Sunday, June 14, 2009
Political strategising against Tipaimukh Dam
Sunday, June 14, 2009
A.J.M. Shafiul Alam Bhuiyan
THE Daily Star ran a comprehensive story on Thursday discussing how the Indian plan to build a dam on a river, shared by Bangladesh and India, would create havoc in the environment and agriculture in the Sylhet region of Bangladesh. As a student of international communication, I am wondering how to devise political strategies to face this.
The Farakka barrage, which India built on another common river -- the Ganges -- in the mid-1970s, had both environmental and political consequence on Bangladesh. It contributed to desertification in the northern part of the country and to the rise of right-wing politics that capitalises on people's religious sentiment and India's indifference to our legitimate concerns.
India's current plan to build a dam at Tipaimukh in its Mizoram state to produce electricity will bring environmental havoc to both Mizoram and Bangladesh. It may become another Farakka, both environmentally and politically. If the government fails to stand up to India on this, it may help the rightwing coalition led by the BNP to make a comeback.
The prime minister has suggested sending an all-party team to visit the dam site for an on-site inquiry to know the situation there. It is an important step in the right direction, but it is not enough. The government should also think about creating an expert committee to do a scientific study to understand how the proposed dam would impact the environment and agriculture in the adjacent areas.
Past experience of our dealings with India on various issues, from trading to water-sharing, suggests that we have always been under-prepared. Our political leadership, in both the secularist camp and the rightwing, has been naïve about the seriousness of the issues. And in many cases, our negotiators were not prepared with facts and documents to establish our position.
To make your case in any negotiation, especially in international ones, you have to be well prepared. You can take it for granted that the negotiators from other countries will be thoroughly prepared. If you are not prepared with convincing evidence in support of your claims, nobody in the international arena will listen to you. Small states like Bangladesh need to be more prepared than anyone else to offset the influence of big states in international politics.
The all-party political team, which the prime minister intends to create, could come up with political strategies to deal with this issue, while the expert body could conduct rigorous studies to assess the outcome of the proposed dam to help our negotiators with evidence. One political strategy may be to build solidarity with the people of Mizoram and civil society groups who are on the front-line against the dam.
The Tipaimukh dam is neither an AL issue nor a BNP issue; it is a national problem. The actions of the BNP-led coalition on Indo-Bangla relationship issues have always been targeted to weaken the AL, labeling the latter as pro-India, instead of standing up to India. This strategy of the BNP-led coalition may have helped them gain political capital, but certainly did not help protect national interest. This time, people deserve to see a change for the sake of the nation.
If you are a realist, you can ask that if an emerging power like India moves along with building the dam, can we really stop them? I say we may fail or succeed. But we cannot know the outcome until we give it a try.
There is no doubt that India is a regional superpower, but we also have an ace up our sleeve. India may be a rising power, but it hardly has any friends in the region. We have been the best friend to them. The present government has taken many significant initiatives to stop anti-Indian elements from using our territories to conduct destructive activities. We need to think about what we are getting in return.
Any study of Indo-Bangla relationship will reveal India's condescending attitude towards us. One big contribution India made was that it helped us get independence from Pakistan, although critics argue that if India did not have a geopolitical interest in severing Pakistan it would be of no help. After that, how did India treat us? India gave us a Farakka and has been preparing to offer another one.
We have a huge trade deficit with India. Indian border guards regularly kill our border forces. The mainstream Indian press hardly pays any attention to these Bangladesh related issues. Nevertheless, I think we want to be thankful for India's help in our liberation war. We are ready to stay as a friendly neighbour, but we also deserve to expect that our friendship does not bring disaster for us.
If India keeps giving us Farakkas, we must rethink our friendship with India. We must rethink our foreign policy. Our policy toward India has been either cold or warm, depending on the parties in power in both Bangladesh and India. But this type of one-dimensional foreign policy is obsolete, given the current political and economic dynamics in the world.
Omni-balancing could be the best strategy for our foreign policy. Small countries in many parts of the world pursue this strategy for protecting their national interests. Omni-balancing suggests that a small country should have equally friendly relationships with all the regional powers so that it could play one power against the other whenever necessary.
We already have the foundation for omni-balancing. It is now up to the AL government to decide whether it will pursue that path or not. The Tipaimukh dam presents a historic opportunity to the AL to further strengthen its image as a people's party by standing up to India. The foreign minister as the top diplomat of the country can take the lead. If the AL fails to seize this opportunity, the BNP-led coalition will reemerge as the protector of the national interest through anti-government demonstrations.
A.J.M. Shafiul Alam Bhuiyan is a faculty member in the Department of Mass Communication and Journalism at the University of Dhaka. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.