Mamata Impeding Better Indo-Bangla Ties With Her Intransigence Over Teesta Water-Sharing

by Jaideep Mazumdar - Apr 13, 2017 06:20 PM +05:30 IST
Mamata Impeding Better Indo-Bangla Ties With Her Intransigence Over Teesta Water-SharingModi, Mamata and Sheikh Hasina 
  • India has an ally in Sheikh Hasina in Dhaka. What is troublesome is that Mamata Banerjee may just make sure that come 2019, the Bangladesh Prime Minister is no longer in power.

A joint statement issued at the end of the visit of Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed to India earlier this week was full of the usual platitudes about the deepening ties between the two countries and listed the many agreements and MoUs signed between the two nations. But back home, Hasina is being pilloried for her failure to get India to sign the long-pending accord on sharing of waters of the Teesta river. There is deep disappointment in Bangladesh over this, and Hasina is being severely criticised by many, including the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), for her failure to get New Delhi to sign the deal.

A record number of 11 agreements and 24 MoUs were signed between the two countries during Hasina’s visit. India extended a $5 billion line of credit to Bangladesh, including $500 million to purchase military hardware. The agreements and MoUs cover defence, civil nuclear cooperation, maritime security, cyber security, information technology, energy, human resources development, power and many other important fields. Apart from these, the Bangladesh government signed 13 more agreements with Indian companies on power, energy, logistics, education and medical sectors. New Delhi also agreed to work towards reducing the huge trade imbalance with Dhaka (India exports $5.3 billion worth of goods and services to Bangladesh and imports only $1.2 billion in return) and eliminating non-tariff barriers in imports.

But all these are of just peripheral interest to Dhaka. The leitmotif of Indo-Bangla ties has always been sharing of river waters; first the Ganga (for which an agreement was signed in 1996 after years of tortuous negotiations), and now the Teesta. As this edit page article in The Daily Star, Bangladesh’s largest English-language daily, states, no matter how many agreements are signed and what lines of credit offered to Bangladesh, failure to sign the Teesta deal “diminishes the magnitude of all other achievements”. An op-ed piece by Syed Munir Khasru, chairman of a leading Bangladeshi think-tank, points out that the stalled Teesta accord “continues to eclipse Indo-Bangla ties”.

The general feeling in Bangladesh is that Hasina has given away too much to India without getting much in return. The Bangladeshi media contends that after coming to power, Hasina had driven out insurgent groups of Northeast India from Bangladeshi soil and cracked down on the leaders of these outfits who were sheltered in her country, handing over many of them to India. She has taken care of India’s security concerns. She has also allowed transit of goods meant for Northeast India through Bangladesh and allowed India use of the Chittagong port on extremely favourable terms. The least India can do, the refrain goes, is show magnanimity and give Bangladesh her fair share of Teesta waters.

BNP chairperson Begum Khaleda Zia has already termed Hasina’s India visit as a total failure and criticised the Prime Minister for “returning home empty-handed”. What should be greater concern for India is Khaleda’s promise to review all the “anti-national” deals signed with India when she comes to power. There is a rising chorus in Bangladesh against the defence cooperation deals signed with India. A former diplomat who is close to the ruling establishment in Dhaka questioned the security pact Hasina signed with India in this edit page article, contending that since Bangladesh does not have any enemies, perceived or real, she does not need to sign defence deals with India.

Similarly, many are also questioning Hasina’s failure to get a firm commitment from New Delhi on reducing the huge trade deficit and lifting non-tariff barriers. There is largescale opposition within Bangladesh to a thermal power plant being set up with India’s help in the ecologically fragile Sunderbans, and this opposition is sure to rise in the coming months. The other deals Hasina struck with India are also being criticised. All because the Teesta deal was not signed.

Along with Hasina, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is also being criticised in Bangladesh for failing to deliver on the Teesta deal. The sentiment articulated by a widely-respected former army officer, Brigadier General Shahedul Anam Khan, in an edit page article he penned for a leading daily finds wide resonance in Bangladesh. He wrote: “Modi saying Teesta issue will be resolved soon sounds like a lullaby a mother regurgitates to a child who makes the same demand repeatedly, hoping the child will ultimately forget about the demand”.

Hasina faces crucial elections in 2019 and if the Teesta deal is not signed by then, her electoral prospects will be immeasurably dimmed. The BNP and the Jamaat-e-Islami will strike a chord amongst the masses when they pillory Hasina for failing to get India to sign the deal. Their promise to take India to an international tribunal if they win the polls will garner a lot of support for them.

That’s because Teesta is a highly emotional issue and the diversion of a major share of Teesta’s waters at Gajaldoba (where a barrage was constructed) in North Bengal has affected food production in over one lakh hectares of farmland in five districts of northwestern Bangladesh. The trickle of water flowing down the river in the dry season from December to March (due to India diverting most of the waters) has affected the livelihood of ten million fishermen and farmers in Bangladesh. As much as 14% of Bangladesh’s annual food production has been affected.

If Bangladesh takes India to an international tribunal as the BNP chairperson is threatening to--and she finds widespread support in this--India would find itself in a very embarrassing and weak position. Bangladesh’s legitimate rights as a lower riparian state are being denied by India. Bangladesh has a right to fair share of waters of the Teesta and by diverting the waters of the river for her own needs while denying Bangladesh an equitable share, India is violating many international conventions like the Convention on the Law of Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses, the Berlin Rules on Water Resources, and the Helsinki Rules on the uses of Waters of International Rivers.

India is also not being fair to Bangladesh and its denial of a fair share of waters of the Teesta to Bangladesh weakens India’s claims as a lower riparian state when it comes to the Brahmaputra. China is erecting a series of dams in the upper reaches of the Brahmaputra in Tibet and India has been protesting the expected fall in the flow of the river once waters of the river are diverted for generating electricity and for irrigation. China can, and definitely will, turn down India’s claims as a lower riparian state citing India’s own disregard for Bangladesh’s rights as a lower riparian state in the case of Teesta.

Apart from weakening India’s position internationally, Mamata’s intransigence over the sharing of Teesta waters is also providing ammunition to the opposition in Bangladesh. Hasina has done a lot for India and if she were to face a setback in the 2019 polls, it would be disastrous for India. The BNP is virulently anti-Indian and pro-Pakistani and will surely harm India’s security and other interests if it comes to power. India will have a serious problem in its eastern frontier if the BNP were to form the government in 2019. India needs to push Mamata to agree to the Teesta deal. Mamata should place the interests of the nation before her own political interests and act with magnanimity. But there are little chances of her doing so, and therein lies a tragedy for India.

Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.

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