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Teesta water treaty: How experience with Pakistan can help us

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Bangladeshi PM Sheikh Hasina’s impending visit to India from April 7-10 is significant for a variety of reasons. River water sharing has been an important part of Indo-Bangladesh conversation. According to media it would retain its primacy this time too and include both Teesta and Ganges. Emanating from Teesta-Kangse glacier in the Sikkim Himalaya the mighty Teesta traverses through Sikkim, West Bengal, and Bangladesh where it joins Jamuna (name of Brahmaputra in Bangladesh). Any decision on Teesta water has to contend with strong counter-veiling demand of West Bengal. Discerning political observers are keeping watch over New Delhi, Dhaka as well as Kolkata to see how this issue is resolved.

India began to build a multipurpose barrage on Teesta in Gajoldoba, in Jalpaiguri, West Bengal in 1975-76 to cater to people of six northern districts of West Bengal pursuing agriculture. Bangladesh started another barrage on the downstream at Duani-Dalia, Lalmonirhat district in 1979. This barrage caters to the irrigation needs of seven districts in greater Rangpur, Dinajpur and Bogra region. However Bangladeshi project, being on the downstream, faces twin difficulties viz., reduced water flow and supply fluctuation.

Bangladesh wants a treaty that guarantees higher share of water and removal of fluctuation. West Bengal is against releasing more water till adequate provisions are made for storage so that adequate irrigation water remains available to its own farmers.

Two countries have been talking about Teesta for the past four decades without tangible results. It is widely believed then PM Manmohan Singh had carried a satisfactory offer for Bangladesh during his visit to Dhaka in 2011. But West Bengal had put its foot down. Manmohan returned to New Delhi with the closed envelope. Host Bangladesh was irked. Modi visited Dhaka in June 2015, but there was no progress on Teesta.

Water-sharing with India has always been a deeply political issue in Bangladesh. With federal election in that country scheduled in less than two years’ time, politicking about Teesta water has been rising. So far three important projects have come up in India in Farakka (on Ganges), Gajoldoba (on Teesta) and Tipaimukh (on Barak). Each case has been made politically sensitive by the opposition with media, academics and intellectuals also joining the issue.

In India there is near-consensus view that Hasina and her Awami League party are India-friendly. Hasina’s rival Begum Khaleda Zia and her Bangladesh Nationalist Party on the other hand are perceived to be Pakistan-friendly and amenable to Islamic fundamentalism. A strong thought current therefore suggests that Bangladeshi demand on Teesta water be considered favourably as it would help Hasina get re-elected.

 

This assumption needs to be examined with open mind. Sheikh Hasina’s government can be credited with putting up a friendly diplomatic face vis-à-vis India but it has been simultaneously imposing socio-political costs. While large scale infiltration from Bangladesh through eastern and north eastern provinces has been encouraging vote bank politics and social disharmony, her government managed to avoid scrutiny on periodical attacks on religious minorities that continue in Bangladesh. In terms of real politics, her government, in June 2015 managed to walk away with 111 border enclaves in exchange of 51.  True, in economic terms, India has a trade surplus but it is modest compared to its total foreign trade. On the whole under her leadership Bangladesh has been benefiting at India’s expense.

On the specific issue of sharing river water too a question may legitimately arise- whether attempt to conciliate political establishment in a neighbouring country by sacrificing one’s own vital interests can guarantee a lasting friendship? India’s experience as an upper riparian vis-à-vis its neighbours strongly contradicts such assumptions.

In 1960 Nehru and Ayub made Indus Water Treaty by which India, as the upper riparian country, agreed to make over four-fifth of the total water of Indus water system to Pakistan retaining only one-fifth for itself. That offer, placed severe constraints in undertaking various water-based developmental projects. The interest of J&K state, which ought to have been a major beneficiary of the Indus water system turned to be the worst victim.

 

Some historians say it was a magnanimous offer by Nehru to buy peace and friendship with the neighbour. But what India got in return? Three wars in 1965, 1971, and 2001, attack on Parliament in 2001 and endless terrorist attacks in J&K aided and abetted by Pakistan – the sole beneficiary of the Indus Water Treaty.

India’s experience has not been encouraging with Bangladesh either. Experts say India had in the 1970s given the best deal an upper riparian country could, to Bangladesh on the Ganges water. The 1996 treaty between the two countries was also heavily loaded in favour of Bangladesh. But as a matter of fact, till 2009 Bangladesh allowed anti-Indian activities in its soil by giving shelter to a number of leaders of terror organisations operating in Assam and other north eastern states. The thaw in relations in recent years owed, as per political analysts, in no small measure to the common threat perceived by both countries from Islamic fundamentalists sponsored by Pakistan.

Factually, India, despite being generous on water sharing, failed to impress Bangladesh –whether the opposition or the ruling regime! Further no one can be absolutely certain that Hasina would win the election or her government would for ever stay friendly to India when bilateral decision between two countries depends on myriad of factors, which are often in a flux.

What can rather be said with more certainty is that any unreasonably ‘big allocation’ made in this case would set a harmful precedent. With as many as 54 rivers streaming through the geographies of both the countries and India’s plan of country-wide river-linking, this can act counter to India’s long-term interests. Discretion, caution, and far sight should be guiding criteria in the place of extravagant sympathy.

Readers may remember that West Bengal is the third actor to the Teesta issue. The inability of successive governments of the state to resolve several land acquisition disputes has delayed the full implementation of Gajoldoba but that has not deterred them to put road blocks on any accord with Bangladesh citing potential woes of farmers.  Besides, the issue has also got mired in political complexities there. Political analysts see growing shadow of Bangladeshi power struggle in this Indian province caused by infiltration on one hand and the rise of anti-Hasina groups on the other.

Incidents like Khagragarh bombs explosion (2014), detection of JMB hands in several cases of bomb making, opposing a conference on Pakistani atrocities on Baluch people in Kolkata (2017), and recently ultimatum issued by All Bengal Minority Youth Federation to remove the bust of Bangladesh founder Sheikh Mujibur from Baker Hostel in Kolkata suggest growing clout of anti-Hasina groups in West Bengal. Though the local media has been keeping silent on these disturbing trends, allegations that the ruling regime has been busy in ‘minority appeasement’ and vote bank politics’ has begun to enter into the discourse of national media and exert pressure on the ruling party.  Whether or not they can come out of it may depend to some extent on how the centre proceeds on Teesta issue.

It is difficult to predict the ramifications of such an important treaty on individual political parties, whether in the centre or the state. It therefore follows that long-term national interest rather than short-term political expediency should guide India on Teesta issue. Strategic perspective should outweigh tactical consideration. Water is a very critical natural asset. According to an IDSA study, a huge demand-supply mismatch with regard to water would render India ‘water stressed’ by 2025 and force it to be a ‘water scarce country’ by 2050. India had a per capita water availability of 5000 m2 in 1951 which has declined to only 1342 m2 in 2000. The fact that population in India would become a staggering 1.4 billion by 2050 hints unprecedented rise on the demand side. It goes without saying that the country has to conserve every drop of water as it can. Just because at present Gajoldoba barrage is not functioning to its intended capacity should not be reason to agree to permanent sacrifice.

Having said the above, there are many areas concerning ‘rivers’ and ‘river- water’ where India can explore cooperation with Bangladesh for mutual benefit in terms of economy and ecology. Both countries face several common problems such as silting, salinity, pollution, erosion of river banks, flood, rickety inland waterways system and so on. The Joint River Commission envisaged in the Treaty of 1972 could have done a lot to build up mutual confidence and work creatively and constructively. But that typical bureaucracy-driven mechanism fell far short of expectations.

The present government can do things differently. India can profitably combine its expertise in the conventional domain of engineering and construction with its achievements in space technology, satellites, information technology to infuse a new life into the entire river network system of both countries. This would prove that the qualitative handling of river water is of equal importance as the quantitative quota.

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