Where Water Is Not Their Own

India's grip on rivers upstream worsens its ties with water-short Bangladesh

AS Bangladesh celebrated the 25th anniversary of its declaration of independence yesterday, only one issue transcended the country's otherwise intractable political crisis - water.

That water should unite this flat and flood-prone country may come as no surprise. The ability of neighboring India to control the flow of the country's second-largest river, the Padma, dominates every aspect of their bilateral relationship, from transit rights to combating cross-border insurgency.

By contrast Bangladesh's relations with Burma, with which it shares a short and mountainous border, are cordial despite the unresolved problem of resettling thousands of Muslim refugees who crossed into Bangladesh five years ago following a Burmese Army crackdown.

The controversy over water sharing has transformed Bangladesh's image of India from that of liberator to exploiter.

When Bangladesh (then called East Pakistan) declared its independence from what was then West Pakistan in March 1971, India, which separated the two halves of the country, extended support to Bangladesh's freedom fighters, who were massively outnumbered by the Pakistani Army.

With millions of Bangladeshis dying in the antisecessionist crackdown and streaming across the border as refugees, public opinion in India grew increasingly in favor of direct military intervention. Finally in December 1971, the Indian Army launched a massive offensive, and in 10 days defeated Pakistan's Army.

Despite its role in the birth of Bangladesh, India today finds itself despised by the people it once sheltered and supported. The Treaty of Friendship, under which India agreed to protect Bangladesh's sovereignty, is now repeatedly used by the ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) to undermine the credentials of the opposition Awami League, which signed the treaty in 1972.

Desperate to shore up her own position, the Awami League's president, Sheikh Hasina, recently pledged that if elected she would also abolish the ''slavery'' treaty, which most observers agree is now irrelevant.

''It is a psychological thing. Any treaty with India was seen as a sellout,'' says George Verghese of the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi. ''So the Awami League has tried to trump the BNP by being even more anti-Indian. But they risk becoming a captive of their own rhetoric.''

While Bangladesh's perception of being militarily and economically dominated by its giant neighbor contributes to feelings of insecurity, the most contentious issue by far is water. Ninety-five percent of Bangladesh's rivers flow through India before they reach it.

''First of all there is the [feeling] of being surrounded by a big, powerful neighbor. But the real problem is India's absolute, shortsighted, intransigent behavior about the water,'' says Mafhuz Anam, editor of the Dhaka-based Daily Star newspaper.

''You stop the water supply and you're talking about the total dislocation of the livelihood of the people. It's an issue that is related to food, it's related to crops, it's related to survival,'' Mr. Anam says.

The dispute goes back to 1974 when India commissioned the Farakka Barrage, just a few miles from the Bangladeshi border. The barrage diverts water from the Ganges, allowing less water to reach Bangladesh.

An agreement was reached in 1977 to let Bangladesh receive 34,000 cubit feet per second of water. But this was not renewed after 1988, and Bangladesh has accused India of greatly reducing the flow of the Padma (as the Ganges is known in Bangladesh).

Bangladesh claims that the low water level is increasing salinity in the Padma River basin and is affecting the livelihood of 35 million people unable to draw water for irrigation.

''Both Bangladesh and India have adopted exaggerated stances on Farakka and have got bogged down in a sterile debate,'' says Mr. Verghese, who believes India should trade water for transit rights to its northeastern states, particularly as Calcutta's port is being replaced by a more modern facility closer to the sea.

Ever since the Indian subcontinent was partitioned into Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan, India's northeast has been cut off from the rest of the country except for a 20-mile-wide corridor of land sandwiched between Bangladesh and Nepal.

Instead of being able to transport their goods through Chittagong, the region's traditional entrepot, Indian traders are forced to use the land route to Calcutta's already overburdened port.

''Both India and Bangladesh have lost markets because of the absence of transit rights,'' says Verghese, who believes that the economic development and cooperation that flow from transit rights would help stem other bilateral problems such as their cross-border insurgency and illegal immigration.

The lack of economic opportunities inside overcrowded and impoverished Bangladesh has forced millions of illegal migrants across the border into northeastern India where their numbers have fuelled resentment among local residents. This resentment has often spilled over into armed insurgency in the northeast.

India has repeatedly accused Bangladesh of giving sanctuary to insurgents or turning a blind eye to the activities of Pakistani intelligence agencies, who are believed to be channeling arms and money to independence movements in India's northeast.

Bangladesh accuses India of sheltering members of the Shanti Bahini, a militant group made up of Buddhist Chakma rebels based in the Chittagong Hills. India is home to thousands of Chakma refugees, whose repatriation is just one more irritant in an already acrimonious relationship.

According to S.D. Muni of New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University, future ties between the two countries will depend largely on how the political crisis in Bangladesh sorts itself out. ''It is true with all the South Asian neighbors, including Bangladesh: The weaker the government, the more adversarial a stance it will take with India,'' Mr. Muni says.

With political passions in Bangladesh rising almost daily and the two main parties targeting India in their respective campaigns, the prospect of a thaw in relations appears slim.

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