For all Mamata Banerjee’s public protestations about her love and affection for Bangladesh and its people, her official stand on issues like Teesta river water sharing is hardly helpful to Dhaka’s interests.
On May 3, at a public meeting at West Dinajpur, the West Bengal Chief Minister took a somewhat different line: She appealed to Bangladesh to release more water from the river Attreyee so areas like Balurghat and adjacent areas did not have face a drought during the dry months.
Subsequently, on May 4, at both an administrative review meeting and a public meeting, she appealed to Malda mango growers not to look upon Bangladesh as their major export market.
Ever since Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s Delhi visit, Mamata has systematically stepped up her anti-Bangladesh pitch.
For some time now, she has been referring to the weakened flow of Attreyee River into West Dinajpur in official gatherings, but without pressing the point too much. Of late, however, she has been more openly speaking out about the Attreyee and the dam put up by Bangladesh, terming it the main reason for Balurghat’s water woes.
Kolkata-based analysts monitoring Indo-Bangla talks on most issues were surprised.
“Evidently, the chief minister is bringing this up as a counter to Bangladesh’s claims on the Teesta waters. West Bengal’s official stance earlier merely stressed the difficulties that arose after the completion of hydropower projects in Sikkim. Clearly, whether on her own or based on someone’s advice, the chief minister is upping the ante in a bid to put more pressure on Dhaka and Prime Minister Hasina,” said one observer.
He also felt Mamata’s habit of involving sections of the crowds at such gatherings, most of whom are Trinamool Congress (TMC) supporters, might not be a good idea in the present circumstances, stating and could worsen present relations between the two parts of Bengal.
With regards to the Teesta, Mamata remains stuck on her “new proposal” floated at the Delhi tripartite meeting attended by the Bangladesh and Indian prime ministers and herself: Forget Teesta waters, take water from the Torsa and other north Bengal rivers. The idea has not been officially accepted by either Bangladesh or India.
The chief minister recently made yet another proposal, this time to mango exporters based in Malda district. Mango growers complained during an administrative meeting that their largest export market was Bangladesh and that things had turned difficult lately as Dhaka had increased its duties from 10% to 50% on imported Malda mangoes. This naturally hurt their trade.
Mamata promptly urged them to look for other countries and other parties to export mangoes to. Growers and officials said the UAE was buying Malda’s fruits and that some EU countries were also interested.
Enthused, Mamata said efforts must be made soon to sell Malda mangoes to the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi, Nepal and the EU countries. She urged the growers and officials to work in tandem.
“Clearly, her intention in bringing such matters up in the public domain, at public meetings, is to send a message to Bangladesh. She is embarrassing both Prime Ministers Hasina and Modi in the process by making bilateral relations more difficult. But with her it is a ‘my-state-first’ policy, whether the issue is Teesta water sharing or selling mangos. She could have taken up the matter of duties on Malda mango with Bangladesh before going public,” said one analyst.
Mamata and her TMC have always had a tit-for-tat approach toward politics. Local media pointed out that the Bangladesh prime minister had not responded positively to Mamata’s request to export larger quantities of hilsha from the Padma River to West Bengal. This indicated a measure of Hasina’s displeasure over the lingering deadlock on the Teesta issue.
Now, by advising Malda mango growers to look elsewhere for their exports instead of concentrating on Dhaka, Mamata is sending everyone a message that West Bengal cannot be taken for granted.
However, neither Mamata nor any of her officials have expounded on how the mango growers would begin their new export drive. There remain unanswered questions about the size of the overseas market, how long it will take to work out agreements, what the terms will be, the delivery time for each country, the costs involved and so on.
Irrespective of the political games, exporting mangos to Saudi Arabia will never be as easy as selling it across the border to Bangladesh.