By S. Chandrasekharan
In South Asia beyond water’s material uses which are critical to life and development, all water is associated with fertility, purity and spiritual nourishment. Its great value is a deep and central element of the millennium’s culture. There should be no surprise at the length of feeling that surrounds water issues, nor at the vehemence and deep-rooted emotions that can emerge in conflicts about water- Eastern Waters Study on strategics to manage Flood and drought in the Ganges Brahmaputra basin- USAID Project- 1989.
One lesson that needs to be learnt from the recent Teesta river fiasco is that river waters in South Asia cannot be trifled with. Second, whatever be the political considerations, sharing of river waters in this region is an emotional and a sensitive issue that needs to be carefully handled.
It looks that the last minute cancellation of the Teesta Agreement from the Indian side was an avoidable mess!
The Agreement on Sharing of Teesta River Waters:
On 15 November 2011, the Indian Foreign Minister announced that the agreement between India and Bangladesh on sharing the waters of Teesta River is “round the corner”. The impression given then was that it was imminent. But so far there has been no official announcement.
Instead, the very next day another announcement appeared that said of an “expert” committee being formed to assess the ground reality on sharing of the Teesta River!
Disappointment in Bangladesh:
One of the highlights of the visit of the Indian Prime Minister to Bangladesh on 6-7 September 2011 was supposed to be the signing of an agreement on the long-standing dispute of sharing of waters of Teesta River between the two countries. The impression gained in Dhaka was that over fifty percent of waters of Teesta will be allotted to Bangladesh and there was jubilation all round.
As it happened, the Prime Minister decided to postpone the issue on grounds of opposition from one of the basin States. Probably this was not anticipated.
Of the four chief ministers of the State- West Bengal, Tripura, Sikkim and Meghalaya who were to be present in Dhaka during the visit, Ms. Mamata Banerjee of West Bengal opted to stay out of the visit presumably on account of her objection to the plan of sharing the Teesta water.
The Indian Prime Minister while talking to the press on his inability to sign the agreement during the visit is said to have remarked that “provincial sentiments cannot be wished away.” If so, it is not clear how Bangladesh got the impression that the agreement will be through?
The Indian Foreign Secretary also mentioned – I quote- “In our federal scheme of things nothing is done or will be done without consultations with the State Government. Any agreement that we conclude will have to be acceptable to the State Government.”
It is true that in the present dynamics of centre- state relations, the views of the State government cannot be ignored. Gone are the days when the Centre could go ahead with agreements with neighbouring countries as it did in handing over Katchatheevu Island to Sri Lanka without taking into account the sentiments of the people of Tamil Nadu!
It is seen from media reports that prior to PM’s visit the National Security Adviser had met Mamata Banerji, the Chief Minister of West Bengal to discuss the Teesta issue. He had also visited Dhaka and perhaps had given the impression that the fifty-fifty sharing of Teesta waters is doable.
There was also a report that Sikkim’s share of Teesta waters could also be had by West Bengal for the time being to offset the additional water being given to Bangladesh. If this is true it would be rather unfortunate for the Centre to decide on such issues!
It is not known what went wrong. The end result was an avoidable and a huge embarrassment to Sheikh Hasina. One cannot blame Bangladesh either in going slow on the transit issues which are considered as very critical by the Indian side for the development of the North East.
The Teesta River:
The Teesta is the fourth major river after the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna in the eastern region.
It originates in Sikkim and after traversing 172 Km in the hilly region, runs for 97 Km in the plains of India and another 124 Km in Bangladesh.
The river waters of Teesta are critical both for the agricultural lands in north Bengal and for northwest Bangladesh. In the latter case, the northwestern region is said to be a “drought prone” area and thanks to a barrage built by Bangladesh downstream in 1990, the region is said to be having the luxury of three seasonal crops in a year.
India has a barrage upstream in Teesta at Gozaldiba. The barrage downstream in Bangladesh depends on the water regulated and sent from upstream.
The barrage in Bangladesh is designed not only to provide irrigated water, but also flood protection and drainage facilities for about 75000 hectares of cultivated land. Phase I of the project was completed in 1998.
It is the stand of Bangladesh that water available in their side is inadequate during the lean season January-February.
There had been no serious discussion on the sharing of Teesta River for the last five years and only in March 2010, did the 37th Ministerial level Joint River Commission meeting came to an understanding that an agreement on the sharing of Teesta waters will be signed within one year.
This was only after the installation of a friendly government in Bangladesh that was open to deal with Indian concerns in other areas.
Equitable Sharing of Poverty:
The main dispute in Teesta is over sharing of the waters during the lean period- where both countries will have to share the poverty until alternate arrangements are made to augment the water in the lean season. Augmentation is doable and given the good relations between the two countries there is no reason why serious efforts cannot be made. Suitable storage of water upstream during the flood season, recharge of ground water downstream and retrieval during lean periods could be thought of among many other ways.
At the moment, while Bangladesh expects fifty percent of waters downstream, the State of West Bengal is willing to give only 25 percent. Surely a mutually acceptable figure between 25 and 50 could be found. Mamata Banerji’s statement recently-( “We love Bangladesh. We will do as much as possible so that there is no lack of water in West Bengal and Bangladesh to gets its water.) does augur well to reach an agreement.
Finally, while making a “permanent” agreement Sikkim’s needs cannot also be ignored. It may be that at this stage the State may not need its share, but it may have to think of its future needs too.
Perhaps a better way could be to come to an agreement for a short period of a few years and given the mutual trust and confidence between the two countries and the usage as well as progress made in augmenting the waters in the lean period, an agreement with a long time duration could be thought of later.