On Tipaimukh 1
In a political adda recently, a friend (and a fellow blogger) said: all this is true bhai, but who would have thought on 23 Feb what would happen in the following 72 hours? True, political prediction is a mug’s game. Forget about the truly ‘black swan’ events like Pilkhana. It is hard to predict what issues might dominate a few month’s hence in normal political circumstances.
Take Tipaimukh for example. Where was this issue during the election campaign? And yet, it is perhaps the single biggest issue dominating Dhaka’s chattering circuit these days. Indeed, this blogger has been asked by some readers: why radio silence over this issue?
The most important reason for not writing about it is because I didn’t know much about it. And frankly, I am not all that wiser now. But I do have some thoughts. I’ll note two here. Two more will be in a sequel post.
- While it’s not really clear what the environmental impact will be, as a downstream country, we will be affected.
- India isn’t being a good neighbour, and won’t be a good neighbour unless we act.
Detail over the flap. A discussion is welcome.
1. What is the problem?
It’s a hydro-electricity project that will create an artificial lake, displace villagers, and hurt the eco-system in the Indian state of Manipur.
India has a rich tradition of dam/electricity vs villagers/environment debate, and it seems there is a strong grass root movement against the dam in Manipur. I have no particular expertise to take a position on that debate, and leave it to better qualified.
The pertinent question for us is, how does the dam affect us?
After several weeks of net browsing, I must say I am still lost about exactly what the answer is.
It is in a seismic zone, and a large enough earthquake can wrought severe damage. On the other hand, engineers say you can build a dam that takes into account the risk of an earthquake. It is going to divert water from our rivers. But will divert water in the monsoon or dry season? Different experts seem to say different things.
One thing that seems pretty clear is that as a downstream country, we will be affected. This interview of Ainun Nishat is the most comprehensive that I have read.
And this takes us to the next point.
2. India isn’t meeting international obligations.
Contrary to a recent speech by the Indian High Commissioner, India does have specific obligations to inform us on developments affecting shared rivers. This is argued pretty convincingly by Asif Nazrul here (and Ainun Nishat also makes similar points).
So, why is India ignoring its obligations?
I don’t think it is particularly so much as anything malicious against Bangladesh. I think it is more out of apathy/indiffference towards our concern. And the indifference is born out of ignorance and arrogance.
Let me explain.
This is the result of googling ‘Tipaimukh Indian newspaper’. It is pretty clear that no major Indian newspaper considers the issue worthy of headline news. This issue simply doesn’t register in the corridors of power in India. They have decided to build a dam, who cares what happens in Bangladesh.
And the arrogance is exhibited in the attitude the Indian HC displayed in the much discussed speech — his point seemed to be like the diplomatic version of ‘you can’t avoid it, so may as well lie back and enjoy’!
What can we do about it?
We can make a lot of noise, of course. But here one has to be pretty careful about exactly what noise we make. A lot of gung ho street protests with fiery rhetoric about shedding bloods will be heard. But there is a risk that it will be interpreted as political instability in Bangladesh. In fact, there is every likelihood that some in the Indian media, with their own particular axes to grind about Bangladesh, will portray the issue not as one where there is a genuine Bangladeshi national concern but as a partisan affair, or worse, one based on communal politics of the past.
Therefore, if the objective is to actually affect Indian policymakers’ decision, long marches with fiery rhetoric may well be singularly counterproductive.
There is, however, a different approach. India itself is downstream from rivers originating in China, and is vulnerable to the same practice that it is inflicting on us. India can be reminded of this politely, but firmly. And if the bilateral effort doesn’t go far, this must be raised at multilateral fora.
We have done this in the past. Strong diplomacy — by the last AL government, and before that by Pres Zia — did make the Indians move. No reason why it can’t happen now.