India-Bangladesh: Can the Maritime Boundary Resolution Rebuild Faith?

24 Jul, 2014    ·   4589

Sonia Hukil writes how India and Bangladesh can use the settlement on the maritime boundary issue as a springboard towards better bilateral relations

Sonia Hukil
Sonia Hukil
Research Intern
The Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague recently rendered its judgment in the India-Bangladesh maritime boundary dispute in the Bay of Bengal on 7 July. The Arbitral tribunal unanimously ruled in favour of Bangladesh, awarding 19,467 sq km of the disputed 25,602 sq km in the Bay of Bengal, leaving 6,135 sq km for India. The award is binding on both the neighbouring countries, without scope for appeal. The verdict, marking an end to the long-standing bilateral maritime dispute, paves way for Bangladesh to explore for oil and gas reserves in the Bay of Bengal.
What are the implications of the settlement for India? Is there a potential way ahead for India-Bangladesh relations?

Win-Win Situation
The verdict is Bangladesh’s second successive victory over its maritime concerns post 2012, when the UN tribunal ruled in favour of Bangladesh in its discord with Myanmar. Although India lost maritime area larger than the state of West Bengal, New Delhi welcomed the tribunal’s ruling as a matter of satisfaction for numerous reasons.

First, in the delimitation process, Bangladesh’s claim on New Moore Island (or South Talpatti Island as referred to by Bangladesh) could not be substantiated. The PCA acknowledged India’s sovereignty over the island and granted it concomitant access to the Hariabhanga River. New Moore Island has been a traditional point of contention between the two countries since 1971. India believes the delimitation has been carried out in an arbitrary manner. Nonetheless, control of the disputed New Moore Island is viewed as a significant gain since the region is pitted to be a reservoir of oil and natural gas reserves. The Hariabhanga River is expected to hold almost twice the amount of hydrocarbon reserves than the Krishna-Godavari Basin in Andhra Pradesh. This ruling has enabled India to explore and exploit these potential oil and gas reserves alongside other mineral resources that could help strengthen its economy.

Second, the settlement has resulted in a clear delineation of the disputed territory allowing both parties to legally access the maritime resources within their respective economic zones. Offshore-drilled hydrocarbons are India’s the least explored energy options. The ruling provides India with the momentum to pursue offshore exploitation, either single-handedly or in partnership. Furthermore, the UN award has been openly welcomed by the Indian fisherman in West Bengal and Odisha as well as Bangladeshi fishermen as they will now enjoy access to miles of open sea that was unavailable to them for the past 40 years. Fishermen from both sides will be able to secure a bounty when fish near the coastal areas gets depleted.

Third, the tribunal’s award has split the maritime area in India’s favour. The total estimated area under question was 3,66, 854 sq km. India claimed the area to be divided in .a ratio of 1:3.44, while its Bangladeshi counterpart asserted for a 1:1.52 ratio. The tribunal split the disputed area in 1:2.81 ratio – which is substantially closer to India’s claim.

Possible Way Ahead for India-Bangladesh Relationship
The Bay of Bengal maritime boundary settlement is a historic development in the 40 years of dispute between India and Bangladesh. Although, both the parties fell short of their maritime expectations, the settlement is likely to strengthen and intensify their bilateral ties. The verdict will enhance mutual understanding and cooperation between the two neighbours in maritime sector activities such as exploration of offshore resources, for mutual gains. India and Bangladesh can now cooperate extensively in the conservation of the natural heritage in the Sundarbans. The ruling also paves the way for enhancing economic development of the maritime area by increasing the possibilities of joint projects becoming feasible – aiding both New Delhi and Dhaka.  It is thus a win-win situation for the countries as expressed by their foreign ministries.

From a political standpoint, the maritime settlement is likely to lessen insecurities and improve the trust factor between the two countries. This instance should be treated as a lesson, and should encourage the two countries to cooperate on other long-pending issues of dispute – the Land Boundary Agreement and Teesta water sharing agreement.

Furthermore, both parties’ open acceptance of the UN ruling is likely to make them look like respectable countries that accept international legal practices. Moreover, for India this can counter perceptions of attaining regional dominance and distinguish it from an expansionist China. Hopefully, this will also be an example for other countries with disputed territories to follow suit.

Finally, the proliferation of diplomatic solutions in the bilateral relationship between India and Bangladesh, although slow, has generated optimism for amicable relations between the two neighbours. The ground for a steady progress in the bilateral has been laid. Hopefully, the two South Asian neighbours will continue giving peace and diplomacy a chance.