Why India Should Immediately Seal The Teesta Water-Sharing Deal With Bangladesh 

Why India Should Immediately Seal The Teesta Water-Sharing Deal With Bangladesh Narendra Modi and Sheikh Hasina (MUNIR UZ ZAMAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Snapshot
  • If India wants Bangladesh to remain a friend and Sheikh Hasina to remain in power, it should not delay the agreement on Teesta

Bangladesh has been one of India’s strongest allies in South Asia. And if New Delhi wants it to remain so, it has to move fast on signing an agreement on sharing the waters of the Teesta river that originates in Sikkim and flows through the northern part of Bengal before joining the Brahmaputra to become the Jamuna in Bangladesh.

India’s failure to deliver this river water sharing agreement has been a very sore issue in Bangladesh and has ignited passions in that country. India has a steadfast friend in Bangladesh premier Sheikh Hasina Wajed who will be on a visit to New Delhi from 7 to 10 April 2017.

Hasina has done more than her share to help India: granting transit rights at extremely concessional rates for transporting goods to the landlocked Northeast India, denying militants of the Northeast India safe havens in her country and even arresting them and handing them over to Indian agencies. She has done all these, and more, braving scathing criticism at home from the opposition and powerful anti-India Islamist groups that she has compromised Bangladesh’s interests.

The importance of Teesta deal for Bangladesh

Why is the Teesta so important for Bangladesh? The answer lies in the region’s geography. The Teesta originates in Sikkim (see map here) and flows down through north Bengal and then through Bangladesh to empty into the Bay of Bengal.

The Teesta’s floodplains span a vast 2750 sq km in Bangladesh and support the livelihood of 10 million people engaged in fishing and farming. Bangladesh complains that over one lakh hectares of land in Rangpur - its rice bowl - cannot be cultivated for winter crops due to excessive drawl of water from the Teesta by India and has been demanding a fair share of the river’s waters during the dry season.

India controls the Teesta’s flow into Bangladesh from the Gazaldoba barrage that is part of the ambitious Teesta Barrage Project. This project, launched in 1976, involved construction of barrages across the Teesta and canals to carry water to irrigate a total of 9.22 lakh hectares of farmland in five district of north Bengal. But the project now manages to irrigate only 66,000 hectares of farmland. A miniscule portion of the work has been completed, but, nonetheless, India has been using the barrage to divert waters of the Teesta and deny Bangladesh its fair share of waters.

Talks on sharing the waters of the river started right after the 1971 liberation of Bangladesh from Pakistan under the aegis of the Indo-Bangladesh Joint River Commission that was set up in 1972. Experts and bureaucrats of the two countries have been holding parleys since then and in 1983, an ad-hoc agreement on sharing the waters of the Teesta was reached. Under this, Bangladesh got 36 per cent share of the river’s waters, India got 39 per cent share while the remaining 25 per cent remained un-allocated.

But India never honoured this agreement and Bangladesh’s share of the river waters, especially during the dry season, has been steadily decreasing with India diverting more and more waters from the Gazaldoba barrage.

After the signing of the Ganga Water Treaty between the two countries in 1996, Bangladesh presented a draft agreement on sharing the waters of the Teesta in 2000.

Under this agreement, India would get 42.5 per cent of Teesta’s waters and Bangladesh would get 37.5 per cent while the remaining 20 per cent would flow unhindered in order to maintain a minimum water flow of the river. India accepted this formula with some minor changes and a treaty on sharing the waters of this river was scheduled to be signed during then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Dhaka on September 2011.

Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee was to have accompanied Manmohan on this trip.

However, the mercurial Mamata pulled out of the trip at the last moment, causing a huge embarrassment to Manmohan Singh and the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) II government and a considerable setback to Indo-Bangla ties. Mamata’s reason for opposing the agreement was illogical: she construed the draft agreement as giving a whopping 57.5 per cent of Teesta’s waters to Bangladesh whereas this was not the case.

Though 57.5 per cent of the river’s waters would flow into Bangladesh, the latter would have been able to utilize only the agreed portion of it for irrigation and power-generation purposes. Mamata was willing to allow only 35 per cent, or at best 40 per cent, of the Teesta’s waters to flow into Bangladesh and if that country were to allow the minimum 20 per cent flow of the river to keep it alive, it would be left with a meager and unacceptable amount of water to meet its own needs.

Attempts were also made by the current National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government to get Mamata on board before Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Dhaka in July 2015. But Mamata, who has painted herself into an anti-Modi and anti-BJP corner, refused to play ball. Mamata, who possesses an irrepressible streak of playing childish games of political one-upmanship, reached Dhaka a day prior to Modi’s visit, but proved to be a thorn on the side of improving India’s ties with the neighbour.

During another solo visit to Dhaka in February 2015, she had assured Sheikh Hasina that the Teesta imbroglio would be untangled soon. “Have faith in me,” she told Hasina.

But Hasina has been waiting in vain since then.

Disquiet in Bangladesh

If the dispute over sharing the waters of the Ganga proved to be the biggest irritant in Indo-Bangla ties in the last century, the Teesta has emerged as the biggest obstacle to further cementing ties between the two countries over the last two decades or so.

India’s perceived refusal to give Bangladesh its share of the river waters and deny that country’s rights as a lower riparian state has fuelled a lot of anti-Indian sentiments in Bangladesh. India is being increasingly accused of being a regional bully.

The anger in Bangladesh against India has led many influential sections of the people -the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the Islamists and a large section of the powerful bureaucracy, military and civil society -to call for deepening ties with China in order to teach India a lesson.

China is investing in Bangladesh in a big way, constructing ports and building up a strong military relationship with Dhaka. Bangladesh acquired two Ming-class diesel-electric submarines for its navy from China last December, causing considerable anguish in India. China has promised a whopping $20 billion in soft loans to Bangladesh for infrastructure projects. Pakistan has also started leveraging the anti-India sentiments in Bangladesh to increase its influence in the country.

Why India needs to seal the agreement

Hasina faces crucial polls next year and it would be in India’s best interests that she wins. The opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) has always been inimical to India’s interests and its ally, the Jamaat-e-Islami, has been vociferously anti-India.

The BNP, during its tenures in power from 1991 to 1996 and again from 2001 to 2006, provided shelter to leaders and cadres of various North East India-based terror outfits, provided them access to Pakistan’s notorious Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), denied India transit rights, encouraged anti-Indian Islamist hardliners and actively helped China gain a firm foothold in Bangladesh.

The BNP has also been, traditionally, anti-Indian and pro-Pakistani.

Sheikh Hasina’s India-friendly policies have, naturally, invited criticism from the BNP and hardliners in Bangladesh. Their refrain is that Hasina has conceded too much to India without getting anything substantive in return. They cite the failure to arrive at an agreement on sharing the waters of the Teesta as a glaring instance of Hasina being unable to get Bangladesh her due in returns for all the favours she has granted to India.

In case India cannot deliver the Teesta agreement to Bangladesh soon, criticism of Hasina will mount and will definitely gather steam. India’s failure on this crucial count will provide ammunition to the BNP and the Islamists in Bangladesh to target Hasina and mount a serious electoral challenge to her next year. It can be safely surmised that the remarkable progress made in forging excellent ties with Bangladesh will get largely negated if Hasina were to be unseated from power in next year.

Thus, it is in India’s interests to help Hasina continue in power.

India and Bangladesh are expected to sign a range of pacts during Hasina’s forthcoming visit to New Delhi. Among these, the ones on maritime security and comprehensive defence cooperation hold immense importance for India since it will preclude the role of any third country (read: China) in gaining a presence in the Bay of Bengal region.

Modi and Hasina are also expected to agree on a roadmap for co-operation in the Bay of Bengal region. This is in accordance with Modi’s pet project of forging ‘blue economy partnerships’ with littoral states of the Indian Ocean region for exploitation of hydrocarbons and marine resources, deep sea fishing, preserving marine ecology, mitigating climate change and disaster management. All these pacts, and more on the anvil, may be jeopardised if India holds back on signing the Teesta water treaty.

Moreover, India’s case against China on the flow of the Brahmaputra river gets very weak due to the denial of the legitimate rights of Bangladesh as a lower riparian state in the case of the Teesta river. Just as Bangladesh is a lower riparian state in the case of Teesta, India is also a lower riparian state in the case of the Brahmaputra.

China is engaged in constructing massive dams on the Tsangpo (as the river is called in Tibet, from where it originates) for generating power and for irrigating the arid Tibetan plateau and north western parts of the country. India has been protesting the expected reduction in the water flow of the river and demanding its rights as a lower riparian state to adequate water. As long as India denies Bangladesh its share of water from the Teesta, Beijing can also cite this for rejecting India’s concerns on the Brahmaputra.

Thus, Mamata’s intransigence on the Teesta is severely hurting India’s national interests. If Mamata continues with her opposition to the Teesta treaty, New Delhi can go ahead and sign the deal citing Article 253 of the Constitution which gives the Union government powers to sign any international agreement, pact or convention that may affect the whole or any one part of the country.

But in keeping with Modi’s avowed preference for ‘co-operative federalism’, New Delhi has been reluctant to act unilaterally and has been making consistent efforts since 2014 (when the NDA came to power) to get Mamata on board.

But if she refuses and continues to hurt India’s national and strategic interests, New Delhi should simply ignore her opposition and sign the Teesta deal with Dhaka.

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