REF: UN’s Permanent court of Arbitration will hold its final hearing on the India-Bangladesh maritime dispute at the Hague on Dec 9.
Indian ministry of external affairs officials say the dispute over a huge patch of sea at the mouth of the Hariabhanga river has been up for arbitration for four decades now.
The Permanent Court of Arbitration has been the final authority for settling such disputes between nations for the last one century.
The court will declare its final verdict in March, the officials said. The court’s judgment cannot be challenged under international law by any contending nation.
The neighbours have challenged each other’s claim over the nearly 80,000 sqkm sea zone in the Bay of Bengal from the time Bangladesh was born.
The zone includes a disputed maritime border — 12 nautical miles off the coast of each nation — and a large economic zone over which both assert exclusive rights because it is believed to rich in hydrocarbons, minerals and fishing resources.
In 2009, after a dozen rounds of inconclusive talks that started in 1974, Bangladesh’s Awami league government moved the Permanent Court of Arbitration.
India approached the court a year later.
“We have very good relations with Bangladesh but this is too complex a dispute better settled by an international court because that will leave no heartburns on either side,” said a senior official of the ministry of external affairs.
But he was not willing to be named on grounds that he is not formally authorised to brief the media.
India discovered 100 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in a creek about 50km to the south of the mouth of the Hariabhanga in 2006.
The natural gas reserve in this offshore structure is said to almost twice that of the entire Krishna-Godavari basin which is believed to be India’s biggest offshore gas find after the Bombay High.
But India decided not to try exploiting this structure because it lies in the disputed zone and Delhi was keen not to upset Dhaka on the issue.
The disputed sea zone actually stretches from the mouth of the Hariabhanga, where both India and Bangladesh have claimed an uninhabited island since it emerged in the 1970s.
The island that India called New Moore and Bangladesh called South Talpatty, went under the sea in 2010.
Indian officials say the island is not really important, though the Indian coast guards had planted a flag on it.
“But whoever gets the island will gain control over a triangular slice of sea stretching from the mouth of Hariabhanga river in the north to the submerged island in the south,” said an Indian official.
The disputed zone further expands at sea, if one goes by the divergence of interpretation by India and Bangladesh.
India says its maritime territory and the exclusive economic zones be demarcated on the basis of “equidistance” — equal distance from the nearest point on the coast for both nations.
The principle of equidistance, recognised under the UN Convention of the Law of Sea, actually helped Bangladesh win a similar maritime dispute against Myanmar last year.
But regarding its maritime dispute with India, Bangladesh has said that the principle of equidistance does not make sense as its coast has ‘large and frequent concave dimples’.
Instead, Bangladesh is arguing, the maritime territory should be demarcated on the principle of equity — equal areas of the sea for both nations.
Experts on international law, even in India, say Bangladesh has a point.
If the principle of equidistance is rigidly applied to determine India’s exclusive economic zone, Bangladesh will in effect end up as ‘a sea locked nation’.