The judgement of the UN’s Permanent Court of Arbitration, in the matter of the disputed waters of the Bay of Bengal between India and Bangladesh, has been rightly welcomed by both parties. The verdict is binding on all parties and there is no option for appeal. This means that for all intents and purposes, all our long-standing disputes over territorial claims in the Bay of Bengal now stand resolved, given the previous ruling in 2012 by the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, that sorted out the claims contested between Bangladesh and Myanmar.
Much is being made of the fact that Bangladesh has ‘won’ an area equivalent to nearly four-fifths of the total 25,000 sq. km. under dispute. Perhaps this is understandable of a government eager to trumpet some good news to distract the nation from a plethora of problems in other areas. On the other hand, some dissenting voices, mainly from the opposition camp, have been mourning the loss of the shallow-lying South Talpatty island, that probably no Bangladeshi has ever visited, and on which reports have been circulating since 2010 that rising sea levels caused by global warming have already submerged it. This inability to settle on one view over a court decision is reflective of the sheer divisiveness ingrained in our political culture. A more considered and beneficial attitude would recognise that the important thing to monitor is what happens next. These are waters deep in the ocean that really only matter in proportion to the hydrocarbon deposits they hide. It doesn’t really mean much unless the redrawn Exclusive Economic Zone of either country resulting from the verdict turns out to contain oil and gas reserves. Despite the smaller award to India, it may well be that its 6,000-odd sq. km. fall in the most resourceful portion of the area up for grabs. Since the EEZ has no bearing on territorial sovereignty – meaning ships from other countries can enter them freely – the 19,467 sq. km. won by Bangladesh will really make little difference to Bangladeshis, unless we find oil and gas deposits that can be extracted in a commercially viable way.
For that to happen, Dhaka must start the process of oil-and-gas exploration in the newly established zone under its jurisdiction. This may take some time though. At this point, the more important point that the Bangladesh side can take away from this could be the benefits of going through the UN system to resolve some of the other disputed issues with our larger neighbour, that have floundered up until now in bilateral talks. This should encourage the government to ratify the UN Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Rivers, that will allow Bangladesh to pursue its claims for an equitable and fair share of the 54 rivers that flow into it from India – starting with the Teesta