It was not until when Prime Minister of Bangladesh Sheikh Hasina formed the government in 1996, the relations with India took a dramatic upturn and the Ganges Water Sharing Agreement was agreed upon in 1996 for 30 years.
The expiry of the 1996 Ganges Water Agreement will take place in 2026, that is after 7 years. The Ganges (known as Padma in Bangladesh) is the largest river of the country.
I recall that I argued as a Director-General of the Foreign Ministry our case of rightful share of waters of the Ganges before the Indian delegations in the 70s and 80s and for the first time a consensus text of an Agreement was adopted in 1976 upon the pressure exercised on India by the UN . Bangladesh had to raise the issue at the UN as the country confronted a grave crisis due to shortage of water in the mighty Padma in winter season.
Thereafter, the Ganges Water Agreement was signed at a Ministerial level on in Dhaka on 5th November 1977 for five years. This Agreement was incorporated in the UN Treaty Series (1977) of the UN. The Agreement was adopted after critical talks between the then Defence Minister of India, Jagjivan Ram and the President Zia.
To look back, in my view, there were two times when challenges to the Bangladesh foreign policy took place. One was after the assassination of Father of the Nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on 15th August 1975 and another occurred after the killing of General Zia, the former President, on 30th May 1977.
After 1982, in the absence of any Agreement, the diversion of the waters of the Ganges continued by India one of the adverse effects was the rise of salinity in the southwestern districts in Bangladesh. The ground water level was reduced to only 4.25m compared to the earlier height of 6.7m. It was natural disaster of farmers and users of rivers as they were dying in the country.
Thereafter, Begum Zia’s government came. Subsequently Sheikh Hasina became Prime Minister replacing Begum Khaleds Zia. Sheikh Hasina regained power in 2009 as Prime Minister and she visited India on 10-14 January 2010. A new comprehensive relationship was dawned and saw many mutually cooperative agreements. The policy was realistic and good.
It may be pointed out that many people misinterpret the term “sharing of waters of the Ganges river” meaning that the sharing of waters of the rivers of the Ganges occurs but actually what occurs is that the waters of the Ganges are “shared” whatever waters reach to Bangladesh’s border from India. That means India has a freehand to withdraw waters extensively of the upstream of the Ganges in India, reaching only a small amount at the border of Bangladesh.
Another issue is that there have been complaints in Bangladesh that water does not reach the allocated amount from India as agreed. To resolve the issue, a “Guantanee Clause” must be inserted in the Agreement so that some fixed allocated amount of waters, must be provided to Bangladesh by India.
It is worth taking note that the relations between India and Bangladesh could not have commenced better. With such a good start, everyone in Bangladesh believed that relations between the two countries would be eternally peaceful and mutually supportive.
In my personal opinion, many Indian leaders and bureaucrats appear to have failed to perceive the psyche of Bangladeshis and were often insensitive in their dealings with Bangladesh’s concerns. Beneath a genuine amicability and tolerance, the people of Bangladesh have always maintained a keen sense of their own pride and independence from the influence as far as possible with other larger neighbours or countries.
Finally Bangladesh admires the rising geo-political power of India but at the same time Bangladesh is uncertain about its own status within the domain of India’s power. Some say that Bangladesh is sleeping similar to when an individual sleeps beside an elephant. However the tempered the beast is, one cannot ignore the twitch and grunt of the elephant. Furthermore it is imperative that extensive research and assessment of the regional and global are thought out carefully and Bangladesh cannot afford to act on the basis of knee-jerk reaction to a situation.
Barrister Harun ur Rashid, Former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN. Geneva.