Connecting Regions of Asia.

China Outmanouveres India On Teesta

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China has edged well ahead of India in addressing Bangladesh’s core concerns and offering substantive overall assistance to the smaller country. Bangladesh has formally approached China to participate in its ambitious ‘Teesta River Comprehensive Management and Restoration project’ following India’s failure to implement an in-place water sharing agreement.

Delhi kept Dhaka waiting since 2011 on the issue, deeply offending Bangladeshis and casing a huge embarrassment to the ruling Awami League government.

With China committed to loan Bangladesh $725.4 million for the comprehensive River restoration project, analysts feel it has outmanoeuvred India locationally/strategically, although GOI has in recent years carried out impressive infra projects in its troubled Northeast region. After completing formalities and area surveys, Chinese companies are scheduled to begin preparatory work on the river from 2022.

The Teesta river scheme is part of a new $1.65 billion aid programme finalised between Bangladesh and China. The amount involved in the river restoration project is not much. It pales in comparison with the other mega project China is close to finishing, the massive new $ 1.1 billion new Padma Bridge, which many see as an exalted symbol of a strong, emergent Bangladesh economy.

As for India, its dithering over the Teesta water sharing scheme could well have led to a nightmarish, worst case scenario in terms of its future security concerns in the politically unpredictable Northeast region. In recent Bangladeshi TV panel talks, experts admit that along some stretches of the river and its surroundings, new construction and other related work will be carried out only 30/35 kilometres away from the strategically vulnerable 20-kilomteres wide Siliguri chicken’s neck that tenuously connects the Northeast with India — surely this should add to the worries of Indian defence authorities.

GOI’s remarkable indifference towards recent well reported parleys between China and Bangladesh over the Teesta project attests to Delhi’s incredible ineptitude. In recent times, there have been any number of studies/articles in selected Indian magazines/media detailing possible negative regional fallout from any joint China/Bangladesh restoration project along the Teesta river. Various authors and experts warned that there would inevitably be hundreds of Chinese workers and technicians working along the long stretches of the river for several years. Chinese ‘experts;’ could also set up permanent ‘monitoring cells/offices ‘anywhere they chose in the area’  which could easily be used in various ways.

Yet, apart from issuing occasional assurances to Dhaka that an eventual solution to the water sharing issue would be negotiated, GOI completely ignored the red flags raised by some of the country’s eminent political analysts!

There is no denying that India’s security/defence capabilities in the region will now be stretched to the limit. The massive road/railway linkage projects between Assam and Arunachal Pradesh by the BJP-led NDA Government in recent years have been tactically sound. But even these have been basically reactive in nature — India was merely bringing its own infrastructure up to a certain level, to match the impressive transport/logistical network painstakingly built by China over the decades, involving a massive expenditure!

While the NDA Government has been busy shoring up its defensive/counter striking abilities in the sprawling Himalayan region in recent times, such efforts in the Northeast, according to experts, still remain at the preparatory stage.

A few tactical measures such as positioning more army divisions in North Bengal, upgrading the Panagarh airport and new airstrips as an air defence hub, in addition to improving rail /road linkages linking Assam with Arunachal Pradesh and north Bengal with Sikkim, have been taken. But work on some road/rail projects, such as the Sevak/Rangpo linkage (which may now be extended to Nathu La) have progressed slowly and undertaken only after years of delay!

‘Apparently, there was never due appreciation of the fact that if the Chinese gained a foothold in the Teesta water sharing project, they would establish a significant presence right next door to the vulnerable Siliguri corridor — our weakest, most vulnerable point in an already troubled area!’ says defence analyst Subir Bhaumik.

As another Kolkata-based analyst put it,’Now India will have to invest a colossal sum of money to strengthen further its strategic defence against the mighty Chinese and Delhi will have to arrange for the funds in a hurry! This is bound to leave a negative impact on India’s future economic growth in the medium term. In view of what has happened, the NDA’s failure to settle the Teesta water sharing issue with Bangladesh since 2011 is inexcusably stupid. Delhi should have given priority to considerations of basic national security in the face of future aggressions and overridden Mamata Banerjee’s objections about the bilateral scheme worked out between Dr Manmohan Singh and Sheikh Hasina.’

The real reason for the ruling NDA II Government not to deal more sternly with Mamata Banerjee on the sensitive Teesta water sharing issue, even at the risk of damaging Indo-Bangla relations and possibly jeopardizing the basic safety and security of eight NE states and their citizens, has never been explained publicly. In Kolkata and North Bengal, officials and Ministers, worried as they are over recent developments, maintain a strict silence while facing media queries.

Bangladesh officials, explaining the background of the decision to approach Beijing seeking its financial and other forms of assistance, said Dhaka had major plans to upgrade massively agriculture, food processing, food and fruit exports and the business of agri-business in Rangpur and adjacent areas, according to Dhaka-based media reports. Water conservation and planned irrigation schemes to take care of seasonal floods and droughts would benefit over 20 million people. Additional production of food grains, fruits and vegetables to the tune of Taka 20,000 crore had been planned.

Clearly, Bangladesh authorities view their Teesta river restoration project as a long term economic game changer for a large segment of the population of their northern districts. And much of the credit for the change would naturally go to China.

Significantly, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, inaugurating a joint Bangladesh/China Exhibition centre a few days ago said that any country that wanted to help Bangladesh make economic progress would be warmly welcome.

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