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Sri Lanka seeks deeper ties, free trade agreement with China

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Like Nepal, Sri Lanka seeks profitable trade equations with China in order to raise its GDP. Sri Lanka wants a longer-time period to negotiate a free trade agreement with China as it is concerned about the economic impact of a rushed deal on their small country, the Sri Lankan ambassador said on Sunday, the Feb 04.

There has been rising concern in the South Asian nation about Chinese investment, a key part of Beijing’s Belt and Road initiative to create a modern-day Silk Road across Asia.

Hundreds of Sri Lankans clashed with police at the opening last year of a Chinese-invested industrial zone in the south, saying they would not be moved from their land. It was the first time opposition to Chinese investments in Sri Lanka had turned violent.

Speaking on the sidelines of an Independence Day reception at the Sri Lankan embassy in Beijing, Ambassador Karunasena Kodituwakku said a free trade agreement with China could not be rushed. “We’d like to have the process a little longer. China would like to have it faster,” Kodituwakku told Reuters. “Because Sri Lanka being a small economy, we have to get a consensus from stakeholders,” he added. “Therefore the delay is due to the time period. But eventually we will sign the agreement.”

Sri Lanka last month signed a free trade agreement with Singapore, but Singapore’s economy is not as complex as China’s, Kodituwakku said. The deal with the city state is Sri Lanka’s first modern and comprehensive FTA. “Chinese imports are very important to Sri Lanka, but opening up the whole thing in a short time may make some problems for local companies. Therefore we have to balance it.”

Sri Lanka has also been trying to get investment for a little utilized airport on its southern tip, in Mattala, built at a cost of $253 million by China, which also provided $230 million of funding. “No doubt it was a white elephant. It is still a white elephant,” Kodituwakku said.

India had been in advanced talks with Sri Lanka to operate the airport, but the ambassador said no deal had been reached. “We have to turn it into a viable economic venture. In fact we gave the option to Chinese companies. I know Chinese companies have shown an interest, but according to our studies they were not having a viable economic plan and that’s why they had to give the option to India,” he said. “The Indian offer had been there, but even that has not been finalized,” Kodituwakku added. “Anyone who wants to come and turn the Mattala airport into a viable economic venture will be welcome. But unfortunately no one has taken over.”

When Sri Lanka’s government first looked to develop a port on its southern coast that faced the Indian Ocean, it went not to China, but to its neighbor, India.

Then-Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa said he urgently needed funding to transform the harbor of his home town and asked Indian officials for help with the project.

New Delhi showed little interest in funding a costly and massive port construction project in the underdeveloped fishing village of Hambantota, a district that had been crushed by the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004.

China has for decades invested in Sri Lanka, particularly during moments in recent history when much of the international community held off. China supplied the Rajapaksa government with military aid and it promised to spend to rebuild the country’s damaged infrastructure. India had also sent in military help, but nowhere near the levels Beijing dispatched.

The civil war ended in 2009. Between 2005 and 2017, China spent nearly $15 billion in Sri Lanka. By comparison, the International Finance Corporation, which is part of the World Bank group, says that between 1956 and 2016, it invested over $1 billion.

Along with the Hambantota port investments, Beijing loaned Sri Lanka $200 million in 2010 for a second international airport and a year later a further $810 million for the “second phase of the port project.”Beijing loaned Sri Lanka $200 million in 2010 for a second international airport and a year later a further $810 million for the “second phase of the port project.

Beijing invested $1.5 billion in 2010 to build the port. The venture was considered economically unviable and indeed, in the years that followed, the port sat empty and neglected, and Sri Lanka’s debt ballooned. China’s official licensing of the port in December last year gives it yet another point of access over a key shipping route, and the prospect of providing it with a sizeable presence in India’s immediate backyard and traditional sphere of influence, bringing China closer to India’s shores than New Delhi might like.

Moreover, Sri Lanka’s decision to sign a 99-year lease with a Chinese state-owned company for the Hambantota port to service some of the billions it owes to Beijing has some observers concerned other developing nations doing business with China as part of China’s One Belt One Road initiative might fall into similar financial straits. A trap, they warn, that may well have them owing more than just money to Beijing.

There was more. $272 million for a railway in 2013 and more than $1 billion for the Colombo Port City project, ventures that hired mostly Chinese workers (one Sri Lankan report put the number of Chinese workers dedicated to projects in 2009 at 25,000), and all with money Sri Lanka could barely afford to repay. By 2015, Sri Lanka owed China $8 billion, and Sri Lankan government officials predicted that accumulated foreign debt — both owed to China and other countries — would eat up 94% of the country’s GDP.

Proud India’s pain

 In recent years India is gradually getting isolated in the South Asia region where it claims to be the super power. India feels enormous pain to see its neighbors Pakistan, China and Nepal work together and Bangladesh which has problem with Pakistan for historical reasons also is in the coalition led by China. There is very little that New Delhi can do to divide them but it can make their alliance stronger by wrong moves.

In fact, India has no reliable ally except perhaps Bhutan and Afghanistan but they are very costly ones as they depend on India for several favors.

India plays safe with Sri Lanka which is fast becoming an economic partner of Asian economic giant China. India does not want to openly antagonize its sea neighbor Lanka over Tamil issue and hence allows Lankan military to attack and kill Tamil fishermen from India. If India retaliates against Lankan atrocities, it would lose Lanka almost forever. Already Sri lanka has filed cases against India over Kudankulam nuclear plant since that island nation is within the danger zone of nuclear radiation from Kudankulam but India has so far managed to pacify Colombo not to push for any punitive measures. So, India is tolerating the Lankan atrocities on Tamil fishermen. Also, the ruling BJP has no place in Tamil Nadu state and the federal government has no fear of losing support of Tamils for the party in the next general poll. The local BJP does not raise the issue of political future of the party in the state with the central party.

Thus Tamil fishermen are the causality of regional geo-politics.

Sri Lanka ill-treat Tamils as enemies

 Fully aware of Indian mindset and dilemma of Tamil community, Sri Lanka just goes on attacking the Tamil fishermen. If Tamil fishermen go to Katchatheevu they are sure to be attacked and yet they cannot avoid going there since their life is inter linked with the zone.

Lankan regime knows India would not undertake nay punitive measures against the continued Lankan military offenses. Sri Lankans know their value as being ally of China and Pakistan.

For the same reason, India also does not push for speedy investigation procedures on war crimes of Lankan military forces against Lankan Tamils who are of Indian origins. .

 There has been a monstrous trend around the world, starting in USA to view the minority populations as their enemies as the majority populations refuse to share the nation’s resources with the minorities equitably.

The Singhalese majority (Buddhist) populations in Sri Lanka ill-treat Tamil populations as the key “problem” they face and refuses to share the resources of the island nation with the minorities mainly Indian Tamils.

Sri Lanka does not distinguish between Lankan Tamils and Indian Tamils when it comes to treating them as equal humans. Tamil fishermen who go to their traditional zones like Katchatheevu are attacked perpetually even as Indian government looks the other way, pretending to be unaware of atrocities against Indian Tamils.

Lankan regime plays dirty regional politics to force Indian regime not to interfere with Lankan attack on Tamil fishermen. Regional geo politics favor Chinese supremacy in the South Asia region while India, backed by USA, is determined to to have final say in the regional politics.

Now Pakistan and Nepal are close friends or allies of China for its economic help and Lankan government is fast becoming an ally of China which India wants to disturb by maintaining silence over Lankan atrocities on Indian fishermen, even attacks and murders them freely on the sea. India is keen to obstruct any better ties between China and Lanka and Nepal but Nepal has been lost by New Delhi.

In fact, India also kills fishermen on the sea and de snot feel bad ot pained when neighboring Lankan military also does the same. Tamil nadu government under instruction from federal government also attacked and killed fishermen when they protested against the Kudankulam nuclear terror plans. So, attacks and murders by Lankan forces cannot make India worry.

So much so, the Lankan PM Ranil Wickremesinghe had the courage to warn Indian government that they would kill any Indian who “trespasses” their “territory”. Sri Lanka now considers Katchatheevu, a small islet in the Indian Ocean lying between Lanka and India and right now under Lankan control, belongs to them and India cannot have any claim over the zone and Tamils should not be seen there. .

Apparently, .Indo-Lankan tensions are pure fiction as the regimes continue to target Tamils in both nations probably, like in cricket for 50s and 100s, on mutual understating.

The way Myanmar Muslims are being ill-treated by the regime and military, among other state-majority Buddhist’ agencies has heavily influenced non-Muslim states with military upperhandism like Sri lanka where the majority populations consisting of Singhalese minorities especially Tamils and Muslims are being attacked in order to appease the majority people.

Sri Lankan regime in South India knows too well that the Hindutva regime of PM Modi in India would not mind if Tamils and Muslims who are not Hindutva supporters either in India or Sri Lanka and hence it target both communities.

Though Lankan target is primarily focused Tamils, nowadays even Muslims are also the target of the Singhalese regime.

Constructive actions

Lankan government wants integration of communities without reconciliation.  The larger communal tensions occur between youth of the two communities in the aftermath of a sports event.  One group of youth had chided and spoken defiantly to another group from the other community.  The initial violence was between the youth of the two communities who took offense at the attitudes of the other. A house was attacked by a group of youths.  The matter should have been settled at that level by the community leaders, and if that failed by the local police.  But this did not happen because external forces got involved.  There are different accounts of who these might be, with organized extremist groups being the suspects, but with also questions being asked about the law enforcement authorities themselves.  As rumours have a way of getting multiplied, it would be constructive if the government were to conduct an independent inquiry into this incident.

There are extremists on all sides of Sri Lanka’s continuing ethnic divides who are waiting to act as guardians of their community’s interests.  This is true of members of all communities and they act with most energy in the areas in which they are a majority.  It is therefore important that there should be constant awareness and interaction programs organized by the government, civil society and by religious institutions, to promote inter-ethnic and inter-religious understanding and togetherness.

The challenge would be to link them to civil society groups that could energize them and take them to the community level to engage in local level conflict mitigation work. There also needs to be education programs on the values of pluralism so that those who are a majority in any part of the country do not think that they are entitled to have special rights as individuals over those who are not in a majority.

Sleeping duck

As this government is one that is not based on ethnic nationalism and is also a combination of the two major political parties, it is more representative of the mainstream polity.  It is also more acceptable to the ethnic and religious minorities.  There is a general acceptance that the government is genuinely liberal where people’s freedoms are concerned.

A new feature on the social media, which is running without any control, is the naming and shaming of Buddhist monks who join inter-religious groups that seek to promote reconciliation and amity at the community level. A major criticism of the government that comes from all sides of the political spectrum, though for different reasons, is that the government is indecisive and not strong.

However, the downside to freedom and opening of space to voice opinions and to criticize is that this space is being exploited by those who do not accept a liberal and pluralist view of society.  This can be seen on the social media which is filled with hate speech.  There is a strong anti Muslim discourse that claims that they have links with international terror groups are increasing their population too fast and surreptitiously introducing birth control drugs to unsuspecting Sinhalese men, women and children.

Unfavorable comparisons are made in this regard with the former government.  The Sirisena government, committed to fail governance through reconciliation, is reported to be collecting material relating to social media that spreads hate.

Since the US super power doesn’t impose its will on Colombo to initiate punitive measures against those guilty of war on Tamil population and extra crimes, the new government is also is not really bothered about justice for the Tamils.

India government, in the mood to punish the historic foes, plays a spoiling game for the Tamils and Muslims in the island la nation which is facing serious threat of disappearance due to fast climate changes.

The state can incite violence against the minorities just in a matter of hours, even minutes and just go rampage of the localities of minorities like Muslims. The core media that always oblige the government for making money as advertisements and foreign trips, just generate fake stories to target the Muslims, other minorities.

The disastrous inter ethnic violence between Sinhalese and Muslims in Gintota over the weekend which led to damage to a large number of homes, businesses and buildings is one of the crudest instances of how the state guides most of the community clashes generally for political reasons. .

The government actions included sending in police battalions, the police paramilitary Special Task Force and anti-riot squad and the military and a visit to the area by PM Ranil Wickremesinghe. As a result a conflagration on the scale of the Aluthgama riots of 2014 in the neighboring Kalutara district did not materialize.  It might have, if the government had not acted sooner and showed publicly that it had no sympathy with those who attacked others. The arrest of 19 trouble makers, many of whom had come from outside, and the declaration of a curfew, ensured that the violence was suppressed.  However, the Muslim community which had to bear the brunt of the violence continues to live in a state of unease.

Religious differences had little or nothing to do with the clash which was between two identity groups making it more akin to an ethnic conflict, rather than a clash of religions.  The immediate cause of the conflict was reportedly a relatively minor incident.  There was a road accident involving motor cyclist from one community and a three-wheel passenger from another community.  The parties had dealt with their trauma in a reasonable manner, going to the hospital and arriving at a private settlement, with some financial compensation being part of the package.  However, external forces had intervened thereafter to escalate the conflict.   The fact that an event of this nature which is not uncommon on Sri Lanka’s crowded roads could have escalated so fast is a cause for concern and reveals underlying tensions within the country.

Despite the end of the war nearly a decade ago, there is a continuing negative relationship between the ethnic communities and one which is not spoken about publicly, that needs to be carefully dealt with.

As a coalition government it is difficult for the government to come to quick decisions especially on controversial issues.  This creates a dangerous space that those who wish to destabilize the polity can utilize and which needs to be closed.

It is necessary for the government to start acting more decisively against those who engage in violence and voice extreme nationalist opinions in an inflammatory manner which provokes others to inter-ethnic or inter-religious violence.

India and Sri Lanka pursue similar objectives- denying jobs and rights to minorities, both refuse to consider the minorities as equals.

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South Asia

Status of Minorities in Pakistan

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In February this year, Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan, posted a tweet condemning the Delhi riots and stated that anyone who targets the non-Muslim minorities in the country or their places of worship will be dealt with strictly. For all the resolute comments that Mr Khan has made for protection of minorities in Pakistan, the reality showcases a completely different scenario. The status of religious freedom is almost minimal, minorities have been unjustly prosecuted under the blasphemy laws and there have been targeted attacks on the non-Muslim citizens and defenders of human rights. This article aims to assess the condition of Minorities in the country and the unjust use of blasphemy laws as a tool of oppression. 

Forced Conversions: A chronic problem 

On October this year, Arzoo Raja, a 13-year-old Christian girl, was abducted right outside her house in Karachi. She was forcibly converted to Islam and married off to her abductor, a 44- year-old man. The police denied these claims and asserted that it had sufficient proof to prove that the girl converted and married off on her own volition. To make matters worse, the Sindh high court validated the marriage (even though the legal age is 18), and stated (based upon falsified documents) that Arzoo was old enough to make her own decisions. This case isn’t a one off and there have been multiple instances in the past where underage girls from minority religions have been abducted and forcefully married off after conversion. A few months ago, a Hindu teenage girl, Simran Kumari was abducted from Ghotki in Sindh and converted to Islam. She was also married off to her abductor and her parents were stopped from visiting because of them being ‘Kafirs’ . Mirpur Khas, Sanghar, and Ghotki are some of the districts that have had the highest number of such incidents and all of them come under the province of Sindh. These incidents are more than just ordinary cases of forced conversion, they are a reflection of deeper issues rooted in economic, social and cultural status of the minority communities. 

Most of the minority communities have been traditionally engaged in jobs associated with low income such as daily wage labour and any scope of upward economic mobility is limited. Amar Guriro, a senior journalist states that many Hindu and Christian women convert due to their poor financial condition, and that Muslim men easily lure these women on the pretext of providing better financial and living conditions . But investigations in the past have revealed that economic hardship might be a factor in these incidents but it isn’t the only factor, and in most cases, the women yield to their abductors due to fear of their lives. There have been cases where after a woman is abducted from a village, large groups of Muslim men drive around the village with loudspeakers in their cars shouting “the victory of Islam”. The main reason behind this is to instil a psychological fear and ensure that the minority communities do not take legal recourse. It’s unfortunate that even if the victim’s family were to lodge a First Information Report, it would make no difference. The police, political representatives and the judiciary are usually in cahoots, and any form of protest would be at the cost of endangering their own lives. This is clearly seen in majority of the cases where the victim is usually below 18 years of age, even though as per a recent amendment to the penal code, the legal age of marriage for girls is 18 years. The police play a huge part in providing forged documents as proof to the judges who readily accept it without questioning the legitimacy and let the accused go scot free. 

Blasphemy Laws 

The blasphemy laws in Pakistan pose another set of problems for the minorities, and are one of the strictest in the Islamic world. They were inherited from the former colonial rulers back when Pakistan was a part of India and a British colony. During the reign of the military government headed by General Zia-ul-Haq, few other clauses were added to these laws which criminalised certain acts such as insulting Islam’s Prophet, speaking against the holy Quran or using derogatory language against important religious scholars. According to the data given by National Commission for Justice and Peace, there were a total of 1540 blasphemy cases which came up till 2018 and out of those 1540 cases about 50% cases had a non Muslim as the accused even when they constituted very small share of the total population . The Ahmadiyya’s, a Muslim minority, are the worst affected by these laws. The Ahmadiyya community is a sect of Islam which has its roots in India and was founded by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad. Unfortunately, the Ahmadiyya community faces a lot discrimination world over and is generally regarded as non-Muslim in most of the Islamic countries. According to the second amendment in Pakistan’s constitution, the Ahmadis are considered as non-Muslims in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. The Ahmadis have had repeated allegations of blasphemy against them due to the fact that their religious beliefs contradict the verses in the Quran and are therefore equal to speaking against it. This is completely ironical to the fact that Pakistan’s constitution clearly states that each and every single religious community has the right to profess, propagate and practise their religion. For the other minority religions, the blasphemy laws act as a means of seeking revenge or showing dominance for the majority Sunni Muslims. In May 2019, Ramesh Kumar Malhi, a Hindu veterinary doctor, was accused of wrapping medicines in the pages containing verses of Quran because of which his clinic and a few other shops belonging to the Hindu community were burned down . Similarly, in 2018, a 25-year-old Christian man was accused of sending blasphemous texts because of which Muslim mobs raided the houses of Christians living in the area and threatened to set their houses on fire. In both the incidents, the police filed no cases against the offending mobs. In most of the cases, it is important to note that the reason for charging someone with blasphemy is usually due some other personal conflict entirely unrelated to the charge of blasphemy and is usually used as a means to extract revenge. 

These blasphemy laws represent the sorry state of freedom of speech in the country. The idea that anything with regards to religion is sacred and cannot be contested leads to the formation of dogmatic opinions. While it is understandable that the blasphemy laws only apply to statements meant to defame a religion, but since these laws come under the purview of the Federal Shariat Court to determine what is Islamic or un-Islamic, even well-intentioned constructive criticism is considered blasphemous. John Stuart Mill, one of the most influential thinkers of classical liberalism, in his book ‘On Liberty’ talks about the role of freedom of speech and expression. He says “If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”. The reasoning behind this is to show how important it is to allow divergent views to be spoken about clearly, and even if there is disagreement about the truthfulness of a particular view or opinion, there’s always a possibility that it might contain a certain element of truth. The inability of a country to tolerate divergent views is representative of its insecurity towards criticism and change. This eventually leads to its downfall as even the most common and rational arguments are sometimes suppressed. 

Subpar Standard of Living

While the cases above represent some of the worst atrocities against minorities in Pakistan, their everyday lives don’t provide a very bright picture either. There has been discrimination in the past with regards to employment, such that sanitation work or daily wage labour work was restricted to non-Muslims only. Even with regards to education, there have been reports where the students from the minority religions have faced religious slurs or have been plainly discriminated by the teachers. Some of the textbooks portray the minorities in a negative light and completely negate their existence when recounting the history of the country, this reinforces an anti-minority mindset within the young adults and prevents the minorities from enrolling in educational institutions which restricts their social and economic upward mobility. In general, at least in the rural areas, non-Muslims have faced violence and many have lost their lives too. There have been numerous cases where houses of Hindus and Christians have been burnt down, their men, women and children killed or forced to leave the village. Temples and Churches have been destroyed in many areas, such that only a handful remain. A survey by the Pakistan All Hindu Rights Movement showed that out of a total of 428 temples that were present in the country during independence only 20 remain today. 

While the government of Pakistan refuses to do anything, human rights lawyers and non governmental organisations present a ray of hope. In the past, journalists, activists and human rights lawyers have actively taken up cases of forced conversion, religious violence and misgovernance. This has made justice an achievable reality, even if it is only for a handful of cases. But the downside to this is that by saving the lives of others, the activists and lawyers have put their own lives at risk. There have been many instances where activists and journalists have received threats and backlash from religious extremists, some have even lost their lives. On 5thJune a journalist who had been criticising the government and the military was abducted in Lahore and detained without any proper warrant . Similarly, a co founder of an NGO working for the rights of young women was randomly detained and put on an exit control list, restricting her ability to travel overseas. 

Missed Opportunity 

Imran Khan’s inability to take firm action against the oppression of minorities in Pakistan is an indication of their worsening condition in the country. His ostrich approach makes him preach about the inexistent tolerance that Pakistan has for non-Muslims on various

International forums. It would be wise for him to first start taking constructive steps to improve the situation in his own country before concerning himself with the issues of his next-door neighbour. The tough balancing act that Mr Khan has tried to play between supporting a tolerant Pakistan and the Islamic clerics at the same time has clearly failed. Zahid Hussain, an analyst and author states that Imran Khan, right from the time that he came to power, did want a tolerant Pakistan, but not at the cost of losing support of certain extremist elements. The problem is, instead of carefully balancing the two, he empowered the extremists, nullifying any bit of chance there was for improving the condition of minorities. 

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Theorizing The teesta River Water Dispute

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Teesta River originates in the Himalayas and flows through the states of Sikkim and West  Bengal to merge with Jamuna in Bangladesh (Brahmaputra in Assam). The river drains nearly  95 per cent of the state of Sikkim. It covers 3,225 square kilometres across the districts of  Darjeeling and Jalpaiguri in West Bengal before entering into Bangladesh. It is the fourth  longest transboundary river of Bangladesh that flows down from India.

In Bangladesh, Teesta River covers 9,667 square kilometres with an estimated population of  9.15 million as in 2011.1 According to the estimates provided by the Bangladesh Bureau of  Statistics 2012, 21 million people are directly or indirectly dependent upon the river water for  their livelihoods in Bangladesh. It covers nearly 14 per cent out of the total area under  cultivation in Bangladesh.

This river has been a point of contention between India and Bangladesh since 1950s and 1960s  when India and former East Pakistan began discussing proposed projects on the river.  Immediately after the creation of Bangladesh in 1971, the Indo-Bangladesh Joint River  Commission was set up to carry forward the talks over the sharing of river waters in 1972.

The Teesta barrage, hydropower projects and dam constructions over Teesta in India has led  to a disturbance in the flow of river water downstream, i.e., in Bangladesh. Though the  hydropower projects and dam constructions are also being carried by the Bangladesh government on its side of the river.

Bangladesh, that gets lesser share than that of India of the Teesta River water, claims for an  equitable share which is unacceptable to the state of West Bengal. Negotiations over the same  have been going on since 1983. The matter is still over the table with an unresolved dispute.

The Dispute

A significant amount of Teesta’s water flows only during wet season i.e., between June and  September, leaving scant flow during the dry season i.e., October to April/May which paves  way to the issue of equitable sharing during lean season. The 50-50 allocation of the river water  could have been agreed to but it was opposed by the Chief Minister of West Bengal, Mamta  Banerjee, who claims that it would be unfair to West Bengal since it would adversely impact  the water-flow available in the state.

The stakeholders here are not just the Indian state and the Bangladesh government but since  water is a state subject, the Indian state of West Bengal is a large party to the matter whereas  Sikkim has highly been ignored (which is also a point of highlight for the critics).

Bangladesh claims that an equal water sharing is essential for them since their basin dependence is higher than that of India’s and also, that the downstream nature of Bangladesh  makes them vulnerable since any construction by India affects the water flow available to them.  Apart from the farmers getting adversely affected, the inadequate flow of water has also created  siltation. Thus, these are reasons enough to get India’s attention towards this issue.

However, West Bengal’s concerns can also not be ignored which states that Teesta has dried  up due to which an acute drinking water problem has been caused apart from another issue  which states less availability of water for irrigation needs.

In 1983, an ad hoc arrangement was made between India and Bangladesh wherein both agreed  to share 75 per cent of river water with India using 39 per cent and Bangladesh 36 per cent.  The remaining 25 per cent was to be distributed after some further studies. In 1997, a Joint  Committee of Experts was formed to examine the matter. It took until 2004 for a Joint  Technical Group to be formed which drafted an interim agreement for the sharing of the river water during the lean season. However, in 2005, the JTG admitted its inability to come up with  a solution.

In 2005 itself, the Joint River Commission stated that the river will not be able to meet the  needs of both the countries during the lean seasons, hence, any agreement that is made will  have to be based upon shared sacrifices. In 2010, the two countries agreed to resolve the matter  expeditiously and drafted some principles for the sharing of river water during the lean season.

In 2011, the agreement was to be signed during the visit of the then Prime Minister of India,  Dr. Manmohan Singh, to Dhaka, Bangladesh. However, it fell through when the Chief Minister  of West Bengal, Mamta Banerjee protested against the proposed allocation of 50 per cent of  the river’s water to Bangladesh.

Since then there have been bilateral discussions on the dispute between the two countries but  they have been unable to reach upon a mutually agreed agreement. Something that has been  continued to be a major sore point within the bilateral relations of India and Bangladesh!

Main Problem

Teesta barrage, whose construction started in the late 1970s, is the largest irrigation project of  the entire eastern region. It aims at utilizing the potential of Teesta River in hydropower  generation, irrigation, navigation, and flood moderation. India, being the upper riparian  country, controls the flow of the river water into Bangladesh from the Teesta barrage. Even  Bangladesh has constructed a barrage downstream that provides water for agriculture and  irrigation to the drought prone areas of northern Bangladesh.

Bangladesh argues that the construction of Teesta barrage has drastically reduced the  availability of water downstream, especially, in the dry season. On the other hand, it’s not just  Bangladesh that is facing such issues, India is facing such issues as well. A reduced availability  of groundwater due to underground tunnelling has been witnessed which has impacted agricultural productions and livelihoods in the region. The drying up of natural springs and  local water resources, the matter which also needs to be addressed, has resulted in growing  scarcity of drinking water. An increasing number of landslides have also been witnessed in the  mountainous regions of Sikkim.

Development of hydropower projects and the construction of dams are majorly held  responsible for all such issues. It has been a growing concern in India and something that the  environmentalists, scientist, social activists have all cautioned against. Changes in the river,  which have largely been due to the dams being constructed on the Teesta are being witnessed,  including frequent changes in the course of the river, delta formation, high rates of siltation,  increased erosion, and siltation of agricultural land in the areas surrounded by the river.

Availability of water for irrigation is a key issue, particularly for West Bengal, as highlighted  by local communities. It is estimated that the availability of water for irrigation be reduced due  to the series of proposed dams since every hydropower project is estimated to absorb at least 5  per cent of the river’s running water.

Similar is the situation with Bangladesh as well where farmers are being forced to rely on tube  wells to pump underground water which has resulted in increased cost of production and also,  reduced areas under cultivation. In many areas, increased siltation of riverbed has caused  widening of the river which has resulted in bank erosion and flooding. 

The Perspective Of Institutional Economics

The dispute is still hanging somewhere unable to find itself a reasonable solution. It is not just  about the point of contention regarding the sharing of water, that how much water should India  consume or how much of it should Bangladesh take away from the river, but it is also about  the environmental concerns and the way it is impacting the humans. Maybe, if India takes up  the discussions regarding sharing of some of the benefits that it would gain from its hydropower  projects, it could happen that the dispute might be solved, but that would not solve the  environmental concerns altogether.

Environmental economics, a strand of economics, offers one such solution which talks about  using a price signal in waiving off a particular dispute. But in order to do that, you need to own  that particular resource which is not possible in the case of a river. The market, thus, cannot  allocate the resource using a price signal since there are no specified property rights, therefore,  none of the state can boast of ownership. The lack of property rights disables either of the state  to be able to sell it or rather, in this matter, be able to negotiate a settlement using a ‘price’  signal on the basis of cost-benefit analysis. Similarly, one state cannot also exclude the other  state from using the river water since it’s a common environmental resource for both the states.

This indicates towards the presence of externalities that happens when there are lack of  property rights and people utilize their utility not considering what additional/negative utility  others may get from it. In such a problem, institutional economics, another branch of  economics, has some solution to offer. Elinor Ostrom, an American political economist talks  about common pool resources that people have managed successfully for generations. She says  that these resources should be managed in communities where people can collectively come  and decide and set up some rules that should match the local conditions since different regions  have different ecosystems.

Here, in the context of the Teesta River dispute, the major thing that is missing is the ‘people’  and their participation in forming a consensus over the usage of river water. The local  communities are the major stakeholders of the river water and it is them who are being majorly  effected but they have been kept away and everything has just boiled down to politics and the bilateral equations between the two states. This leads us to understand the issue from the lenses  of political ecology.

Political Ecology And Its Links With The Dispute

Political ecology is that branch of geography that emerges from ‘critical geography’ and makes  this basic point that physical environment in which we live in is not just natural but is  characterized by a constant human intervention making it a ‘built’ environment. And since we  live in such environment which is partly and very deeply influenced by human beings  themselves, social and human processes should be right at the centre of our analysis.

Political ecology fundamentally connects questions of environment with questions of political  processes and political power, something that is clearly visible in the dispute in discussion. It  also draws insights from political economy, particularly, Marxian political economy to draw  this connection between environmental issues, political power, and political and social  processes.

David Harvey, one of the renowned scholars of political ecology, talks about the phenomenon  of ‘Accumulation by Dispossession.’ This phenomenon talks about the existing social relations  between the capitalist class and the farmers/working class. This talks about how the farmers  are being left with no other option than to lose their lands and become a victim at the hands of  the industrial development.

Here, in the context of Teesta River dispute, something similar is happening. On one hand,  while the government and a section of civil society is happy with the expected benefits of the  hydropower project like employment, energy sufficiency, new revenues, on the other hand,  local communities, environmentalists, scientists, and activists are concerned about social,  cultural, and environmental aspects of these projects. More such projects are proposed, more the economic and industrial development but only at the cost of environmental development  and also, at the cost of the livelihoods of the local communities!

Conclusion

The politics of the two countries, their asymmetric relations, and their urge to economic and  industrial development has costed the local communities their livelihoods. For the authorities  concerned, it’s about their political ego, their incapability of meeting the local needs through  the existing water share, but holistically, this matter is not just about that. Undoubtedly, it  continues to be dominated by political procedures but what matters the most are the local  communities who are suffering on both the sides of the borders. It is these people who are  losing their livelihoods, lands, and the allied opportunities but have been kept away from the  major procedure of decision making. The sufferers are none but the environment itself whose  course is being decided by the humans and also, the humans – but only the ones that are  dependent upon the same environment for their livelihood opportunities. Rest that remains is  the politics!

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South Asia

As Sri Lanka struggles with Chinese debt-trap, Maldives moves closer to the Quad

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The Indian Ocean’s geopolitical currents have witnessed drastic transformation this year, particularly in the past three months, with India shedding the exclusive right of its sphere of influence over the Indian Ocean, by allowing the United States in its own backyard. Washington and New Delhi seems to have entered into what few analysts call a ‘soft alliance’.

Sri Lanka and Maldives are strategically located in the northern section of the Indian Ocean, and have long been historically, culturally, and geopolitically under India’s sphere of influence. But, things are beginning to change as Chinese debt-trap looms over these islands.

The Quad grouping, consisting of India, Japan, the United States and Australia, has demonstrated its collective military might in the maritime sphere of India with the recently concluded annual Malabar naval exercise. It also led to the emergence of new dynamics of cooperation in previously reticent areas, built upon confidence in each other’s abilities and consciousness of where it stands in the newly unravelling geopolitical equation.

India’s new strategic comfort with bringing in partners from the Quad partners lying external to the Indian Ocean Region, namely the US and Japan into its long-held exclusive sphere of influence signals a tilt in strategic imperatives for New Delhi in favour of the US that too in an evolving cold war-like situation involving Washington and Beijing with different set of countries rallying behind each side.

India has recently welcomed the US-Maldives Defense Cooperation Agreement signed in September, this year. The following month saw US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Male where he announced Washington’s intent to open an embassy soon.

Less than three months after the defence pact with Washington, Male signed a new agreement with Tokyo this month, for availing a Japanese grant of $7.6 million to strengthen the archipelago’s Coast Guard capacities, in a second major pact with a Quad member.

New Delhi’s newfound willingness to work with external actors in the Indian Ocean is a sign of strategic comfort stemming out from realist foreign policy considerations to expand its circle of friends and coalition partners in its own backyard against a common and more powerful adversary, Beijing, with which it also have decades-long tensions in the Himalayan frontiers.

Even though both these two countries succumbed to disproportionately superior Chinese economic might since the past one decade, it seems Maldives has somehow managed to come out of its dangerous level of dependency on China since Ibrahim Mohammed Solih of the Maldivian Democratic Party assumed presidency of the island nation two years back in November 2018.

The Sri Lankan economy went into a tailspin since the civil war ended in 2009. The country’s exchequer was badly in need of financial support to sustain itself. It was also the time when Beijing just began to project its military and economic power in its neighbourhood and beyond as the flamboyant 2008 Beijing Olympics concluded.

The island of Sri Lanka soon acquired new geoeconomic significance when President Xi Jinping launched the most ambitious infrastructure project of this century in 2013, the Belt and Road Infrastructure, connecting three continents with the Indian Ocean as its epicenter of vitality.

With BRI, a tangled web of debt-trap rapidly began to loom over Sri Lanka as Beijing pumped-in investments into the war-battered island with malicious intentions.

The story of handover of Hambantota port, strategically located in the southern tip of Sri Lankan coast, to China for a 99-year lease in 2017, and the Colombo Port City project being built with Chinese assistance are just examples of how economic leverage gained geopolitically advantageous positions for Beijing overlooking the Indian Ocean. These assets are going to play a significant role in the connectivity of BRI’s ‘Maritime Silk Road’ aspect.

Chinese-led projects are built and managed by Chinese workers themselves as they do in any other part of the world, naturally bringing presence of Chinese personnel to the areas where it operates.

The BRI, however, enhances Sri Lanka’s significance in what theorists call the String of Pearls, wherein Beijing attempts to encircle India by a series of ports and maritime installations under its control in the Indian Ocean such as the overseas military base in Djibouti, Gwadar in Pakistan, and the ports in Bay of Bengal under Chinese influence hosted by either Bangladesh or Myanmar. Chinese submarine presence is also a new reality, particularly in areas surrounding the Malacca Straits.

All these factors naturally brought New Delhi closer to Washington to formulate a ‘collective strategy’ against the expansionist tendencies manifested by Chinese behaviour. At the same time, India has been taking proactive steps in its individual capacity to boost ties with other island and littoral states in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), like Mauritius and Seychelles where India’s listening posts to monitor sea-lanes also operate.

The Indian Navy has always been the first responder to any HADR (Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief) situations in the IOR which earned significant soft power and respect for India in the countries of the region. This vision has been immortalized in India’s maritime doctrine for regional cooperation in the Indian Ocean, SAGAR (Security and Growth for all in the Region), that was unveiled in 2015.

With the entry of the US, which already has its presence in the British Indian Ocean Territory of Diego Garcia lying mid-way of the ocean, that too with India’s approval, and France in Reunion in the western Indian Ocean, the geostrategic picture of IOR is beginning to change.

Maldives stands as a good example of how to overcome Chinese dominating agenda by boosting cooperation among democracies. But, the Abdullah Yameen-era nightmare of Chinese debt burden is still far from over. In fact, Sri Lanka too is well aware of the Chinese trap from which it yearns to decouple itself. But, Colombo is left with limited options or alternatives to do so.

The renewed Indo-US strategic cooperation, if not translated into offering a viable solution to the debt-trap conundrum, Sri Lanka might irreversibly evolve into another extension of Beijing’s legs in the Indian Ocean threatening the sovereignty of democracies in the region.

Recent steps in the strategic realm are welcome, but the Indo-Pacific democracies, particularly India and the US, should cooperate with these two key island states more in the economic realm as well, if possible near to the extent of Beijing as a collective move.

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