Land Reclamation: Indo-Bangladesh Maritime Dispute
Alok Kumar Gupta , Saswati Chanda Research Scholars, JNU
Land reclamation is the process of claiming back submerged land from water bodies like oceans, sea, bays and rivers. The emergence of land is a natural phenomenon in water bodies through siltation and sedimentation over the years. It leads to disputes between countries if the land that emerges is common or lying along the continental shelf of two or more countries. The recent satellite images of the continental shelf of India and Bangladesh in the Bay of Bengal has raised hopes of such possibilities. Consequently, the issue has already led to disputes as both India and Bangladesh have already staked their respective claims.
The Agriculture Minister of Bangladesh, Motia Choudhury, while talking to The Daily Star on 5 July 2000 said that she was hopeful about the emergence of a huge area of fertile land from the sea, possibly equal to the size of Bangladesh. She further added that they have to explore this possibility, and would need money for reclamation from the donor countries.
Reasons for land reclamation
Bangladesh is seeking foreign assistance for land reclamation due to the fast depletion of agricultural land in the country. As farmlands are shrinking at an astounding rate of one million hectare each decade, the government finds land reclamation to be the only effective way of facing the emerging problem of food insecurity. According to the Bangladesh officials, despite increased productivity per hectare, food production would decrease due to land erosion. As per government estimates, Bangladesh is losing 221 hectares of cropland every day owing to industrialisation, urbanisation and river erosion.
According to Bangladesh’s official estimates, the area of cropland was more or less static at around nine million hectares from mid 1960s to mid 1980s. However, in the last one decade over one million hectares of cropland has disappeared. The country would have to grow an additional million tonnes of food grain by 2020 in a land area two million hectares less than what it is now. By that time the country’s projected population would be around 173 million.
Measures taken by Bangladesh for land reclamation
·A stopgap arrangement known as ‘land austerity measure’.
·A policy to acquire less land for construction of administrative buildings at district and thana levels.
·Generate foreign aid and investment for land reclamation in the Bay of Bengal. Anticipating the looming danger of land scarcity, Bangladesh first approached the Dutch for assistance in 1974 for land reclamation. Dhaka again asked for support on the land reclamation issue during the 1996 food summit in Rome.
Indian claim on sea areas
According to Bangladesh reports, India had prepared a document in the late nineties to lay claims on one million square kilometers of the Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea. India is of the opinion that the area forms its continental shelf. If the theory is accepted, countries sharing this shelf such as Bangladesh, Mayanmar, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Pakistan would be affected, and their maritime assets would be compromised.
In terms of international agreements, water areas with a depth less than 70 fathoms are marked as the shores from which economic zones of 200 miles are measured. This excludes 12 nautical miles of territorial waters. Bangladesh set its territorial water areas beyond this limit to establish its economic zone. This claim was also filed with the United Nations.
The only country, which vehemently opposed it, was India, with whom Bangladesh is locked in a dispute over maritime boundary, especially over TalpattyIsland. The problem has remained unresolved since then. The reason for low depth along the shores is that the Bangladesh river system carries billions of tonnes of sediment into the Bay of Bengal, and over the years it has led to accretion of a substantial landmass.
Bangladeshi scientists, while studying the satellite pictures during 1974, discovered that a huge landmass was emerging along its water areas in the Bay of Bengal. India has been accused of consistently refusing any border demarcation work in the area. Bangladesh’s claim was based on the pictures made available by NASA (US Space Agency) which, according to them, conclusively demolished Indian claims.
Bangladesh opines that they missed the opportunity to set up their own Oceanographic Study Centre offered by the USA, because of the wrong policy decisions of the government at that time. India, on the other hand, availed of the opportunity and made the best use of the Center to promote its future research in the area. The present claims most likely owe it origin to studies by this centre.
Bangladesh strongly feel that India does not have the continental shelf that develops with the kind of accretion that takes place along the Bangladesh coast lines. According to Indian claims the sea is continuously devouring its long shoreline. The total area eroded accounts for around a million square kilometres. If the Indian claims are accepted Bangladesh feels that it may be left with a very narrow water lane in the Bay of Bengal and it will lose islands like Talpatty and others.
However, the important point to be made here is that India’s neighbours on the continental shelf need to closely watch these developments and register their protest at the appropriate level.
Importance of the land
The landmass, which is expected to emerge, would contain important mineral resources such as oil and gas. For example, the areas around Talpatty have a potential for oil. Similarly, India’s claims on the Arabian Sea are of strategic and commercial importance for both India and Pakistan.
Therefore, Bangladesh alleges that the Indian move is motivated by strategic considerations to secure a permanent legal status and fulfill its expansionist designs. It is also alleged that the land reclamation in the Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea will automatically vest India with a controlling authority over the maritime movement of its neighbours.
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