of both nations, some thorny issues like Teesta water sharing and transit rights remained unresolved.

India had been hopeful of making headway in its efforts to seek transit through Bangladesh for easier access to remote terrains of its landlocked northeastern states. Transit rights would also help New Delhi realise its ambitious plans of an Asian highway connecting Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan.

Though the two nations signed a memorandum to facilitate road and rail transit between Bangladesh and Nepal, there was no word on the transit rights sought by India.

While talking to the media after the agreements were signed, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh did address the elephant in the room -- the Teesta water sharing agreement that was torpedoed by West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.

"Our common rivers need not be sources of discord, but can become the harbingers of prosperity to both our countries.  We have decided to continue discussions to reach a mutually acceptable, fair and amicable arrangement for the sharing of the Teesta and Feni river waters," he said.

Along with the absence of Banerjee, who pulled out of the trip to make her dissatisfaction over the treaty clear, it is the treaty-that-was-not signed which continues to dominate conversations here.

While some top officials in the Bangladesh administration put up a brave face over the Teesta agreement falling through, others made their disappointment amply clear.

"Of course, that was the most awaited agreement by our government. We anyway have major differences with India over the impact the Farakka barrage (in West Bengal, near the Bangladesh border) has had on southern Bangladesh. At least the Teesta agreement would have ensured that northern Bangladesh was spared the vagaries of nature," said an official close to Sheikh Hasina.

He also pooh-poohed recent claims by Indian officials -- that neither nation had been close to a final treaty on the matter --  and said that a concrete deal had been drawn up by the two governments days before Dr Singh's visit.

Another top official from Bangladesh's foreign ministry was more diplomatic about India pulling the plug on the crucial agreement.

"All issues don't have to be resolved in only one visit (by the Indian PM). Reaching an agreeable understanding on vexed issues is an ongoing process which will go on between India and Bangladesh. I am sure we will continue working on an agreement on Teesta and Feni too," he said on an optimistic note.

The Bangladesh administration is probably pinning its hopes on the Indian government finding a way around Banerjee's objections about the Teesta agreement.

Neither wants to jeopardise the cosy relationship they are currently enjoying; bilateral ties have not been this warm since India helped Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) win its freedom from Pakistan (then West Pakistan) in 1971.

Dr Singh underlined the inextricably linked destinies of the two nations at a banquet held in his honour by Sheikh Hasina later in the evening.

"There are few countries in the world whose destinies are so interlinked than ours.  We are people of the same region.  We share the same religious beliefs, language, customs and aspirations," he stated.

Incidentally, at the same banquet, Sheikh Hasina stated that the two nations had "reached an understanding" on sharing the waters of Teesta and Feni. The fine print of the implications of such an "understanding" has been left unsaid.

Despite the Teesta setback, the relationship between India and Bangladesh will continue to be on the upswing, thanks to the many areas of mutual interest and benefits.

Earlier in the day, Bangladesh premier Sheikh Hasina summed up the current state of affairs between the two nations in her brief speech.

"We have come a long way towards successfully materialising our common vision into reality. But we still have a long way to go," she observed accurately.


Sanchari Bhattacharya in Dhaka