India has no dearth of commitment to solving the Teesta water-sharing issue with Bangladesh, as reaffirmed by its external affairs minister in Dhaka on August 20.
But translating the commitment into action remains elusive as before, since every time the Teesta appears in official talks, it doesn’t come alone. It entails more that in fact overshadow the very issue of Teesta. This time 53 other rivers, as Jaishankar says they are looking for “mutually acceptable formulas to share water of 54 common rivers.”
Earlier this month, water secretaries of Bangladesh and India met in Dhaka for the first time in eight years. They agreed to conduct a joint study on the Ganges Barrage project and work on a framework or interim agreement to share water of seven common rivers – Manu, Muhuri, Khowai, Gumti, Dharla, Feni and Dudhkumar.
The two secretaries, happy to have the first such meeting in eight years on August 8, talked about forming a technical committee which will finalise terms of reference for another panel that will study the feasibility of Ganges Barrage. They also hoped to see some progress on work on seven common rivers by September 30.
Issues as big as 100-year Delta Plan came up for discussion.
But a response to Teesta issue came only after the media raised it.
Asked whether the Teesta water-sharing deal will be signed during Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s upcoming India visit, both secretaries – Kabir Bin Anwar and his Indian counterpart Upendra Prasad Singh – said it was difficult for them to say anything about it since the visit was not finalised yet.
After meeting Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in New Delhi in April 2017, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said there was no water in the Teesta to spare for Bangladesh. Instead, she proposed that Bangladesh should use water from the five common rivers – Torsa, Jaldhaka, Dhansiri, Dharala and Mansiri.
The two countries can have a joint study on sharing water of these rivers, she suggested.
The Dudhkumar River is known as Torsa in West Bengal. It is a small river and can in no way substitute for the Teesta. Moreover, the Torsa originates from Bhutan, which means a tripartite agreement is necessary, said former ambassador to UN Harun ur Rashid in a newspaper article.
It was Mamata whose opposition stopped the then Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh from signing the Teesta treaty in Dhaka in September 2011. Since then, Sheikh Hasina has availed of every opportunity to persuade Mamata into agreeing on the treaty. “Whenever Hasina comes to India, she talks about Teesta treaty,” Mamata said.
During a visit to Dhaka in February 2015, she urged Bangladesh not to worry about Teesta water sharing and assured that the matter would be resolved. In the presence of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, she said, “Please keep faith in me.”
During her visit to Indian capital in April 2017, Hasina saw Mamata twice, in the presence of Indian President Pranab Mukherjee and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
But Mamata remained unyielding.
Life line for both
Mamata claims that she understands Bangladesh’s need for water. At the same time, she asserts, “Teesta is the lifeline for West Bengal’s northern region.” She says irrigation, drinking water source and hydropower plants will face problems if Teesta water is shared.
Teesta water is more crucial to Bangladesh as flow of water in lean period (December-March) comes down to one-fifth of its usual flow, affecting irrigation, livelihood and environment in northern districts.
It is the third largest of the rivers shared by Bangladesh and India.
Originating from Indian state of Sikkim, the Teesta flows through West Bengal before it joins the Brahmaputra in Bangladesh, travelling 414km. Withdrawal and diversion of water in two Indian states upstream leave little water in the Teesta when it reaches Bangladesh. The situation is worse in winter.
The Teesta barrage, a must for surface water irrigation for winter crops, becomes almost dry during the lean period. Plan for its second phase was abandoned.
Protracted talks over Teesta water sharing between Dhaka and New Delhi stopped short of closing in 2011 when former Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh was about to sign the long-awaited deal during his Dhaka visit.
But it did not happen as Mamata pulled herself out of the visit and objected to it, causing embarrassment for Bangladesh. It was not a pleasant occasion for India as well, because an agreement on using Bangladesh land for India’s inter-state connectivity was also scrapped.
Negotiation on fair share of water of common rivers, including the Teesta, dates back to 1972, when the Joint Rivers Commission had its first meeting in the Indian capital. In the 25th meeting of the JRC in Dhaka on July 20, 1983, Bangladesh and India reached an agreement on an ad-hoc sharing of the Teesta water during the dry season. The ad-hoc sharing agreement was valid up to the end of 1985, which was later extended till the end of 1987.
The ad-hoc arrangement kept 36 percent water for Bangladesh and 39 percent for India in dry season. The remaining 25 percent of Teesta water would remain unallocated for share on the basis of scientific research, which was never done.
The ad-hoc arrangement expired, and a permanent treaty for Teesta water sharing has been in talks for over three decades since then.
In 1984, Bangladesh’s share rose to 37.5 percent, Indian share to 42.5, while 20 percent was unallocated. The same arrangements were proposed in the 2011 draft, which was scrapped.
Bangladesh has reasons to worry. Estimates suggest that Teesta’s mean average flow is 60 billion cubic metres, of which a significant amount flows during June and September. October to April is considered the lean season.
Media reports say Sikkim in its 151km portion of the Teesta has got five dams and has planned 31 more. As the river flows down, West Bengal constructed a barrage at Gazaldoba, which diverts 85 percent of the flow. West Bengal aims at irrigating nine lakh hectares of land and generating 67.60MW of hydropower from Teesta water.
All these will further deplete Teesta water for Bangladesh.
The plan adversely affects about 21 million Bangladeshis who live in the basin of the Teesta, while only 8 million live in the basin in West Bengal and half a million in the Sikkim state of India. The Bangladesh-India population ratio is 70:30.
Data shows India already enjoys 55 percent share of Teesta water. Bangladesh claims 50 percent of the water between December and May every year when Teesta flow drops drastically. Irrigation in over 1 lakh hectares of land in northern region becomes uncertain in winter due to excessive withdrawal of water by India.
In 2011, West Bengal commissioned a study by Indian hydrologist Kalyan Rudra, which reportedly favoured Bangladesh’s stand, but the report was never published.
So, Bangladesh continues to demand a fair share of Teesta water during dry season.
Before leaving Dhaka on Tuesday, the Indian foreign minister said there has been no change in Indian commitment to resolving the Teesta water-sharing issue. “We have a position…We have commitment to that position,” he added.
Indian authorities cite Article 253 of their constitution, which, they claim, limits the central government’s power to sign any transboundary river treaty without consulting the state government. There are disputes over river water among states in India. Two southern states Karnataka and Tami Nadu are at odds over Cauvery. Puducherry, Kerala, Odisha, Telangana, Punjab, Haryana, Andhra – all have disputes over rivers, with some going up to the Supreme Court, with hints that conflicts over rivers might get uglier between states.
“India has inter-state river water dispute act and tribunal to deal with water disputes. But solution to river water disputes is not easy. Besides the disputes being looked into by tribunals, there are conflicts (between states)…The centre will have to win the trust of states as a nonpartisan mediator…,” G Seetharaman writes in the Economic Times.
“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,” ambassador Harun ur Rashid wrote in an article.
Considering the strategic importance of Bangladesh and as a responsible upper riparian state, India needs to take proactive steps for early conclusion of the Teesta agreement, suggests an Indian online article by P Ujwala.