Why the Teesta matters

Why the Teesta matters

Effective hydro-diplomacy is essential in correcting troubled India-Bangladesh relations.
Sluice gates on a canal in West Bengal originating from the Teesta Barrage.<br />Photo: Flickr / International Rivers
Sluice gates on a canal in West Bengal originating from the Teesta Barrage.
Photo: Flickr / International Rivers

Foreign-policy analysts in India and Bangladesh are concerned over the growing differences between New Delhi and Dhaka regarding the sharing of water resources. The inability of Indian leaders to reach an understanding with their Bangladeshi counterparts on the vexed Teesta issue is emerging as a major threat to the two countries' multi-faceted bilateral ties. Following the change of guard at India's Centre, the Awami League (AL) government in Dhaka is expecting a speedy resolution of the sharing of the Teesta waters.

New Delhi is fully aware of the political significance of signing an agreement on the Teesta, but has failed to do so largely as a result of West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee's firm resistance to it. It seems unlikely that Banerjee will adopt an accommodative approach and come to an understanding with the Narendra Modi-led government, particularly after the Trinamool Congress' resounding victory in Lok Sabha elections. Banerjee has repeatedly stressed that her primary concern is to protect the interests of West Bengal. In the process, India-Bangladesh relations may be negatively affected.

Common property
Bangladesh and India share 54 common rivers, both big and small. Owing to its lower riparian status, Bangladesh expects an accommodative attitude from India on water-sharing issues. Following the signing of the Ganga Water Sharing Treaty in 1996, both sides underscored the necessity of reaching an understanding on sharing the waters of the Teesta. The Joint River Commission – a bilateral institutional mechanism formed by the two countries specifically to deal with these issues – noted that the waters of some other rivers, such as the Manu, Khowai, Gumti, Muhuri, Jaldhaka and Torsa also deserve attention. Both countries have since taken steps to protect riverbanks. 

Beyond the Teesta, Bangladesh is keen to import power from India's Northeast, which has significant potential to develop hydroelectric power. Of late, Dhaka has explored the possibilities of harnessing the mighty Brahmaputra as the country faces acute power shortages. In October 2013, the Bangladesh prime minister's International Affairs Advisor Dr Gowher Rizvi and the country's High Commissioner to India Tariq A Karim met the chief ministers of Assam and Meghalaya and sought their cooperation in this regard. So far, nothing concrete has emerged.

Though sources of hydroelectricity are vital for Bangladesh, India's attempts to dam and divert the water of common rivers have evoked sharp reactions. Bangladesh has, for example, raised concerns about the ecological consequences of the proposed Tipaimukh Hydroelectric Project in Manipur. New Delhi attempted to assure Dhaka that it would not do anything that would hurt the interests of the lower riparian country. In August 2012, Indian officials submitted a copy of the Detailed Project Report of the dam and finalised the modalities of undertaking a joint study on the dam's impact. A joint study group was instituted to evaluate the project's impact on catchment areas, biodiversity and availability of water in some other rivers like the Surma, Kushiara and Meghna. The Indian government assured Dhaka that the barrage would release more water during the dry season but restrict the same in time of monsoon to save the country from inundation. Besides, New Delhi invited Bangladesh, which has been facing acute power shortage, to buy a stake in the 1500 megawatt Tipaimukh Project.     

Despite these efforts, the common perception in Bangladesh is that India is depriving it of its due share of water resources. In December 2012 and January 2013, the Bangladesh Foreign Ministry sent letters to India's External Affairs Ministry expressing its objection to the proposed construction of dams on the Umiew and Myntdu rivers in Meghalaya. Dhaka urged New Delhi not to proceed with the project "without prior consultation with the downstream country".

Again in April 2014, Bangladeshi experts and the AL government reacted strongly to the Indian Supreme Court's judgment calling for the immediate implementation of the National River Linking Project. Dhaka's water experts are worried that the project, which envisages linking 30 major rivers and diverting the waters of the Ganga and the Brahmaputra, could have a catastrophic impact on nearly 30,000 square kilometres of land in Bangladesh. Bangladeshi water experts, government officials, journalists and academicians have long expressed concern at India's efforts to redirect the flows of the Brahmaputra and the Ganga rivers to northern, western and southern parts of India, and the possibility that it will threaten the livelihoods of more than 100 million people in Bangladesh. Besides this, some of Bangladesh's rivers, including the Madhumati, Daleshwari, Padma and Meghna, could experience saline sedimentation. Several other rivers, including the Gorai, Nabaganga, Ichamati, Mathabhanga, Kapotakkhya, Betna, Surma, Kushiara, Buriganga, Sitalakhya, Arial Kha and Turag, may shrink. 

Against the flow
New Delhi and Dhaka reached a common-ground understanding on the sharing of the Teesta and Feni rivers during the September 2011 bilateral summit that would hold until necessary data was collected through a joint hydrological study. Both governments signed a 15-year interim agreement covering the sharing of water during the scarce season between October and April. But the UPA government was perplexed by Banerjee's last-minute withdrawal from the Indian delegation. Union government officials pointed out that she had earlier agreed to a deal that would ensure Bangladesh received a 48 percent share of the Teesta waters. Banerjee subsequently changed her stand, saying she believed that Bangladesh would get 33,000 cubic feet per second (cusec) of water annually, instead of the 25,000 cusecs originally agreed upon. The UPA government, however, said that the government of West Bengal was briefed regarding the matter.

The Central Water Commission has explored the modalities of a mutually acceptable formula for sharing the Teesta waters on the basis of a report prepared by Kalyan Rudra, the river expert appointed by the Bengal government in late October 2011. Rudra submitted a preliminary report in early December 2012. The committee suggested that the Teesta waters could be shared on a 65 to 35 or 60 to 40 basis at the time of monsoon and on a 70 to 30 ratio during the dry season, when both North Bengal and northwestern parts of Bangladesh face a similar drought-like situation. The Teesta originates in Sikkim near Panhunri glaciers. A key factor that has restricted the flow of water before it enters Bengal has been the construction of more than ten hydroelectric projects over the river in the neighbouring province.

Banerjee's seemingly irreconcilable position on the Teesta is also related to non-water issues. Some political observers in West Bengal maintain that serious differences between the Union and State governments over financial allocations had stood in the way of finalising a deal on the Teesta. It seems plausible that Banerjee would prefer to continue such tactics while dealing with the Modi-led government at the Centre. The Teesta issue offers Banerjee leverage in demanding more financial assistance for the state. It is quite possible that this will be exploited. Statements made by Banerjee concerning the Teesta and other contentious bilateral issues during the 2014 Lok Sabha polls are ominous, and may hamper the strengthening of friendly relations with Bangladesh.

At present, both countries have only one river sharing agreement – the Ganga water sharing treaty of 1996 – and Banerjee has already complained that West Bengal is paying the price for the "Centre's generosity". Banerjee has accused the Union government of hiding "facts about the two damaged sluice gates on the Farakka Barrage resulting in Bangladesh getting more than its share of [the] Ganga water", and has alleged that according to existing treaties, Bangladesh is entitled to receive 35,000 cusecs of water during the lean season, but in practice is getting 82,801 cusecs due to the malfunctioning of the sluice gates. It is further claimed that a conspiracy is being hatched by some quarters to deprive West Bengal of its due share of the Ganga's water.

Multiple benefits
In 1996, India rose above petty politics and delivered on the sharing of the Ganga waters. This was possible primarily because of the statesmanship of Jyoti Basu, the then chief minister of West Bengal. Unlike her predecessor, Banerjee does not have organic ties to Bangladesh, though she occasionally acknowledges the importance of maintaining friendly relations, particularly in the context of the cultural affinities of the people living on both sides of the international border. While inaugurating the Kolkata Book Fair in January 2013, Banerjee observed that it was politics rather than geography that had divided the two Bengals. The focal theme of that year's book fair was Bangladesh. Somewhat ironically, Banerjee herself often resorts to politicising crucial foreign policy matters.

India's failure to deliver on the Teesta has, undoubtedly, made many Bangladeshi officials unhappy. An arrangement on the sharing of the Teesta is critical for Sheikh Hasina to survive in Bangladesh's volatile political milieu. The AL government is already under considerable pressure from various domestic quarters for improving relations with the giant neighbour without substantially gaining in return. A successful deal on the Teesta could have a positive impact on resolving other longstanding water-sharing issues, including those related to the Feni, which flows through Tripura into Bangladesh. During the 2011 Dhaka Summit, Bangladesh was optimistic that the Teesta accord would lead to a similar agreement on the Feni river. Like the Teesta agreement, a separate deal was finalised for sharing the Feni river water, though was not signed. Commentators in Bangladesh have suggested that Dhaka lacked enthusiasm after New Delhi's decision to defer the Teesta deal.

Following the formation of the National Democratic Alliance government, India has consistently engaged with Bangladesh. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj visited Dhaka in June and held talks with Bangladeshi leaders on all major bilateral issues, including the Teesta. Swaraj assured the Bangladesh government that New Delhi is trying to build consensus among stakeholders on issues related to the Teesta. Meanwhile, Sheikh Hasina has attempted to make clear the importance of the Teesta for Bangladesh, especially in the dry season between December and March, when the flow of water is greatly reduced.

The most contentious issue in India-Bangladesh relations is certainly the Teesta. Mamata Banerjee is likely to follow a tough line vis-à-vis the new political dispensation at the Centre, and in the emerging scenario the Teesta question is uncertain. But it is important for India to strike a deal sooner rather than later, since Dhaka is not inclined to provide transit facilities to the landlocked Northeastern states of India unless New Delhi reciprocates on the Teesta issue. It is high time that the political elites of India desist from hijacking major foreign policy issues and come to terms on the question of sharing common rivers. The need of the hour is also to accommodate the interests of Bangladesh, which is in a disadvantageous position owing to its lower riparian status. A change of attitude on the part of political parties is earnestly required since most of the bilateral issues are interlinked. Successful hydro-diplomacy could have a multiplier effect on various other unresolved issues. It is imperative that both governments chalk out a long-term plan for the harnessing of water resources that they have at their disposal. Cooperation, rather than competition, should be the bedrock of future India-Bangladesh relations.

~ Rupak Bhattacharjee is an independent analyst. He can be contacted at drrupakbhatacharjee_2011[at]hotmail.com.

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