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. 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.
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.
On the last week of May 2018, Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj said that the signing of an agreement on sharing Teesta water would not be possible without taking West Bengal on board. She said this at a press conference in New Delhi, according to a video record published on the external affairs ministry website. The solution could not be achieved merely by the two central governments, the government of India and the government of Bangladesh, she said.
The West Bengal government is a key stakeholder, Sushma said, adding that they were trying to engage with the West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee on the matter. Teesta is the most important river in northeast of Bangladesh and is the fourth largest river of the country. It originates in the Sikkim valley of the Himalayan range within India. Sikkim reportedly has built five dams and is building 31 more on the upper region of the Teesta river in India.
However, due to the opposition of the chief minister of West Bengal, this draft agreement did not come to fruition. It was reported in the media that the chief minister of West Bengal in April 2017, proposed to share waters of Dudkumar (known as Torsha in West Bengal). Water experts are of the opinion that the deltas of the two rivers are not the same. Furthermore, there is much less water available in this river than the Teesta and therefore, it cannot be a substitute for sharing water from the Teesta.
Moreover, Torsha river originates from Bhutan which means a tripartite agreement (Bangladesh-Bhutan-India) is needed. It has been reported that at the upper stream of the Manu river in Tripura (India), a dam is being constructed and water flow in the lower stream of river in Habiganj district (in Sylhet) would eventually be threatened with extinction.
It has also been reported that a joint committee between Bangladesh-India has been constituted to examine the effects of such a dam on the river under the auspices of Bangladesh-India Joint River Commission established in 1972. Since 2009 Indo-Bangladesh bilateral relations attained a new and productive trajectory under the Hasina government.
One of the manifestations of friendly relations between the two countries is to allow India to undertake trans-shipment of Indian goods from western India to the northeastern states through Bangladesh. The quality of relations with India will enhance if transit or trans-shipment through India's territory to Nepal and Bhutan from Bangladesh is ensured.
Another fact of life for the people of Bangladesh is that water sharing of major rivers (54 rivers flow through Bangladesh from India) is a matter of life and death. And except sharing water from the Ganges in 1996 for 30 years, India has not yet concluded water sharing agreements with Bangladesh on any other common rivers such as Manu, Muhuri, Khowai, Gomati, Dharla and Dudkumar.
It was once reported that the interim agreement on the third largest common river, Teesta, although agreed between the two governments by 2011-12, had not been signed because of the opposition from the state-government of West Bengal.
It appears that unless the central government in New Delhi makes adequate water available to West Bengal by putting pressure on the upper riparian Sikkim state to halt the operation of existing or proposed dams and diversion of Teesta water to western Bihar, West Bengal is likely to oppose any sharing of water from the Teesta with Bangladesh. 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.
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. 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.
Rayhan Ahmed Topader is a Writer and Columnist. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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