Bangladesh will have taken another stride along the road to national self-assurance after the landmark Ganga Treaty and the Chittagong Hills Tract Accord with the scheduled inauguration of the Jamuna Bridge at Sirajganj on June 23. The country received more than its stipulated share of lean season flows under the Ganga Treaty between January and May 1998. But little of this reached its problem southwest (Khulna) region as the outfall of the Gorai, which supplies this area, closed by mid-February. A silt plug that has formed over the preceding half century seals this channel as the level of the Ganga falls below that threshold.
An inception report has just been completed by the Water Resources Planning Organisation which lists certain studies before donors are willing to fund a feasibility report for a proposed Ganges Barrage at Pangsha that will divert flows into the Gorai. These studies will be completed by the end of 1999. Meanwhile, an interim solution with Dutch assistance envisages dredging the Gorai hump over two seasons to facilitate some minimal flows. Dredging should commence in October.
The Ganga Treaty has opened the door for discussions on all other common rivers. These are under way, with joint cooperation on the Teesta taking priority.
A third major national achievement has been the Chittagong Hills Accord, granting local autonomy to the hill tribes and enabling 55,000 Chakma refugees in Tripura to return home. However, Opposition leader Begum Khaleda Zia led a "long march" by motorcade from Dhaka to the Hill Tracts, denouncing the accord as a sellout to India, violative of the Constitution and a derogation of sovereignty.
The Indian bogey has sadly come to be institutionalised in Bangladesh politics even as Northeast insurgents still find comfort in that country. Rather than be overly upset by such diversions, India should continue to seek mutual understanding and cooperation in the long-term interest of both sides.
The CHT Peace Agreement entered into with the Parbatya Chattagram Jana Sang-hati Samity recognises a CHT tribal identity within a common Bangladeshi citizenship while upholding the rights of all sections of the people. It amends the 1989 Rangamati, Bandarban and Khagrachhari parishad (district) council acts to widen the ambit of local self-government. These bodies will in turn indirectly elect a CHT regional council of 22 members under a tribal chairman with ministerial status.Two-thirds of all elective members shall be tribal, with three seats reserved for women. Permanent non-tribals will be so certified by the local councils.
The district council will have powers of local recruitment and taxation and will administer a list of transferred subjects largely bearing on development, land and customary law. The regional council will additionally supervise law and order and licence "heavy industry". The Bangladesh government's responsibility extends to the rehabilitation of displaced persons, grant of amnesty to erstwhile militants, distribution of land to landless tribals, disposal of land disputes through a land commission and withdrawal of security forces to their permanent locations. It is also pledged to make available additional resources for infrastructure and other projects in the region. Finally, a Ministry of CHT Affairs will be established under a tribal minister, with an advisory committee.
The regional council is to function within a defined framework of rules under the Constitution. This does not make the CHT a province. Further, the government may give the parishads "advice and (issue) regulatory directives". Prevention of tribal land alienation and affirmative action in favour of tribals are not violative of fundamental rights. Democratic societies typically protect minority rights. Nevertheless, the very novelty of the situation and its historical roots make this a complex and sensitive issue that must be handled with care.
Legitimate Bengali settler rights are guaranteed. The resettlement and rehabilitation of the Chakma militants and refugees alike will not be easy. The former may need to be trained for gainful employment. Since the cultivable area is limited, ecologically suitable plantation crops and non-land related employment in agro-processing, industry or the service sector must be generated to consolidate the peace.
Since India faces similar problems next door, there is room for fruitful cross-border cooperation in the Tripura, Mizoram, CHT, Chittagong mini-quadrant which shares a common ethno-cultural, agro-climatic and geo-political background. Old country-specific and ethnic antagonisms can be overcome in new opportunities for mutual advancement. The Karnafuili and Feni rivers have traditionally linked Mizoram and Tripura to the sea, with Chittagong serving as an entrepot to all of India's Northeast. The upgradation and development of requisite Bangladeshi infrastructure by way of road and rail links, inland waterways, deep water ports, industries and processing units that enjoy minimal economies of scale, and related servicing facilities requires investments that both can share.
Chittagong is well sited to become a major regional port and hub at the head of the Bay and able to attract national and international investment. But this will happen only if it has a larger hinterland opening into larger markets. The mini-quadrant will provide an integral link with the Northeast, Myanmar and beyond, while its ability to serve as a mother port will link it with heartland India.Mizoram, Tripura and even Manipur and Cachar would in turn find a market in Bangladesh and, through it, with the rest of India.
The larger economic opportunities such a quadrant might provide would help consolidate the peace in CHT as much as in Tripura and Mizoram, provide ethnic comfort to hitherto estranged groups and strengthen Indo-Bangladesh ties. The Jamuna Bridge would be an obvious nodal crossing for an Asian highway and railway of the future. Even now, a large 1.2 to 2.4 m tonne cement plant in Sylhet is reportedly under consideration by an international corporation using Meghalaya/Assam limestone and coal. Hydro and gas grids (extending into Myanmar) have also figured in some discussions.The positive environment generated by the Ganga Treaty and CHT Accord and the opportunities opened up by the Jamuna Bridge and corresponding infrastructural developments on the Indian side, need to be exploited. A joint consultancy for an outline study on the mini-quadrant and the potential of the Jamuna Bridge is a good way for both sides to think ahead.