Friday, August 21, 2009

Navigate, revive and thrive

Z. A. Khan

THE Bangladesh parliamentary delegation that went to visit Tipaimukh Dam site to obtain first hand information has apparently come back without much success. Our nation is not surprised about the outcome. An opinion poll held by The Daily Star last week about whether India would extend any worthwhile cooperation to the delegation, more than 80% respondents opined that it would not.

Although the delegation claims that it got some valuable information, which substantiates India's position that construction of this dam will not affect Bangladesh in any way, the people are not inclined to believe the delegation's claim of India's positive assurances.

Taking a cue from India's non-adherence to certain aspects of the instrument of understanding between Bangladesh and India pertaining to water sharing from the Farrakka Barrage, this time too they fear a repeat of the attitude shown in the past by India.

The people feel that our leaders, both in the government and in the opposition, should find ways to resolve the vexed issue so that our fragile relationship with India does not slide any further. In the days of "mouse click civilisation" speed is of the essence in any conflict resolution. If Tipaimukh is not dealt with in earnest by the parties involved, it may put the two neighbours on a collision course that is likely to create impediments in our march for development.

There are 55 rivers and rivulets that flow from India to the Bay of Bengal through our country. We have learnt that our neighbour has already constructed dams on the upstream of 54 of them. The Farakka experience has terrified the population living on the Meghna basin about the possible effects of the Tipaimukh dam. Any tampering with the flow of these water sources will affect Bangadesh a great deal.

Bangladesh, being a lower riparian country, bears the brunt of the natural vagaries caused by rains and flooding. The turning of the Ganges into a desert because of Farrakka may have given us football grounds (a recent photograph in The Daily Star is a proof in point), but it has deprived the area of a waterway that helped agriculture and communication aplenty.

The horrendous experience of the Farrakka Barrage has made our nation apprehensive about the extent of damage that Tipaimukh dam may cause. So both India and Bangladesh should demonstrate eagerness to engage in a genuine dialogue to resolve this critical issue to the satisfaction of all the stakeholders.

We wasted a lot of time in deciding on the composition of the delegation, which was rejected by the opposition on the ground that no expert had been included. They suggested a few names, which were unacceptable to the government. Finally, our delegation went to visit Tipaimukh dam site without any member from the opposition.

As ill luck would have it, the delegation made two attempts to visit the site, which were aborted by nature. The delegation, on its return, informed the nation that it had received some documents that show that the Meghna basin is not threatened with desertification and bio-degradation. The delegation also informed the nation that India had made a firm commitment that the construction of the dam would not affect water sharing in both the wet and the dry season.

People find it intriguing as to why the relevant details made available by India were not made public initially, and why the delegation did not land at the site when they could see it while hovering over it in a helicopter? They allege that our government is not demonstrating firmness in seeking assurances from India that the dam will not affect our economy and environment. This has provided people outside the government with an opportunity to blame the government, terming the entire exercise as a failure. Let us not forget that this is a top priority national issue.

To my understanding, both the government and the opposition should work hand-in-gloves to find a common solution, which should strengthen the dialoguers of our side to press home our demand. The water resource ministry should immediately arrange a broad-based conference of experts to deliberate on the viability of the suggestions put forward by India, and short list an agenda by according priority for further discussions in the immediate future.

Let us form an international body of experts to determine whether the dam, if constructed at the selected site, will have any adverse affect on our people's lives or retard our development -- or neither. If this is not considered in due haste, it might snowball into a massive movement which may not augur well for the government. Let us choose time to save time.

My intention is not to censure anybody. I only want to remind us about what Lord Buddha said in this perspective, which is: "Right view, right speech, right action, right mindfulness and right contemplation are sinews of a full life (successful life)." To this, I would add that these virtues should be founded on compromise and barter when it comes to dealing with problems involving nations.

Any delay in ensuring a national consensus about the modus operandi to handle this issue with India may subject our nation to gallows humour. If the government remains stubborn about not including experts suggested by the opposition it will drive a wedge between the two, which will imperil development of politics of understanding, which is essential for democracy.

The nation deserves to be correctly navigated by the leadership so that we are led towards peace. Our hopes of living among greenery should be revived by demonstration of genuine efforts to arrive at a conclusion that assures the lower riparian nation that it would not be deprived of the quantum of water needed. Only thus we can thrive to enjoy the fruits of democracy and development, the prime mover of our motivation to fight for independence.

Let us be reassured that our rights to life and property will remain the chief concern of our political leadership, both in the government and in the opposition. As of now, we feel shaken at the thought that a large chunk of our productive territory will be engulfed by water if we do not face the challenge thrown by India's decision to build the dam on the upstream of the Borak river.

(Z.A. Khan is a former Director General of Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies)


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