Who ´won´ and who ´lost´ in December´s Indo-Bangla agreement on sharing the waters of the Ganga? The answer is hard to find in the complicated calculations that appear to have gone into the treaty. However, we will know soon enough, as the driest months up ahead reduce the river´s flow at Farakka´s sluices.
At last, the ice on the Ganga has melted. India and Bangladesh seem to have resolved the highly sensitive political problem of sharing the waters of the Ganga in its lower reaches. On 12 December, the two countries signed a 30-year water-sharing treaty, taking advantage of new political equations in both New Delhi and Dhaka. In India, the United Front coalition came to power with the dovish I.K. Gujral as Foreign Minister, and in Bangladesh the purportedly “India-leaning” Awami League of Sheikh Hasina Wajed returned to govern after 21 years in the wilderness. The new treaty was the outcome of six months of shuttle diplomacy between Dhaka, New Delhi and Calcutta.
In the main, agreement was possible because of India´s backtracking on its insistence on the “transit for water” trade-off (see accompanying story). Bangladesh, meanwhile, proved capable of taking swift diplomatic advantage of the “Gujral Doctrine”, in which India says it does not demand reciprocity on dealings with its smaller neighbours. Dhaka was in a hurry because it realised very well that the United Front government survives on borrowed time, at the convenience of the Congress party. A final breakthrough, in which Chief Minister Jyoti Basu of West Bengal seems to have played a central role, was achieved at the penultimate moment when Prime Minister Shiekh Hasina arrived in New Delhi on 10 December for the signing. Thus ended a protracted and often-acrimonious dialogue between the two countries, spanning almost two and half decades. The period saw the expiration of one five-year agreement and several short-term understandings.
On both sides of the Indo-Bangla border, reaction to the Decemuber accord has ranged from the euphoric to the condemnatory. Much of this response to the treaty was, of course, nothing more than obligatory political reaction. Such is the complexity of the water-sharing formulae in the treaty that the nay-sayers do not seem to know on what grounds to criticise the document. On the other hand, even the euphoric supporters can do nothing more than point to the treaty´s very signing as a positive exercise. And because it is so hard to say at the moment who has gained and who has not, each side was able to claim advantage for itself.
The verdict on who ´won´ and who ´lost´ may only be possible after careful study of the treaty document and the assumptions made therein regarding the volume of water (low during the lean season. All in all, the definitive word may not be out on the December accord until the upcoming dry season period of minimal flow, and then in the following years.
Construction of the Farakka barrage on the Ganga was started in 1966, and was nearing completion when Bangladesh became independent with Indian military support in 1971. While differences over dividing the Ganga´s flow had already surfaced back in 1947, the reality of the barrage´s completion by India brought matters to a head. There was no evading discussion with Dhaka on riparian rights and allocations.
The Farakka project as built consisted of a 2245 m long barrage across the Ganga´s main channel, just above where it becomes a border river. A feeder canal which is 38 km long, 150 m wide, and 6 m deep, was to take a maximum of 40,000 cusecs (cubic feet per second) of the Ganga´s flow into the Bhagirathi, a distributary of the great river. The rationale for Farakka was to “flush” the Bhagirathi (which later becomes the Hooghly) of silt so as to make Calcutta port more efficient, which was the reason for Chief Minister Basu´s being part of the negotiations.
Four years after Bangladeshi independence, in 1975, New Delhi sought Dhaka´s agreement to do a test run of the feeder canal. With New Delhi presenting the barrage as a fail accompli, the Awami League government was forced to regard it as a political reality. It could not object, if only to show gratitude for India´s role in the support tor independence. For India, unilateral appropriation of water without Dhaka´s concurrence would have been bad public relations. At the same time, it would have provided a precedent for Nepal or Bhutan to follow as upperriparian states vis-a-vis India itself. So, New Delhi was constrained to make a try at reaching agreement on drawing water from the Ganga.
The agreement of 1975 was officially valid only for a test period of 41 days, signed as it was to allow the commissioning of the barrage. The agreement allowed India to divert 11,000 cusecs flow into the feeder canal in April and 16,000 cusecs in May of 1975, and no follow-up action was taken when the test run ended on 31 May 1975. Incredibly, however, the diversion of waters continued in the absence of further understanding.
The bilateral bonhomie achieved at independence evaporated soon enough as each country set about the business of asserting its national right to a limited physical resource. Infuriated by what it called “unilateral withdrawal” by upstream India, Dhaka internationalised the issue by taking it to the United Nations in 1976. While that initiative proved futile, the prospects improved in 1977 when Indira Gandhi was voted out of power and the Janata Party briefly held the reins. The accord signed the same year was meant for five years and covered the annual lean season between 1 January and 31 May. It specified the shares of both countries on a 10-day schedule. On the leanest ten-day period of April, India was to get 20,500 cusecs and Bangladesh 34,500 cusecs. The agreement expired in November 1982.
The 1977 agreement initially contained a “guarantee clause” which stated that if the Ganga´s flow at Farakka came down to such a level that the share of Bangladesh is lower than the 80 percent of the quantum pledged to it, then India would be obliged to release enough water to make up that 80 percent share. It seems Indira Gandhi, who had by then come back to power, disliked such a commitment, and Gen Ershad, who was by then ruling in Dhaka, agreed to carry out a surgical operation on the 1977 agreement. Instead of the earlier formula, the principle of sharing the burden when the river ran low was adopted. (It is this same principle which seems to have guided the negotiators in 1996.)
The period between 1996 December and 1982 November was interspersed with several water-sharing memoranda of understanding between the two countries. Many rounds of meetings were held to discuss the augmentation of the lean season flow at Farakka, the need for joint studies, and the importance of exchanging data. These meetings could achieve little more than ad hoc short-term arrangements, and there was stalemate on all matters related to permanent measures. One of the points of disagreement was on augmenting the amount of water in the Ganga, with Bangladesh insisting on upstream reservoir projects, including in Nepal, while the Indian proposal was to transfer some of the Brahmaputra´s flow through a canal to the Farakka barrage.
Each side rejected the other´s suggestion. New Delhi felt that the “regulated waters” from any upstream storage should be reserved for its own future requirements in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal. Dhaka believed that a canal from the Brahmaputra (Jamuna in Bangladesh) to the Ganga would exact all kinds of unacceptable social, technical, economic, political, ecological and strategic fallout.
In the absence of a negotiated long-term settlement, India continued to divert the Ganga waters into the Bhagirathi on the basis of the ad hoc arrangements. During the dry season, the river´s flow at downstream Hardinge Bridge across the border dropped to a fraction of its earlier volume. The mighty Padma—the main channel of the Ganga—became almost fordable during the winter months.
The reduction of flow into the main channel delivered a many-sided blow to the region downstream from Farakka: it lowered ground water levels, changed the river morphology, disturbed riverine navigation, increased salinity, upset the natural balance in the mangrove forests of the Sundarban, and severely affected fisheries, forestry, agriculture and public health.
It is clear that the Farakka diversion over the last decade was one of the reasons that contributed to the creation of poverty among the downstream Ganga population. Meanwhile, the hullabaloo over the impact on the lower-riparian Bangladesh quite diverted the attention of planners and activists alike from the grievous fallout of Farakka on upstream West Bengal and Bihar. The area above the barrage became additionally vulnerable to floods as a result of the new construction, and a host of problems related to “drainage congestion” arose, such as waterlogging and spread of the disease kaalazar (black fever).
Formulae for Sharing
The subjects relating to allocation of waters of the Ganga as an international river, the process of negotiations, the impact of declining flow, the creation and sustenance of scientific and environmental myths, have all been the subject of research, analyses and interpretations by scholar from within and outside South Asia. The late 1980s saw the initiation of several collaborative studies by scholars of the region, who attempted to arrive at an alternative framework for development and management of the waters of the Ganga, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers.
What these studies show clearly is that even though it was a solution proposed and unilaterally implemented to solve a technical problem (that of “flushing” Calcutta port), from its very inception, Farakka gained a personality that was exclusively political. South Block in New Delhi became the maker and breaker of dreams for a faraway population which saw the historical flow of a river suddenly diminish through a manmade diversion. And for a decade and a half, policy-makers in the Indian Foreign Ministry stood their position on Farakka.
What, then, made the new agreement of 1996 possible after such a long impasse? While the window of opportunity created by the change of guard in both Delhi and Dhaka clearly was one factor, this in itself does not explain the amenability of both sides to agreement. Careful examination of the treaty document leads to the conclusion that this was more due to the fact that higher flow was seen to be available at Farakka than the 1977 data indicated. This meant that each side was able to claim before their individual constituencies that it was receiving more water than before.
The treaty of December 1996, like its 1977 predecessor, covers the sharing of the Ganga waters between the period of 1 January and 31 May, there being no need to have a sharing agreement during the other seasons when there is flow aplenty (often excessive and unwanted) on the river. The accord has stipulated three primary formulae for allocating share of the water to each country subject to availability. Whereas the 1977 accord based its calculations on 24 years´ of How data from 1949 to 1973, the 1996 treaty´s formulae are based on mean discharge at Farakka for the period 1949-1988. The 1977 agreement was based on 75 percent availability (i.e. the stated quantity of water would be available three times out of four) of flow, whereas this factor is not mentioned in the new treaty.
The following, then, are the formulae for sharing as contained in Annexure-I of the 1996 instrument, lor individual 10-day periods between 1 January and 31 May: Incase there is more than 75,000 cusecs available at Farakka, India will get 40,000 cusecs and Bangladesh the rest. If the flow is between 70,000-75,000 cusecs, Bangladesh will get 35,000 cusecs and India the balance. The flow will be shared on a 50:50 basis when the quantity in consecutive 10-day periods is 70,000 cusecs or less, subject to the condition that each will receive guaranteed 35,000 cusecs of water in three alternate ten days from 11 March to 10 May.
An understanding of who gained and who lost in 1996 can only be achieved through a thorough analysis of these calculations. What has been touted as a 50:50 formula overall is definitely not as straight-forward as it seems. The treaty allocates the total quantum from 11 March-10 May equally between the two countries with a stipulation that each receive a minimum of 35,000 cusecs in alternate ten-day periods. But the treaty is silent on the need for sharing when the flow is less than 70,000 cusecs in any other ten-day period than the 60-day stretch specified above.
Understandably, on both sides, those who were involved in concluding the treaty are jubilant, each being able to claim that it has delivered more water than before. Also, Bangladesh may now proceed with its irrigation development plan in the lower Ganga basin, and the water salinity levels in southwest Bangladesh is expected to go down. There is the challenge, however, of establishing an institutional mechanism for fair allocation of water received as a result of the accord on the various affected claimants. On the Indian side, as minimum flow has been guaranteed, the West Bengal government may take up modernisation plans for Calcutta port with more confidence.
Discussion of the possible long term implications are, unfortunately, being drowned out by the continuing hype and hoopla over the treaty-signing. This has been fed by the lack of understanding among media commentators of the intricate nature of this agreement. So, on the one hand, you have those who trumpet the equal “50:50” nature of the agreement that has been achieved, and on the other are those arrayed against the treaty who use any which argument to condemn it.
Rather than give in to the nationalist and/or partisan bias so evident on all sides, it is better to fall back upon the dispassionate study of the 15-year experience of Farakka that has been done by South Asian and overseas scholars. A study of the work by such scholars regarding the management of water resources generally and international rivers in particular is bound to be more educational than the blinkered spoutings of media commentators. In this context, two important issues deserve analysis in terms of the December 1996 instrument: a) the quantum of water available at Farakka, and b) the broader lessons for water management in South Asia.
Two ambiguities emerge with regard to the flow data in the 1996 instrument. Firstly, why did the negotiators decide to use only the discharge data up to 1988 when data up to 1995 was available? This ambiguity may be cleared rather easily: it was in 1988 that the last memorandum of understanding on water-sharing expired, when Bangladesh also, incidentally, experienced its worst flood. There was no sharing of data on the Ganga´s flow after 1988, and so negotiators seem to have decided to go only with the figures which has been mutually verified.
The second ambiguity, more difficult to fathom, has to do with the fact that the quantum of dry season flow in the Ganga accepted by the 1996 treaty is greater by 12 percent than the figure given in the 1977 treaty. (Both pre- and post-Farakka discharges were taken together in the calculations of the 1996 treaty.)
This reported increase is most incongruous because Bangladesh has consistently held that the flow of the Ganga has been declining continuously in the post-Farakka period. Also, according to the Indo-Bangla Joint Rivers Commission, the January, February and March discharges of the Ganga at Farakka were less by 8,10, and 12 per cent, respectively, in the post-Farakka period (1975-1988) compared with the pre-Farakka period (1949-1973) flow.
The explanation for this reported reduced flow has been the increased diversion of water in upstream India for irrigation, urban and industrial use, and other purposes. Even though actual inventory of total waters diverted from the Ganga and its tributaries has not been carried out, this has been the logical explanation for the declining volume of the downstream Ganga. Most of the ´extraction´ of water upstream has taken place in Uttar Pradesh and on the four mam Ganga tributaries emerging from Nepal—the Mahakali, Ghagra (Karnali), Narayani and Kosi—which are diverted for irrigation, largely in India, as they enter the plains. These irrigation schemes on or near the Nepal border all exceed the dry season flow of these rivers, which is estimated to contribute 71 percent of the Ganga´s natural lean season flow. It was quite logical, then, to believe that the flow at Farakka has declined progressively over the years.
And yet, the Joint Expert Team of Bangladesh, upon their return from the Farakka barrage site in October 1996, reported that, for natural reasons, the dry season discharge at Farakka has not [alien below the level of 1977. Furthermore, the treaty now stipulates that the dry season flow on the Ganga is actually higher than in 1977. This, then, adds a most confusing element in the effort to analyse the 1996 instrument.
Studies of monsoon precipitation in India for the better part of a century and in Nepal since 1971 do not indicate any increasing or decreasing trend. The net amount of rainfall has remained more or less constant, so it is unlikely that there has been increased flow at Farakka due to heavier monsoons in the last 15 years.
The mystery of this reported rise in the Ganga´s flow remains, at this writing, unresolved. If the lean season flow at Farakka were available as stipulated in the treaty, then there would of course be no problem in implementing the three-tier formulae that has been set by the instrument. However, if one regards all the data otherwise available on the steadily decreasing dry season flows of the Ganga as credible, then the treaty will be put to severe test. The entire edifice of the 1996 instrument rests on this reported availability of increased dry-season flow.
Meanwhile, no sharing arrangement has been stipulated if the discharge were to fall below 50,000 cusecs. Article III of the treaty says that in such cases the “the two governments will enter into immediate consultations to make adjustments”, a provision which has been reproduced from the 1982 memorandum of understanding. The reference to consultations is quite meaningless in this context, as water does not wait and will be lost by the time a meeting is held. In 1983, for example, the low flow occurred in March-April and the consultation was held in July, by which time the damage had long been done through continuing unilateral diversion.
The fact is that a discharge below 50,000 cusecs is not at all uncommon at Farakka. For example, the mean discharge for two months in the spring of 1980 was below this threshold, and this was again true in March-April 1983. Statistical evidence also suggests that it is highly unlikely that the flow will exceed this quantity in March and April of an average year. This, incidentally, is a most critical period as far as Bangladesh is concerned.
There arc other aspects of the treaty which are interesting, besides the unexplained reference to greater flows on the Ganga and the inability to set down a sharing procedure for an all-too-probable below-50,000 cusecs flow. While Bangladesh has failed to incorporate a guarantee clause in the treaty in its favour, India has secured a guarantee of 40,000 cusecs of water when the discharge exceeds 75,000 cusecs. The new treaty thus allows India to utilise the full capacity of the feeder canal throughout the dry season by appropriating 50 percent of the seasonal flow. On this count, undoubtedly, the treaty favours India as compared to the earlier 1975 and 1977 agreements.
The treaty´s Article X provides the two parties with the option of re-negotiating the terms and conditions within it. Either party may ask for a review with regard to the impact and working of the Treaty within two years from the dale of its enforcement. However, Article X should be read with Article XI, which has awarded India the authority to regulate the water. In the absence of mutual adjustments during any review, according to Article XI again, India is not obliged to release more than 90 percent of Bangladesh´s share. In that case, in the critical periods of March and April, the balance will be tilted in favour of India.
Operationalising Water Management
Despite the ambiguities and questions that remain unanswered, the 1996 Treaty should perhaps be seen at this juncture as a geopolitical instrument which seeks to remove an irritant in Indo-Bangladesh relations, which will in turn allow cooperation to take place between the two countries in oilier areas, including water management. And there are, to be sure, two clauses which give cause for some optimism regarding the operationalisation of the treaty.
Firstly, Article II (ii) of the Treaty says that every effort will be made by the upper riparian to protect flow of water at Farakka as per the data available over 40 years. The whole range of questions that govern water management not considered central so far—quality, allocation, rising competition among various users, and the role of institutions—will now have to be considered seriously by India as an upper riparian. While the treaty commitments may well initiate a more conservation-oriented practice in water management in India, the commitments may also necessitate some severe institutional changes within India´s federal structure to redefine the role of the Centre vis-a-vis state governments when it comes to water management.
The Constitution of India gives state governments the authority to legislate regulations and plan the development of inter-state rivers. While the Union Government has the authority to be involved in such regulation and development, to the extent that Parliament declares it to be in the public interest, no law to such effect has yet been enacted in India. Parliament may now face the need to pass such a law in order to assure Bangladesh the quantum of water stipulated in an internationally binding treaty.
The efforts to implement the 1996 instrument is therefore likely to give rise to a protracted constitutional debate in India, especially given that the Hindi heartland states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar would be the ´losers´ in trying to maintain the promised flow for Bangladesh. Initial indications are that Uttar Pradeshis may be placated by a New Delhi pointing to the Indo-Nepal Mahakali Treaty which safeguards their “prior use” of the significant (low of the Mahakali river. It is Bihar, which has always felt that its interests go unheeded by New Delhi and others, which is already grumbling about the Farakka accord.
Secondly, the role of the Joint Rivers Commission as set out in the Treaty also offers some hope. It is this body which will have to demystify the elements of the treaty that remain shrouded in riverine mist. How the Commission comports itself in the months and years to come, and how efficiently it will tackle the challenges that lie ahead in the interpretation and implementation of the 1996 treaty, will to a significant extent define Indo-Bangla relations in coming years. At the same lime, the Commission´s ability to resolve the existing ambiguities in the treaty document will set an example for international water-sharing agreements of the future.
On the whole, the Bangladeshi and Indian individuals who make up the Joint Rivers Commission would do well to make a clean break from past convention when it comes to water management South Asia has long suffered from an engineering-based elite running its large water projects, without heeding the social, economic, cultural and environmental implications. These old exclusively technocratic attitudes are based on principles inherited—| all over South Asia—from colonial times and internalised ” through swaraj. Such a perspective is by now thoroughly discredited among those who have studied the impact of mega-irrgation projects such as on the Kosi and the Gandak.
Farakka, too, is a mega-project with exactly such antecedents, envisioned in geopolitical hubris and constructed by an engineering elite with no interest in socio-political processes and unmindful of the long-term societal and geopolitical backlash that such projects invite. The barrage was the infrastructural fallout of an era when the business of water was decided behind closed doors. The arrogance and the secrecy of bureaucrats and engineers, one after another, led to entanglements that confused the public, retarded development, and pitted governments against each other.
Fortunately, even while the water bureaucrats in all ´ South Asian countries have continued to be guided by the colonial, non-participatory prototype, events on the . ground are quickly marginalising their guiding philosophies. The scrapping of the Flood Action Plan in Bangladesh, the continued delays of Narmada and Tehri dams in India, and the cancellation of Arun III dam in Nepal, all define the boundaries within which the actual debate about approaches to water management and preferred solutions will occur in future. This, notwithstanding the most recent agreement—on whose heels came the Farakka accord with essentially the same elements of ambiguities and unknowns—on the Mahakali river between India and Nepal.
These new realities, which question the very need for large water projects in the present South Asian socio-economic context, are no indication of doomsday, which is how many alarmists would like to make them appear to an uncomprehending public. Instead, those who question these large projects are—in essence—seeking equitable ways to progress and challenging the propensity in developing countries just to consume more and more.
Farakka, of course, is a project that has already been built. For that very reason, now that an accord has been signed, it will be important for the members of the Commission to be guided by new principles of water management. This is essential if fairness is to be assured between the two countries, and within each country. The challenge is that of making “wholesome water” available to all claimants on an equitable basis; the failure to do so will only mean that the stalemate in regional water management as embodied by Farakka will continue despite the December treaty.
In conclusion, while the long-term management of Farakka under the 1996 treaty will depend upon the competence and commitment of the members of the joint Rivers Commission, some early indication of the fate of this agreement will be evident during the upcoming dry season. Will the volume of water which arrives at Farakka be enough to do with it what the treaty stipulates, or not?