Let me tell you a story from my childhood. I come from Sylhet and it has a big 'Mazar Sharif' known as Hazrat Shahjalal's Darga Sharif. It has big pots to cook food for thousands. These pots are huge. When I was a kid, my mother told me that these pots came from the Mazar Sharif of Nizamuddin Awliya of Delhi. I was curious and asked her, there was no road system, no railway lines in 12th century. Then how come those arrive in Sylhet from Delhi. She said, through river routes. In fact, during the British Raj, people from Sylhet used to visit Kolkata through river routes. But now those routes are closed. I would like to see those river routes reopened for tourists and for cost effective merchandise transport and communication. Since time immemorial, rivers have been the cradles of civilisation. They connect land, people, ideas and foster trade and commerce.
The South Asian and South East Asian region are endowed with ever flowing/perennial rivers and water bodies. Bangladesh and India share 54 joint rivers and these rivers have shaped the history, politics, culture, and economy of the countries for several centuries. No wonder that these rivers are considered holy and worshipped by many faiths living in the region. Rivers have sustained diverse ecosystems and provided for livelihood for millions of people.
If we talk about Bangladesh, it is known as the "land of the rivers." There are about 720 rivers including tributaries, which have a total length of about 24,140 km, one of the largest in the world. Rivers are the basic lifelines of Bangladesh and are accessible to the remotest areas of the country whereas roads and railways do not have such accessibilities. In Bangladesh, rivers have huge impact on our tradition, culture, music, lifestyle, and livelihood. It influences politics too.
In fact, rivers are as old as life on this planet. Rivers do not subscribe to the ideas of either nations or nation states. Rivers do not have borders. Rivers do not have nationalities. Rivers do not have religions. Rivers do not conform to our petty little ideas which we use to divide ourselves. Rivers are, instead, powerful entities which give birth to all things that build civilisations. In both creation and destruction, rivers don't discriminate according to beliefs, faiths, nationalities or even genders. It is not only that the people of Bangladesh and India are dependent on the river for sustaining lives and livelihoods; rather, throughout the history of mankind, we have seen that civilisations flourished and perished with the flow of navigable rivers.
Rivers were the lifelines of communication and the propagation of human habitations, ideas, ideologies and even core tenets of spirituality across this region. As said, we have seen gigantic cooking pots carried from Delhi to Sylhet by rivers as early as the 12th century at the Dargah of Hazrat Shahjalal (RA). The exponents of Vajrayana - Acharya Atisha Dipankar travelled from Vikrampur, what is now near Dhaka in Bangladesh, to as far as Tibet. Moroccan Ibne Botuta landed in Sylhet through river routes. Empires from Delhi came to the East by the rivers and by the same rivers the Sultanates of Bengal reached up to Delhi. As Meer Bahar notes in his book, the Mughal invasion of Bengal was fought back by the 12 Land-Lords Bara-Bhuiyans - Hindus and Muslims - together by the use of armoured elephants mounted on river boats. The Muslins of Dhaka and the minted coins of Vikramapur were found in the Roman and the Greek palaces and they had travelled by the rivers till they reached the open seas. The folklores of Chand Saodagar -- which originated in the North travelled as far as to Odisha and possibly beyond - with the flourishing spice trade from the far corners of the Southeast Asian archipelago.
For all practical reasons, Bengal was a major trading post for both the old silk roads and the rising European corporate powers colonising the new worlds in the east. By the end of the seventeenth century, today's Kolkata was the point of export for cotton textile made in what is today Bangladesh. Down the Ganges, these cotton and Bengal Tea were shipped to Europe. Networks of rivers made this subcontinent a lucrative place for foreign trading firms and even before the introduction of the rail roads, the rivers gave a seamless trading route to everyone who wanted to do business or simply travel.
Bangladesh and India have a long-standing protocol on Transit and Trade through inland waterways. Bangladesh has been giving Inland Water Transit and Transport facilities to India through Bangladesh territory for more than five decades now. The government of Sheikh Hasina is trying all that it can to recover the rivers lost to land-filling and land-grabbers.
The rights of the rivers of Bangladesh have been upheld by the country's Supreme Court. The Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh upheld the 2019 decision of the High Court (in Writ Petition ? 13989) which declared that the Turag River and all other rivers in the country are "living entities" with rights as "legal persons." With such a renewed and reinforced ideological and legal strength, we believe it is time to do more now!
Bangladesh believes in mutual friendship, trust and partnership in development and the strong bond that we share with India. We are conjoined since our birth and the relationship is embodied in the sanctum of human blood, shed for a common cause- freedom. Bangladesh hopes to be connected with India and to the rest of South Asia and ultimately be a land bridge between South and Southeast Asia in a seamless network of rails, rivers and other modes of transport. Given the strategic geopolitical location, Bangladesh can be a link to connect India, Myanmar, Thailand, Nepal and other east and south-east Asian countries and the entire The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) region can be hub for trade and business. In my mind, our cardinal axis would extend from Chottogram to Delhi - by river. We would connect the primary growth centres of the Gangetic and the Brahmaputra Plains in a hub and spoke model - leveraging on the dimensional displacements which each hub could generate in a certain economic space.
Bangladesh believes in a two-way expansion of the existing protocols that we already have. I believe that the existing Protocol on Inland Water Transit and Transport should be extended to connect the Indian National Waterways to Bangladeshi River system and connect the growth centres of Bangladesh and India, and then to Nepal and Bhutan. Connectivity must be point to point and not bound by national boundaries. I believe that through this platform, through the discussion, we can come up with innovative solutions and foundation of policies that would enable the nations to utilise the rivers to make the lives of the people more meaningful, add to their livelihood options, provide environment-friendly and cost-effective mode of transport and ensure development of mega infrastructures. I see magnificent possibilities. Peace, progress, prosperity - all in one go! We only need to be a little more assertive in our visions for a shared future.
One of the biggest challenges that Bangladesh faces is maintaining inland waterways. The rivers are silted up and during dry season total length of the waterway reduces significantly. Highly expensive and technically challenging capital dredging makes inland water path maintenance too difficult! Even the damage from flooding is unimaginable, as the water holding capacity of the rivers has been significantly reduced because of siltation-- to a great extent caused by the dams. A fully functioning network will allow a ship to pick up freight in Assam and sail south on the Brahmaputra river into Bangladesh. Bangladesh waterways may be utilised for the transportation and distribution of goods between Bangladesh, India as well as between land-locked Nepal and Bhutan and semi-land locked territory of North East India.
We do have some shared challenges between India and Bangladesh when it comes to Climate Change, Environment-ecosystem & Biodiversity protection, Seawater rise & saline water penetration, and last but not least, achieving Environment & Water-related Sustainable Development Goals i.e., SDGs. Though India and Bangladesh are separated by a physical border, yet our air, water, forests and many other natural resources are shared. The SDG Goal-6 is about Clean Water and Sanitation. Both India & Bangladesh have the shared SDG goal of ensuring safe and affordable drinking water for all by 2030. This requires adequate investment in future-proof infrastructure to protect surface water sources, reduce excessive dependence on groundwater, to keep river water pollution-free or less polluted from sewage, polyethylene and industrial waste, and micro plastics. We can work closely in protecting and restoring our essential water-related ecosystems.
The SDG Goal-13 is about Climate Action, where we can work closely too. Though the mass industrialisation and tremendous per capita energy consumption of the first world countries hold responsibility for global warming and irreversible climate change consequences, we can co-work in the region to secure best practices to protect our people, water, forest and environment. The SDG Goal-15 is about Life on Land. Together we can define urgent actions to reduce the loss of natural habitats and biodiversity which are part of our common heritage. By protecting rivers and river run biodiversity, we can achieve a little bit more climate resilience together. Together we can work to keep rivers alive for orchestrating economic and environmental sustainability. This is time to integrate every single development project to connect with environmental flow, ecology, and biodiversity and water science.
Over the last couple of years, both India and Bangladesh are experiencing the same common patterns of unprecedented floods and cyclones. The cyclone Amphan has caused tremendous damage to crops, infrastructure and livestock in both countries. Climate change intensifies both irregular rainfalls and draughts. The early and mid-season floods are causing economic, infrastructural and agricultural disasters in both upper riparian and lower riparian areas. Only weeks ago, both Assam and Bangladesh went through severe flash floods. In fact, the people of Bihar, Assam, West Bengal and Bangladesh, unfortunately, share the same fate from the disaster of floods. So, it's time to take flood management to the next level. We can together extend cooperation in processing weather satellite data and satellite image processing-based flood management for the Himalayan rivers. We can develop software and data science-based hydrological simulation models to set an efficient strategy for managing river dams and hydroelectric dams to drain excess rainwater into the Bay of Bengal much ahead of time. We can work on regional flood alarm centres too. In this way, through early warning system, we make a win-win situation to save people, livestock and infrastructure from massive losses. It's time for us to replace competition with cooperation.
Now, let me say a few words about Bangladesh and our bilateral relations with India in the context of connectivity and water sector cooperation. At the historic juncture of completing 50 years of bilateral ties, under the visionary leadership of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Prime Minister of India Shri Narendra Modi, Bangladesh-India relationship is now passing its 'Golden Chapter'. With regard to Bangladesh's relations with Indian north eastern states, factors like geographical proximity, close cultural and historical ties, economic complementarities are hugely contributing to the ever-growing bond between Bangladesh and north eastern states of India. Bangladesh's robust engagement with Indian north eastern states are intertwined and have always been at the heart of overall Indo-Bangladesh relationship. It is widely accepted by all that, there are huge prospects and potentials for promoting trade and investment and other economic activities for the mutual benefits of Bangladesh and the states of north eastern India. We may focus a bit on the exemplary economic achievement of Bangladesh and how this is contributing to the region. As you know, the rate of poverty in Bangladesh has been reduced from 41.5 per cent to 20.5 per cent, and extreme poverty from 28 per cent to 10.5 per cent; per capita income has tripled to more than US$ 2,800 in the last decade or so, under the dynamic leadership of the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Bangladesh is now one of the top five fastest-growing economies in the world. Bangladesh ranks number one in South Asia in tackling Covid-19 as featured in the report published by a Japan based organisation.
Our lives are river-centric. By listening to the names of rivers by which our people address these rivers very dearly, one would understand the place of rivers in our life. Along with our livelihood, our tales, stories, songs and music are connected with the river. The Bengali psyche likes to give imaginative names to everything we touch. We prefer pure and unadulterated love and affection. We call the river Ganges - river Padma (that means Lotus-like), we call the main branch of the river Brahmaputra Yamuna in remembrance of Lord Shri Krishna, and we have river named Mayurakkhi (which means eye of a peacock). We have the river Madhumati (that means sweet like honey) and Ichamati (the fulfilment of our desires) and in Sylhet, my home district, we call the river Surma (the holiness of beautiful eyes) and river Kushiyara (stream of happiness). In fact, 75 per cent of our body is water and 71 per cent of the planet earth is water, Rivers are entangled with every sphere of our life. Rivers are us. And we are the rivers. Rivers are our life.
I strongly believe, despite challenges, given goodwill and trust among the countries concerned, water can be successfully used as an effective means for enhancing ties in many ways. I expect positive outlook and political will from all the countries concerned. I might not live long to see it, but if we can work together in cooperation and in partnership, and design a win-win river and water sharing method, then our and your future generations will be proud of us.
Dr A K Abdul Momen, MP is the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Government of Bangladesh. [email protected]