Narendra Modi, Sheikh Hasina ink over 20 pacts but water issue remains unresolved: What is the Teesta dispute?

The Teesta river water sharing is an emotive issue and comes in prominence every time there is a high-level bilateral visit between India and Bangladesh. While Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is visiting India from 7 to 10 April, there are reports about Prime Minister Narendra Modi travelling to Bangladesh in May.

This time around too the subject was broached with caution, but the Indian government it seems is still averse to dipping its feet in water over the long-standing unresolved dispute between the two neighbours. Though over 20 accords ranging from ICT to defence cooperation were inked during Hasina's four-day visit, a key agreement on Teesta river waters sharing remained "a work in progress" despite public opinion in Bangladesh on the matter.

What is Teesta water sharing dispute?

Bangladesh and India have an outstanding issue of sharing waters in the common Teesta river with West Bengal having a major stake in the process.

Despite the bilateral bonhomie, Bangladesh has been unhappy about the lack of resolution on all the common rivers. While India did put the river Teesta on the bilateral discussion table, the federal political dynamics has prevented the Centre from resolving the issue

The Teesta river, which has its origin in Sikkim, flows through the northern part of West Bengal before entering Bangladesh and joining the Brahmaputra river. From source to mouth, the Teesta is approximately 414 kilometres, of which 150-odd are in Sikkim, 123 in West Bengal, and the remaining 140 or so, in Bangladesh. Its flow is crucial for Bangladesh from December to March when the water flow often temporarily comes down to less than 1,000 cusec from 5,000 cusec.

According to a report in Observer Research Foundation, "the river’s floodplain today covers an area of 2,750 square kilometres in Bangladesh. Its catchment area supports 8.5 percent of its population — roughly 10 million people — and 14 percent of crop production. Over one lakh hectares of land across five districts are severely impacted by upstream withdrawals of the Teesta’s waters in India and face acute shortages during the dry season."

This is what Dhaka's side of the story looks like.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with his Bangladeshi counterpart Sheikh Hasina and West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee in New Delhi on Saturday. PTI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with his Bangladeshi counterpart Sheikh Hasina and West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee in New Delhi on Saturday. PTI

Meanwhile, West Bengal has it's reservations too. The state's chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, who is often vilified by the Indian Media for being the roadblock in the successful resolution of the issue says that the Centre is being negligent towards the interests of the northern parts of West Bengal.

Banerjee's position is that the treaty would render north Bengal dry and affect Indian farmers. She is of the view that with the Teesta Barrage, Bangladesh's largest irrigation project, running, that country does not deserve more water.

"The Centre is ruining the state by not having any proper agreement with Bangladesh on sharing of Teesta and Ganga water," she said. "When we need a certain quantity of water to maintain our Kolkata Port and fulfil the need of farmers, water is released from Teesta and Farakka barrages to Bangladesh sacrificing the state's interest," Banerjee regretted.

Bangladesh wants 50 percent of the river’s water supply, especially in the months between December and May annually, while India claims a share of 55 percent.

The history of the dispute

The Teesta water-sharing agreement has been in talks since the Hasina-led Awami League government returned to power in 2009. However, water sharing dispute between the two neighbours is not something of the recent vintage.

India and Bangladesh share 54 common streams with the Teesta being a major one. The dispute would date back to the time Independent India was formed which reduced most of it's northern rivers into 'shared water bodies.' A Joint River Commission was setup as early as 1976 to resolve all outstanding water sharing disputes between the two nations. However, no pragmatic and long-term solution could be promulgated, and Teesta especially remaining a vexed issue.

While New Delhi can legitimately move ahead on a bilateral resolution, it may not want to give Bengal, led by the feisty chief minister Mamata Banerjee, a handle to spin yet another round of dance and drama just now as she had done earlier over the Teesta water-sharing issue.

As the report in ORF points out that negotiations to take out a middle path on Teesta river have been on since 1983, when a preliminary arrangement had allocated 39 percent for India and 36 percent for Bangladesh. A lesser share was put aside for Bangladesh taking into account "a groundwater recharge that takes place between the two barrages on the Teesta — at Gazaldoba in Jalpaiguri on the Indian side and at Dalia in Lalmonirhat in Bangladesh. The remaining 25 percent was left unallocated for a later decision, especially because the regular flow of a small quantity of water (in the case of the Teesta, 450 cu secs) is imperative for the life of a river."

According to a report in Global Voices,  till this day the two nations could reach consensus on only one comprehensive river pact — a landmark 30-year agreement on sharing of water in the Ganges,  during Hasina's previous tenure as prime minister in 1997 when Deve Gowda was her Indian counterpart and Jyoti Basu was the West Bengal chief minister.

This was set to change in September 2011 when India’s then Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, was due to sign a pact with his Bangladeshi counterpart regarding access and use of the Teesta River. This was during Singh's 2011 Dhaka visit, but Banerjee, who was newly elected as Weste Bengal chief minsietr at the time, had declined to endorse the deal fearing the loss of higher volume of water to the lower riparian would cause scarcity of water in her state, especially during drier months.

Hasina, on her part, had criticised Banarjee for her "unfortunate" stance against the water sharing deal.

Teesta River stream near the border with Bangladesh some 80kms from Siliguri. AFP

Teesta River stream near the border with Bangladesh some 80kms from Siliguri. AFP

Has the issue hit a rock-bottom?

Bangladesh has long been insisting on signing of a water sharing agreement, which so far failed to yield the much expected treaty. During her February 2015 Dhaka visit, Banarjee promised to play a "positive role" in resolving the outstanding issue, protecting interests of both Bangladesh and West Bengal as she called on Hasina. In 2015, Banerjee visited Bangladesh with Modi. Add to that the ongoing for-day-visit of Hasina amid talks of greater defence cooperation and commitment to each other's sustainable development.

However, despite the bilateral bonhomie, Bangladesh has been unhappy about the lack of resolution on all the common rivers. While India did put the river Teesta on the bilateral discussion table, the federal political dynamics has prevented the Centre from resolving the issue of water-sharing overruling Bengal's position. Irrespective of the number of outstanding bilateral issues being resolved, lack of resolution on the contentious issue of sharing of common river waters tends to create despair if not suspicion of India's intention in Bangladesh. This issue has been rankling since 2015 and a recent attempt by the Narendra Modi government to renegotiate with Bengal over this appears to have drawn a blank.

While New Delhi can legitimately move ahead on a bilateral resolution, it may not want to give Bengal, led by the feisty chief minister Mamata Banerjee, a handle to spin yet another round of dance and drama just now as she had done earlier over the Teesta water-sharing issue.

Meanwhile, it is also pertinent to note here that im the 21st centuary terms like 'water nationalism' and 'water wars' are increasingly gaining prominence hinting that the world at large is grappling with the reality of swindling fresh water resources. And Bangladesh criss-crossed by over 200 rivers, which largely contribute to its economy and agriculture, is hardly the region with the world's worst water problems in the near future.

As Prakash Nanda points out in this Firstpost article, it is the Indian subcontinent, in fact, that suffers from "water stress", as nearly 1.3 billion people depend on very few river systems.

"The per-capita water availability in India at present is 1,631 cubic metre; the corresponding figures in Pakistan and Bangladesh being 1,000 and 7,320 respectively. It is estimated that by 2030, these figures will be 1,240 in India, 877 in Pakistan and 5,700 in Bangladesh. In other words, while all the three countries will have lesser water than what they have today – a prospect that is hardening the negotiating postures of the decision-makers in all the three countries – the interesting aspect is that of the three, it is Bangladesh which is and will be in a comparatively advantageous position," the article states.

With inputs from agencies


Published Date: Apr 08, 2017 05:02 pm | Updated Date: Apr 08, 2017 05:15 pm


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