Wednesday, 9 February 2011

India and Bangladesh prepare for land swap as relations improve

India's FM SM Krishna with Bangladesh's FM Dipu Moni in 2009
India and Bangladesh are getting close to solving one aspect of their protracted territory conflict. The two south Asian neighbours are preparing for a land swap of enclaves, or pieces of land which lie in each other’s territory.

The enclaves are pieces of land that the Raja of Cooch Behar and Maharaja of Rangpur won or lost in gambling and military action during the colonial period. After independence in 1947, Cooch Behar became part of India’s West Begal province, while Rangpur became part of East Pakistan, later Bangladesh. It was left to the governments of India and Pakistan to determine which country the enclaves belonged to. Soon after Bangladesh’s independence in 1971, a pact was drawn up between New Delhi and Dhaka to exchange these territories, but it has not happened.

Currently, neither the police nor developmental agencies can enter these enclaves on either side of the border. As a result, they are grossly-underdeveloped, lacking in basic infrastructure and education facilities. A report in India’s Frontline journal called the residents of these areas 'nowhere people' because they are, to all intents and purposes, not citizens of any country.

India has 111 enclaves, or nearly 17,000 acres of land with Bangladesh, while Bangladesh has 51 enclaves of 7,000 acres within India, according to India’s NDTV news agency.

Since India has more land in Bangladesh than vice-versa, India stands to lose about 10,000 acres of land. As such, India's Cabinet Committee on Security will have to approve the exchange.

The two nations will also undertake a count of residents in these enclaves, the first since 1971. Officials from each side are expected to visit their enclaves and residents on both sides will be given the option of which country they want to live in.

The land swap should be hugely beneficial for the people living in the areas, as they will gain better access to amenities, services and policing. The land swap is also expected to de-escalate India’s border conflict with Bangladesh.

Both sides are working to reduce the border tension, and Indian external affairs minister SM Krishna held a meeting with his Bangladeshi counterpart Dipu Moni on Monday 7th February, when they were both in Bhutan for a meeting of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) foreign ministers.

Krishna gave his assurances that India’s Border Security Force (BSF) will not shoot at Bangladeshis crossing the border. The issue of BSF shootings has been prominent since a 7th January incident in which a teenage girl who was crossing the border with her family was shot dead by the BSF.

The Bangladeshi human rights group Odhikar claims that over 1,000 people have been shot dead by the BSF since 2001. The BSF says its men shoot in self defence, as intruders often include armed men engaging in smuggling humans, cattle, arms and drugs.

Along with the enclave swap, the two sides have also had a breakthrough on water issues, and they have agreed to a 15-year accord on sharing the waters of the Teesta and Feni rivers.

Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh is also expected to visit Bangladesh after the end of the monsoon season. India-Bangladesh relations have been improving since the Awami League-led government took power in Dhaka, but border issues remain the main sticking point.

Sources: Frontline, NDTV, The Hindu, The Economic Times

For more information, see the Menas Borders website, here.

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