Sunday, June 21, 2009

Tipaimukh project: all trust and no verification

This committee, largely devoid of opposition members of the parliament, seems all set to enjoy official Indian hospitality, do a bit of sightseeing and perhaps some shopping and come back and grant legitimacy to this project so that India can commence and proceed with the construction
work, writes Omar Khasru

‘TRUST, but verify’, a translation of the Russian proverb ‘doveryai, no proveryai’, was a signature phrase of Ronald Reagan, the two-term (1981-88) popular and admired American president, credited with the demolition of the mighty and once invincible Soviet socialist empire to effectively end the cold war with a thumping US triumph.

Reagan was fond of repeating the Russian adage during the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty negotiations with his Soviet counterpart Mikhail Gorbachev, the last general secretary of the Communist Party of Soviet Union (1985-1991), and also the last head of state of the USSR (from 1988 until its collapse in 1991). Gorbachev proved to be a pliant and accommodating negotiating partner. The current absolute supremacy of the United States as the single dominant superpower is a testimony to that.

The overbearing and Orwellian big brother control freak neighbour, India, cannot be termed as an accommodating, amenable, gracious or even pleasant and responsive negotiating partner by any stretch of fertile and fancy imagination. But the persistent stance and approach of the current Sheikh Hasina government in bilateral dealings, and in resolving bitter and acrimonious disputes, oddly and inexplicably, have been obedient and acquiescent, with the implicit ‘your wish is my command’ submissive and deferential posture. What should be the primary and, perhaps, the sole steadfast and indisputable consideration, the best interest of the country, seems to have taken an insignificant backseat and put in the backburner.

There appears to be an unsavoury competition among assorted ministers and Awami League bigwigs to appease, support and go gaga over the attitude and utterances of Indian government representatives and mouthpieces regarding bilateral conflicts and impending significant and crucial strife, India’s unilateral and arbitrary decision to build a dam on the river Barak at Tipaimukh in Assam, 200 kilometres upstream of the Bangladesh border. There seems no concern or care for the adverse effect on this country, its ecology and environment, survival of animals and plants, water flow in the lean seasons and various other harmful impacts.

The appalling competition to please and praise India at the expense of vital national interests seems to be especially keen among the commerce minister, water resources minister, and shipping and inland transport minister. The alarming and puzzling one-upmanship contest seems to be heading for a photo finish, with other ministers and big shots chiming in. The latest to join the fray has been Abdur Razzak, the current chairman of the parliamentary standing committee on the water resources ministry, and former water resources minister during the earlier 1996-2001 Awami League regime.

This genuflecting deferential policy and posture towards India had started during the last interminable, illegal and unconstitutional caretaker regime. The then foreign affairs adviser claimed that he was launching an irreversible ‘friendship forever’ policy towards India, come what may. A landmark of the policy was the visit of the then army chief Moeen U Ahmed, the virtual and de facto chief of the military-dominated regime with a civilian fa├žade, consisting of a group of subservient and inept advisers. His India trip and the Indian gift of white horses seemed to have provoked an extreme adoration for the neighbouring country with an implicit pledge to preserve and uphold India’s interests on a priority basis. The ostensible Indian backing of the caretaker regime and the apparent support for the army chief might have played a pivotal role in the policy formulation. This government seems to have inherited and carried on with this appeasement mindset.

It was during the tenure of Razzak as the water resources minister in the previous Awami administration that the latest Farakka Barrage Ganges water sharing agreement was signed with plenty of fanfare and hoopla. The rest is history. Bangladesh has never received its legitimate share of water because the water sharing accord was fatally flawed. It lacked a viable, acceptable and unbiased method of resolving India’s unwillingness to release sufficient water during the lean season or put into practice significant portion of the deal.

Razzak was asked back then how, in the absence of any provision for impartial third party arbitration, the two countries would solve the inevitable disagreements and difference of opinion regarding the quantity of water that would flow past the deadly and detrimental Farakka barrage. His glib answer was that he would pick up his VIP telephone and call the Water Resources Minister of India and the row would automatically and magically be solved through mutual conciliation with symbiotic benefits. That unfortunately proved to be cheap talk and pointless blather. Razzak might have called his Indian counterpart on many other things but there is no record that he ever called regarding the chronic shortfall in the agreed amount of water for Bangladesh during the dry season. Even if he did, there is no evidence that India took any compensating measure to alleviate the situation.

Sheikh Hasina, the usually garrulous and strongly opinionated prime minister, has decided largely to keep her mouth shut regarding Tipaimukh. Her only significant comment has been that her regime will decide after the tour of the project site by a parliamentary committee and the resultant recommendations. Some of her ministers and henchmen are matching and even surpassing callous and insensitive comments of Indian High Commissioner, Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty, in denouncing the detractors of the project. Others in the top echelon of the ruling alliance are mostly acting like Gandhi’s three monkeys with the ‘say no evil, hear no evil and see no evil’ viewpoint. This is weird, shocking and puzzling because vital national interests are at stake here.

Now Razzak, as the chairman of the parliamentary standing committee on water resources ministry, is about to lead a fact finding delegation of parliamentarians and experts to Tipaimukh to inspect the controversial project and assess the possible effects on Bangladesh. But his mind seems all made up already and we will be waiting for the last nail on the coffin. He has joined in the chorus with the commerce minister and the others in denouncing the critics of the Tipaimukh project. This committee, largely devoid of opposition members of the parliament, seems all set to enjoy official Indian hospitality, do a bit of sightseeing and perhaps some shopping and come back and grant legitimacy to this project so that India can commence and proceed with the construction work. Razzak had failed the country back then in the Farakka water sharing treaty and he seems all set to fail the country again.

The problem with the upcoming trip is that India so far is yet to handover vital information and documents, feasibility study, pros and cons and other relevant information regarding Tipaimukh project to Bangladesh. There is no clear indication that it will provide the important documents or facts any time soon or ever. So the delegation will be acting and making recommendations based mainly on Indian assurances, promises and rose coloured glasses added to the predetermined ideas and programmed opinions, most of which already seem favourably disposed towards the project.

This is a clear case of proverbial ‘fox guarding the chicken coop.’ It is no wonder that the New Age editorially commented on June 18, 2009 that Tipaimukh team had lost its credibility before inspection. As the editorial points out, there seems to be complete trust in Indian assurance that it would not divert water from the dam, the dam would not harm Bangladesh and that Bangladesh stands to be benefited. This country really should be wary and suspicious of such Indian pledges, especially in the light of past bitter experiences in Farakka and elsewhere. The government big shots seem all trust and, unlike Ronald Reagan, no urge to verify.

The first Awami League regime after independence had granted the permission to India to start the Farakka Barrage on an ‘experimental basis.’ The current Awami League regime seems all set and primed to grant the go-ahead to Tipaimukh project with potential to cause extreme and lasting harm to the Northeastern third of the country just as Farakka did to the Northwestern third. Once fertile Ganges delta now is unable to produce a third of the grains each year. The untold ecological damage and economic harm to the people are evident for all to see. Most experts feel that Tipaimukh project, if completed, will offer a parallel set of impacts and experiences, despite hollow and vacuous ‘assurances’ from India, and brazen cronyism and toadyism by government ministers and party functionaries to the contrary.

Let me end with a quote from the dearly departed Ronald Reagan, ‘Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.’

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