Revisiting Regional Cooperation
After I wrote about Bhutan to become electricity exporter and the Tipaimukh controversy, the flow of events didn’t stop. One of the major initiatives in Bangladesh of late, is the effort for more regional connectivity with neighbors. It’s not only a good sign for Bangladesh, but also could usher in a new era of cooperation among South Asian nations in general.
Take example of Sheikh Hasina’s visit of Bhutan. She started negotiations with Bhutan to use Bangladesh road and ports and to import power from the same. The first one would mean a transit facility from India. And the second one is a bit more complex, import of Hydroelectricity. Both the issues are highly sensitive in Bangladesh and could anytime snowball into a topic of mass debate.
The debate on transit and the Asian Highway is a long-standing one. If Bangladesh gets transit into Bhutan (and subsequently Nepal), almost no rational reason remains from their side not to grant the same to India. The transit facility through India should be reciprocal in nature. As a limited time activity, Bangladesh also has agreed to allow India to import all heavy equipments for proposed thermal power plant in Tripura through Ashuganj port. Sooner or later, there would be a pressure to get other parts open too. Interestingly, this Tripura power plant is proposed to be a joint venture between India and Bangladesh (first of its kind). Bangladesh would invest in it and subsequently would receive a share of its electricity. If the reports of Shamokal is true, then Bangladesh is going to talk to India about sharing electricity from Nepal’s mega hydro-electricity plans – reportedly 5000 MWs out of 46000MW proposed with matching investments upfront.
Relating to one recent controversies, the steps taken by Bangladesh Govt. definitely weaken the hard-line stance suggested by some politicians in the Tipaimukh controversy. The Tipaimukh dam would have generated electricity and controlled flood to some extent but also would have damaged environment. Now, Bangladesh is getting engaged into a joint venture in the same North-Eastern grid to import power. The other power import agreement with Bhutan and plans for the same with Nepal is definitely a tacit approval of Hydro-electricity.
It can be remembered, like all manipulations of natural resources, hydro-electricity also has it’s down-side on riparian population and environment. A lot of developed nations has already expressed opinions against it. During Tipaimukh controversy, people against it pointed to the environmental hazards due to it. However, the same is true about hydro-power in Bhutan and Nepal too. If hydro-power import starts, it will weaken the stance that they will stand against environmental damage at any cost. Rather this places Bangladesh in the developing world league, who views development as a must-have, even if it comes at the cost of environment. Interestingly, some people, who argued against Tipaimukh are welcoming the import of electricity. They should soon choose one of the paths in order to maintain consistency. Or, they should mention clearly that the problem is due to in project location (India) and they won’t be worried about similar developments in Bhutan or Nepal.
So, how close are the dams in Bhutan and Nepal compared to Tipaimukh? The Torsa river flows 100km inside India (the land distance of 50km only) from Bhutan before it reaches Bangladesh, compared to 200 km distance of Tipaimukh and Bangladesh border. The 336 MW Chukha and 1020 MW Tala Hydropwer projects are in this region. As per reports, there are no Environmental impact assessment at all for these projects. Under the mega plans of Hydro-power generation, Nepal has economically exploitable 42,000 MW power resource out of which 10,180 MW is in Koshi river basin. The proposed high dam on Koshi river would be built approximately 300-350 km away from Bangladesh border. Besides, all major tributaries of the Ganges are from Nepal. A massive scale hydro-power drive in Nepal would alter seasonal flows in the Ganges and could have major environmental side-effects in downstream Bangladesh, especially in Baor area. So, the effects that were expected in Tipaimukh, are also to a major extent true for these projects.
The steps taken by Sheikh Hasina shows what cooperation can kick off. The enthusiasm she has injected into the moribund co-operation agenda of India-Bangladesh-Bhutan-Nepal, should be matched equally with the other side of the border. The pro-development choice is common and normal in a region plagued by poverty and the cooperation is in the right direction to get rid of that.