India’s look-east policy facing headwinds

Even a cursory look at the Indian map will confirm that by helping Bangladesh to deepen the Teesta river channel, China will establish a permanent physical presence in the politically sensitive North Bengal/NE region.

Of late, India has embarked on a damage-control mission to improve relations with Bangladesh, following the recent visit to Dhaka by Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla.  Photo: PTI File

Trust India to rub up even time-tested allies in South Asia like Bangladesh the wrong way -after Nepal!

Dhaka’s willingness to accept Chinese help in its efforts to resolve the contentious Teesta water sharing issue, bypassing India, might have raised a few hackles in India. But Delhi-based policymakers should appreciate that India had it coming. The Chinese offer of a comprehensive $300 million package to revive the downstream Teesta river should serve as a wake-up call, a salutary warning: just because a smaller regional neighbour happens to be more accommodative of Indian interests in South Asia region does not give the bigger country an automatic right to treat it as a poor relation time and again.

Dealing specifically with China’s new-found interest in the Teesta water-sharing scheme, India may end up losing much more than it has bargained for. It has been hit where it hurts the most. Several media reports have expressed concern over Chinese footprint in the sensitive North Bengal/North Bangladesh region, as long-term, mostly negative security implications come into play. The area is perilously close to the narrow 20-km wide Siliguri corridor (Chicken’s neck), the tenuous mainland link with the north-eastern states.

As even a cursory look at the Indian map will confirm that by helping Bangladesh to deepen the Teesta river channel, China will establish a permanent physical presence in the politically sensitive North Bengal/NE region. On the anvil is an ambitious river deepening project, along with irrigation schemes and other designed to rev up the local rural economy.

In the pattern of similar Chinese infra projects elsewhere, an army of Chinese labourers, technicians, engineers and ‘experts’ in various other disciplines will set up camps and offices. Their work over the next few years may lead to unforeseen environmental issues, as had happened with the proposed Myitsone dam project in Myanmar.

Over the years, India has painstakingly built up a major military infrastructure including new highways/border roads/cantonments and airfields in this area.

But there have also been several instances of suspected ISI spies arrested from the north Bengal from whom documents relating to army postings and movements were recovered. Once, former Prime Minister the late Jawaharlal Nehru had described Kalimpong as the spy capital of the region.

From Nepal to North Bengal, evidence has been found of masjids and even Buddhist  monasteries being used for intelligence purposes by Pakistan and China. If the proposed $300-million Teesta reclamation scheme goes ahead, the Chinese will be able to have their own intelligence hub, if not a functional base, close to the heartland of India’s relatively undermanned, sensitive NE region.

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As for Pakistan, the ISI can now rest happy, their new Chinese overlords will do the hard work for them.

In this context, India’s Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar’s recent comments (September 16 in Delhi) about India and Japan planning to launch joint infra and other development projects in Bangladesh and Myanmar, come a bit late. Of late, India has embarked on a damage-control mission to improve relations with Bangladesh, following the recent visit to Dhaka by Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla.

Reports say that Dhaka complained about India’s unilateral banning of onion exports, which led to high prices during the post-COVID period, hitting Bangladeshis hard.

The Corona-imposed restrictions and the attendant price rise was a double whammy for Bangladesh. An estimated 10.5 million people are currently without jobs in  Bangladesh. The government was compelled to import onion from Pakistan and Myanmar, before India called off its ban, which was announced without warning to Dhaka!

There are good reasons for India’s apparent oversight in not keeping Bangladesh posted about the onion exports ban. Prices were rising in India as well. More importantly, its long, hostile engagement with the Chinese army along the Himalayan borders was indeed a major security concern. Presumably, Dhaka also kept its reaction low- key, understanding India’s position, not protesting too much.

As it has been said in these columns before, China has been looking for ways to upstage India to its East, by offering to join development projects, to exercise an element of control over its economy. Its deeper pockets and Dhaka’s enthusiastic participation in the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), of which the BCIM highways linkage is a part, go to Beijing’s advantage.

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In contrast, India’s response, especially to the proposed final linkage of Kunming to Kolkata via North Bengal through Bangladesh and Myanmar, has alternated between the tentative to the negative.

While not saying ‘No’ to the project, Delhi never co-operated with its other neighbours over BCIM matters, to the surprise of Bangladesh and Myanmar.

Instead, India pushed ahead with its own BBIN initiative, as an obvious counter to China. But much to India’s embarrassment, Bhutan opted out of the BBIN, fearing a virtual takeover by hordes of tourists and vehicles from its neighbours, which could pose a long-term problem for its own citizens, their quiet traditional way of life and culture. Now, it remains to be seen how Nepal, currently being led by K.P. Oli as its Prime Minister, reacts to the BBIN.

Such glitches do not go down well with either Bangladesh and Myanmar. Both countries seek an easier, seamless access to the vast Indian market, as does Beijing. On its part, Bangladesh had allowed India its long-sought rail, road, and waterways transit rights overriding security concerns expressed by its homegrown Islamic extremists. The arrangement is working well for both countries so far. New road linkages allow Bangladeshis to access Nepal and Bhutan and vice versa by road. Rail linkages have seen the movement of bulk goods from Hyderabad to Bangladesh and by the sea route, Dhaka plans to use the ports of Vizag and Chennai in addition to the facilities on offer in Kolkata/Haldia.

What has hurt Bangladeshi sentiments deeply was the cavalier manner of India ignoring its desperate demands for a steady supply of downstream water from the Teesta river. A  near-drought situation prevails in parts of northern Bangladesh districts in the dry season. Both agriculture and fishing suffer heavily. Most people in Bangladesh resent the obstructionist role played by West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. She steadfastly refused to release more water for Bangladesh pleading that there was not much to spare for North Bengal.

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Her plea was that thanks to the major hydropower projects of Sikkim, there was barely a trickle of water reaching North Bengal in spring/summer seasons. But Bangladesh, on the other hand, pressed for a Farakka-type water-sharing solution, rightfully claiming its downstream share of international river water.

Ms. Banerjee has been opposing any proposed supply to Bangladesh from 2012 onwards. In all these years, neither Dr. Manmohan Singh as the serving UPA Prime Minister nor Narendra Modi as the NDA Prime Minister have made any headway in persuading Ms Banerjee. All they did was to assure Bangladesh that eventually ‘the matter would be resolved through negotiations.’

In Bangladesh, there is a strong impression that Sheikh Hasina, the Prime Minister of a sovereign Independent country of 160 million people, cannot ensure even their daily water for the citizens she serves, because of the larger, more powerful neighbour. Hasina apparently ranks lower than the chief Minister of an Indian state, in Delhi’s calculations, apparently, suggests a Bangladeshi analyst in his column.

While all his colleagues are not as aggressive, others point out that all countries are guided by their own self-interest. Bangladesh has very good relations with India, US, Japan and China. Yet, none have helped in solving the Rohingya problem. Bangladesh remains friendless and must have its own foreign policy, not remain dependant on others.

Regarding the Jaishankar proposal for India and Japan to sponsor projects jointly, the Dhaka-based media reaction has been equally revealing. Reacting to the implicitly patronizing approach of the idea, analysts say there is no reason for Bangladesh to lease out to India the development of its bilateral ties with Japan. As things stand, both Japan and China have invested substantially in ongoing infra and other projects in Bangladesh, no thanks to Delhi.

Which is why recent reassertions from Indian MEA officials insisting that talks would be held on the Teesta water-sharing issue, do not mean very much. Dhaka, having waited since 2012 on the matter, may not want to listen to Delhi and offend Beijing.