New Delhi: Assuaging Bangladesh’s concerns, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar Thursday said India’s position on sharing Teesta River water “hasn’t changed”, and that Dhaka and New Delhi now have “high” comfort levels on all aspects of the bilateral relationship.
Jaishankar was on a hurricane tour to Bangladesh, which spanned less than 24 hours, to pave the way for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Dhaka on 26-27 March, his first in-person foreign trip after the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Apart from his meeting with Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen, Jaishankar also met Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina before returning to New Delhi.
Speaking in Dhaka alongside Momen, Jaishankar said that “our (India and Bangladesh) comfort levels are so high” that there is no issue “we cannot discuss and resolve amicably”.
On the contentious issue of river water sharing between India and Bangladesh, Jaishankar said the matter was discussed between both sides, especially that of the Teesta river. He reiterated that India remains committed to sharing all river waters with Bangladesh.
“We did discuss it… Government of India’s position hasn’t changed (on Teesta River water sharing),” Jaishankar said at a press conference in Dhaka, adding that water secretaries from both sides would be meeting soon to discuss the matter in greater details.
Dhaka wants 50 per cent share of Teesta’s water for the December-March period as the flow of the river to Bangladesh becomes lean during that time. The Indian government, both under PM Modi and his predecessor Manmohan Singh, had assured Dhaka of sharing river waters that crisscross both countries.
During his visit to Dhaka in 2015, Modi had committed that the matter would be resolved soon and a river water sharing mechanism would be put in place. There has, however, not been any progress since then, much to Dhaka’s discomfort.
The issue has, however, become contentious as water is a state subject and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has always opposed the move to share Teesta water with Dhaka.
The Teesta river flows through Sikkim and then enters West Bengal before finally merging with the Brahmaputra in Assam and the Jamuna in Bangladesh.
During their last virtual summit in December 2020, Prime Minister Hasina had raised the matter with Modi as it has become a hugely contentious issue in Dhaka’s domestic politics as well.
Bangladesh also urged India for an early conclusion of the Framework of Interim Agreement on sharing of waters of six other joint rivers — Manu, Muhuri, Khowai, Gumti, Dharla and Dudhkumar.
An agreement, readied in 2011 after then PM Manmohan Singh promised that the dispute over river water sharing would be resolved soon, is still waiting to be signed. Stiff resistance from the West Bengal government resulted in the deal not being signed.
Meanwhile, Momen said preparations for the visit of PM Modi to Bangladesh at the end of this month has been a “key element of our discussions”.
Modi was scheduled to visit Dhaka in March 2020 on the occasion of the centenary celebration of Mujibur Rahman, Bangladesh’s ‘Father of the Nation’ and its first president. Bangladesh launched a year-long celebration, referring to it as ‘Mujib Borsho’ or Mujib Year.
“We are very pleased that Prime Minister Modi will join us for the Mujib Borsho celebrations as well as the Golden Jubilee of Bangladesh’s independence and 50 years of Bangladesh-India diplomatic relations. This is a landmark year for our two countries. We discussed some of the important activities that we plan to undertake jointly to celebrate these historic occasions,” Momen said.
‘Connectivity is key’
According to Jaishankar, connectivity is key in taking the bilateral ties between New Delhi and Dhaka to the next level.
“If we can get connectivity right between India and Bangladesh, I can tell you the entire logistics, the whole geo-economics of the region will change. Bay of Bengal will look very different,” he said.
He added that connectivity can be enhanced to a greater extent by bringing in countries such as Japan, which is involved in projects in the Bay of Bengal. India is also involved in several connectivity-related projects in Bangladesh.
‘No crime, no death’ border
According to Jaishankar, since border killings between India and Bangladesh have become a major issue, both sides are now looking to have an arrangement in which it will aim at having a “no crime, no death” border.
“Look, every death is regrettable. But we also have to ask ourselves why there is a problem and we know the problem. The problem is because of crime. So our shared objectives should be a ‘no crime, no death’ border,” he said in Dhaka.
The issue was also discussed during the visit of Bangladesh Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen to India in January this year during which the issue of better border management was also raised with Foreign Secretary Harsh V. Shringla.
This is aimed at reducing the killing of Border Security Force (BSF) or Border Guards Bangladesh (BGB) personnel. In October 2019, a BSF constable was allegedly shot dead and another was critically injured after their patrol boat came under fire from the BGB.
Jaishankar further said Bangladesh has been the biggest recipient of Covid-19 vaccines from India compared to other countries.
“There are still about 130-135 countries in the world that have not got Covid vaccines. But there is a friend India… We have such a rock-solid relationship that we got the vaccines, we should be happy and we are very happy he (Jaishankar) is here,” Abdul Momen said.
Bangladesh obtained 9 million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine produced by Pune-based Serum Institute of India, including 2 million doses that India gifted Dhaka as a goodwill gesture.
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