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OP-ED: What the Teesta barrage would do

  • Published at 10:07 pm September 8th, 2020
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Photo: Dhaka Tribune

The developments needed will not happen without regional partners

The two most populated countries in the world are in conflict at a very difficult time -- a global pandemic. 

Military conflicts are one of the top reasons behind the displacement of almost 80 million people globally. China and India have avoided many conflicts in the past with prudent diplomacy. In 1971, the Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi of the Indian National Congress (INC) party offered military support to Bangladesh’s independence war against Pakistan.

During that time, China was influenced as Pakistan’s ally to attack India as a strategy to defeat India with a multi-front war. China didn’t take on that offer, which greatly contributed to Bangladesh’s successful independence after a bloody war against West Pakistan.

China and India have greatly contributed to Bangladesh’s infrastructure development with technology and financial investments, and Bangladesh has continued to have great relationships with these countries.

However, Bangladesh’s two neighbours, China and India, got into a bloody conflict in the summer of 2020. Both countries have also been subject to global criticism because of their fall in safeguarding human rights. China has been blamed for mass concentration camps keeping their Muslim population confined, and for forced labour. On the other hand, India is crafting laws to possibly call millions of Muslims illegal.

It’s noteworthy that according to the United Nations 2019 report, only 0.5% of India’s population is foreign-born. India’s new immigration laws and declining human rights are impacting its image in Bangladesh, but China’s actions on the Uighur are no less concerning to Bangladeshis.

Bangladesh focuses on fundamental developments within the country, as well as building a strong global image for humanitarian work, through greatly contributing to United Nations humanitarian missions and hosting millions of stranded refugees from West Pakistan and the expelled Rohingyas from Myanmar.

The Bangladeshi government has drawn some serious diplomatic attention from India recently after China committed to lending $1 billion to Bangladesh to build a water dam on the river Teesta nearing the Indian border -- a project that can possibly aid Bangladesh in its agricultural production, provide water to tens of millions of people, and lead to many other environmental improvements that were damaged due to India’s water management upstream.

India has been opposed to allowing Bangladesh to build any water dams on Teesta, as India has been diverting the same water to its own lands for agricultural purposes. Even though there is already a tremendous number of benefits with this Teesta barrage project, it is a great example of China-Bangladesh cooperation and friendship that is set to start this December -- Bangladesh may also ask China to build on this friendship on a much greater level.

The Bangladeshi government may ask China to allow Uighur Muslims to visit, work, or study in Bangladesh under a cultural exchange program. Such an arrangement will be evident for the Chinese government to their openness to a solution to the Uighur crisis. Then, India may also choose some actions towards humanitarian needs as well.

For Bangladesh, the benefiit from the Teesta barrage will not come overnight. This project will also require lots of other developments, such as improving existing water features, drainage, and navigability, raising shorelines, flood control, developing commercial marine lives, etc.

Many of these developments may need regional partners, and certainly, the Bangladesh government has championed working with its neighbouring nations. If Bangladesh can add the possibility of hosting these Chinese Uighurs to mix with Bangladeshis and enrich its culture, it may help diversity in Bangladesh and strengthen friendship with China, without harming its relationship with India.

Mazher Mir is the Adviser to Roybi Robots, Mountain View, California, USA.

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