Connecting Regions of Asia.

China’s Teesta Twist

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Bangladesh is discussing an almost $1 billion loan from China for a comprehensive management and restoration project on the Teesta river. The project is aimed at managing the river basin efficiently, controlling floods, and tackling the water crisis in summers.

India and Bangladesh have been engaged in a long-standing dispute over water-sharing in the Teesta. More importantly, Bangladesh’s discussions with China come at a time when India is particularly wary about China following the standoff in Ladakh.

How has the Teesta dispute progressed?

The two countries were on the verge of signing a water-sharing pact in September 2011, when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was going to visit Bangladesh. But, West Bengal Chief minister Mamata Banerjee objected to it, and the deal was scuttled.

After Narendra Modi came to power in 2014, he visited Dhaka in June 2015 — accompanied by Mamata Banerjee — and told Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina that he was confident they could reach a “fair solution” on the Teesta through cooperation between central and state governments.

Five years later, the Teesta issue remains unresolved.

How has India’s relationship with Bangladesh played out over the years?

New Delhi has had a robust relationship with Dhaka, carefully cultivated since 2008, especially with the Sheikh Hasina government at the helm.

India has benefited from its security ties with Bangladesh, whose crackdown against anti-India outfits has helped the Indian government maintain peace in the eastern and Northeast states.

Bangladesh has benefited from its economic and development partnership. Bangladesh is India’s biggest trade partner in South Asia. Bilateral trade has grown steadily over the last decade: India’s exports to Bangladesh in 2018-19 stood at $9.21 billion, and imports from Bangladesh at $1.04 billion.

India also grants 15 to 20 lakh visas every year to Bangladesh nationals for medical treatment, tourism, work, and just entertainment. A weekend shopping trip to India by Bangladesh’ elite is quite common — when the film Bahubali was released, a group of Bangladesh nationals came to India in chartered flights to watch it in Kolkata.

For India, Bangladesh has been a key partner in the neighbourhood first policy — and possibly the success story in bilateral ties among its neighbours.

However, there have been recent irritants in the relationship.

What are these irritants?

These include the proposed countrywide National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) passed in December last year. Bangladesh had cancelled visits by ministers, and Hasina has expressed reservations about CAA. She had said that while the CAA and the proposed nationwide NRC are “internal matters” of India, the CAA move was “not necessary”.

Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla, who has served as India’s envoy in Dhaka, flew to Dhaka in early March to assuage such concerns. Amid discussions between Bangladesh and China, Shringla went to Bangladesh this week, too. He was the first visitor Hasina has met since the Covid-19 pandemic began.

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