Saturday, September 17, 2011

Why Bangladesh should matter to us


Most Indians have lost very little sleep over the fact that the prime minister`s visit to Bangladesh was a failure. Given the importance of Bangladesh to India`s well-being, we should have tossed and turned in our beds at what transpired in Dhaka. As it turns out, we slept quite well and continue to do so.

It would be easy enough to blame the prime minister and his team for the failure in Dhaka. Or to blame the chief minister of West Bengal who, bizarrely, at the last moment objected to the river-water agreement that was to be the centrepiece of the summit. However, the deeper cause of the failure in Dhaka is ignorance and public apathy.

We in India have failed to appreciate just how important Bangladesh is to our well-being. There are at least four reasons related to peace and development that make Bangladesh vital for us.

The first reason is that the security of the northeastern states, of eastern India, and of India more widely is affected by what Bangladesh does or does not do. If Dhaka does not cooperate with New Delhi, it is hard to see how India can rein in various insurgent groups that might find refuge in Bangladesh. If, in addition, India cannot get access to the northeast through Bangladesh - even if this only means economic access - it is hard to see how we can integrate those states with the heartland. And if Bangladesh does not remain a stable, open and tolerant country, we in India will have great difficulty in stopping Islamic extremists from flourishing there and from targeting our cities and towns.

The second reason we need to pay relations with Bangladesh much greater attention is that we share rivers with it. India and Bangladesh share over 40 rivers, and these rivers are vital for the livelihood of hundreds of millions of people in both countries. Bangladesh being the lower riparian state is in a weaker position on the use of these rivers. We in India should remember, though, that we are the lower riparian in relation to Bhutan, Nepal and China: if we fail to be sensible and fair over river-water sharing with Bangladesh, we could well find ourselves in an equally hopeless downriver position someday, especially with China.

If Bangladesh does not get enough water (or if it gets too much when the rivers are full), it will face catastrophe. Catastrophe in Bangladesh means instability in India`s northeast, West Bengal, and states further away. Inevitably, severe dislocations in Bangladesh mean refugee and migrant flows into India. Bangladeshis are coming to India anyway for various reasons, and this has already led to tremendous unease in the neighbouring states. Hydrologically-induced catastrophes would enlarge the problem massively.

There is another long-term catastrophe looming for both countries, and this is the third big reason to stay tuned to Bangladesh. India and Bangladesh are amongst the 12 countries that will be most severely affected by climate change. Bangladesh could lose up to 20% of its land as sea levels rise due to climate change. The ensuing turmoil in Bangladesh will inevitably be felt in neighbouring and distant parts of India. The two countries must therefore think about how to cooperate on conservation, alternative energy, and many other related aspects of environmental defence.

Finally, Bangladesh is crucial for India because it represents opportunities and lessons worth learning. In a globalising world where trade counts for so much, Bangladesh is one of our biggest trading partners. Given that it has been growing at over 5% per annum for the past decade and looks set to continue to grow, it is an economic asset. Bangladesh could sell us natural gas, and we could sell it hydropower. Bangladesh is also an exemplar. Its rapidly rising literacy rates (especially amongst women), its steady reduction in birth rates (from a much higher starting point than India), the tremendous advances it has made in basic health (including safe birthing and maternal care); all these put India to shame. If we were not so arrogant, we might learn something from our great neighbour to the east.

In short, Bangladesh matters. If only we could see.

First published in the Times of India, New Delhi, India, September 17, 2011