In 1929, the British reached an agreement with Rana Prime Minister Chandra Shumshere to an unequal swap. India would build the Sarda Barrage on the border river of Mahakali in Nepal’s west and receive some Nepali territory for the purpos e. In return, Nepal would get 4,000 acres of sal forest in Allahabad Presidency District which lay to the east and fifty thousand rupees.
The sal forest is long gone, but under the agreement, the Sarda Barrage continues to take away most of the water of the Mahakali. The Mahakali has a mean annual flow between 1100 to 1300 cubic meters per second (cumec), and the Sarda canal takes away about 400 cumec. When, in the 1970s, with World Bank help, Nepal initiated the Mahakali Irrigation Project just above the Sarda Barrage, it was allowed to withdraw about 460 cusec of water as per the old agreement.
In the early 1980s, when Nepal first heard of Indian plans for a power project upstream at Tanakpur and made enquiries, it is reliably learnt, New Delhi denied the existence any such design. Subsequently, when the earthworks could not be hidden, the Indian side came back and said that the Tanakpur power project (for that was what it was) would not affect Nepal in any way. Actually, this 125 MW Tanakpur hydro-electric project, completed in 1988, had serious physical implications for the Mahakali Irrigation Project. Initial plans were to divert most of the Mahakali water to the power house and direct the exiting water through a tail-race channel into the Sarda Canal. Because, apparently, the canal cannot take so much water it has now been agreed that the outflow from Tanakpur will be released back into the Maliakali, above the Sarda Barrage and the Mahakali Irrigation intake.
In order to capture the Mahakali water for the Tanakpur power house, Indian engineers built a weir part way across the river. However, rivers do not always follow the engineer’s dictates, and the Mahakali flowed away from the weir, in the process taking away 33 acres of Nepali land. The Indian side now wants permission from Kathmandu to extend the weir (“afflux bund”) all the way across the river into Nepal so that the Mahakali is better controlled and Tanakpur Power Plant properly supplied.
If there is a “common river” in the Himalaya, it is the Mahakali which flows between Nepal and India. Its water should, under the ideal conditions, be shared equally. Through a quirk of history (Chandra Shumshere’s deal with the British), the Indian side happens to own both sides of this common river at the point where the Sarda Barrage is built. As a result, both the power to be made as well as the land to be irrigated out of the Mahakali water from projects to date benefit India overwhelmingly.
In order to save Tanakpur, Nepal is now being asked to allow the construction of a weir across the Mahakali which would intrude into Nepali territory. What should Nepal do? Show magnanimity, obviously. What should India do? Perhaps right a British wrong and come up with a formula for more equitable sharing of the Mahakali waters. Perhaps half of Tanakpur’s electricity output, or perhaps half of the river’s flow, or perhaps something in between.
— D. Gyawali & A. Dixit.