Thursday, 7 July, 2022

Why Indo-Bangladesh River Conference Is so Important

Jayanta Ghosal

Once Professor Promothnath Bishi stated that the person who is not closely aware about the rivers of Bangladesh, how will he/she know about the land?

Since historic period, the role of rivers in the formation of Bangladesh in its geographical form as well as in its society, culture, economy and politics bears significance. Rivers are closely associated with the land of Bangladesh and its people. But is it only Bangladesh? The history of rivers is also associated with the history of India. Centring rivers, many civilisations have emerged in the history of the world. From Babylon to Mesopotamia all are river-centred civilisations. After so many years, the rivers and riverside localities of Bangladesh and India appear to be in a deep crisis. Actually, our livelihood and existence are very much dependent on rivers. Since time immemorial, this is evident from the countries’ geographical location. But there arose limitless frustration and pain in the river-dependent civilisation. Presently, former identity of the riverine country has virtually been faded.

Around 1,500 large and small local and international rivers are flowing through Bangladesh. Against this backdrop, the foreign ministers of Bangladesh and India will participate in the upcoming India-Bangladesh River Conference slated to be held at Guwahati in Assam on May 28 and 29.  Naturally, it has drawn our attention. We are in constant touch with the happenings. It is worthwhile to mention that it is for the first time in history and the Indo-Bangladesh foreign ministerial level meeting is being held at an Indian state outside the capital of Bangladesh and India. The representatives of some neighbouring countries will also attend there. They are involved in riverine economy. Let me remind that some time ago, Indian Foreign Minister Jaishankar visited Bangladesh. He has handed over a letter to Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina with a formal invitation to come to India this year. It is hoped the schedule of the Bangladesh PM's visit will be finalised. The meeting of the Joint Consultative Commission is supposed to be held in New Delhi. Fields are being created in this regard.

Ahead of the Bangladesh Premier's visit to India, a dialogue on river water problem between the two countries is important enough. The unfinished task of the Teesta River treaty naturally comes to the fore for discussion. There remains a question as to whether the Teesta issue will be discussed in such bilateral meeting or a multilateral stage?  Instead of publicly discussing the issue, a strategy of taking it forward should be formulated through bilateral discussion.  Whatever I have learnt as a journalist is that a process of talks on implementation of the Teesta River treaty has started anew which bears significance.

Bangladeshi Professor Dr Md Abu Hanif Sheikh in his book on 'Bangladesher Nad Nodi O Nodi Tirobarti Janopad' has shown that the Bangladesh government has taken a fresh initiative over its rivers. It has started thinking about development of the riverside localities but it is being hampered by natural disasters. Immediate measures should be taken in this regard.

Here comes the context of the Sundarbans. Fifty-four rivers flow through India and Bangladesh. Until and unless they are managed jointly their development is at stake. Relevant issues like existing flow of rivers, flood control, irrigational management, river erosion and its devastating outcome, control of wilful usage of river water, emergence of new land and ownership, river pollution – all issues will be discussed in the JRC meeting. Dr Md Abu Hanif Sheikh, an invitee of the meeting, has shown the development of the Sundarbans is involved with the rivers flowing through this forest. When we discuss about the honey of the Sundarbans and open water reservoirs, we should keep in mind about existence of 30 types of reptiles. Along with all-out development of a certain place, it is imperative to take care of its rivers.

Now it is about Sylhet floodings in Bangladesh where the extent of damage is immense. Again, Assam of India has also been flooded. So, keeping in mind the past tradition of both the countries it is their duty to take joint political actions for river reforms. Regarding this, lots of programmes were undertaken previously that took time for solution. As the Indo-Bangladesh diplomatic ties are cordial enough, India thinks it necessary to maintain it in the context of prevailing situation. Previously, I have mentioned time and again that the incident in Afghanistan and Ukrainian war have brought India and Bangladesh closer. Once former Indian PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee stated that we can change history, but we cannot change the neighbours. India and Bangladesh are two neighbours. We do not want to change neighbours. But, we can make a new history by changing the definition of the crisis of our riverine civilisation.

Remember the centres of old civilisation of Bangladesh. Naogaon, Paharpur, Mahasthangarh of Bogura, Lalmai of Cumilla were created on the banks of rivers. Afterwards, more towns emerged on river side. Therefore, in case of Bangladesh, rivers are especially important. The Teesta is the main river of North Bengal. The river is closely related to life and livelihood of the people living in the catchment of this river. According to many others, the word Teesta has come from the word Trista. The Teesta is a river that quenches the thirst.

History provides meagre information and description of Bangladeshi rivers. However, different cities and towns have emerged on the banks of the rivers. We find the descriptions of the rivers in some mythological tales of the Mahabharata, Megasthenes and Sangskrit poet Kalidas. In 1500 B.C. a town was grown in Narsingdi of Bangladesh. Probably, it was connected to the Bay of Bengal at the confluence of the Brahmaputra-Sitalkhya. In the book 'Milind Panchoho' it was described as a military port.              

Why have I mentioned about history? It is because contemporary world is created following the path of history. The river conference, the meeting of the foreign ministers of India and Bangladesh is being held at a time when the entire world falls prey to restlessness. India and Bangladesh are geo-strategically clinging to each other. We must remember that it was because of rivers the tours of Ibn Battuta and other medieval tourists were possible. All of them arrived through rivers. The controversy over who owns the flows of the Brahmaputra and the Teesta is bad for the entire subcontinent. And, because of this, the Indo-Bangladesh river conference has become so important.


The writer is a senior

journalist based in New Delhi.

Translated by Z A M Khairuzzaman