Should India And Bangladesh Find Alternative To Teesta Water Sharing Deal? – Analysis
By Anand Kumar
The recent visit of Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to India once again highlighted the continuous deepening of bilateral relations. In the last one decade or so both countries have not only been able to solve a number of long-pending disputes but also made tremendous progress in trade, commerce and connectivity. Cooperation in the area of energy security has been intensified which is very critical for Bangladesh. A breakthrough has also been made in sharing of the water of KushiaraRiver, but the deal on sharing of water of Teesta Riverremained elusive, though Bangladesh was quite keen to have it. The deal on sharing of Teesta water could have helped Bangladesh economically as farmers in northern Bangladesh depend for irrigation on its waters. Besides, it could also have positively affected the electoral fortunes of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in the elections that are likely to take place in early 2024.
A deal on sharing of Teesta water was about to be signed in 2011 during the visit of then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. But this could not happen as West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee dropped out at the last minute from the visiting delegation. Mamata’s presence would have helped in signing the deal as water is a state subject under the Indian constitution. Moreover, water from Teesta River helps irrigate farmlands in northern Bengal. Thus any deal on Teesta is going to materially affect the state of West Bengal which also makes Mamata’s consent for it critical. Mamata Banerjee however chose not to sign the deal and the issue has been pending. Actually, now the situation has got further complicated by the construction of a number of dams in the Indian state of Sikkim.
In recent times as closeness between India and Bangladesh increases a number of high level visits have taken place. Both Prime Ministers have also met a number of times. After the pandemic, Bangladesh was the first country to be visited by the Indian Prime Minister Modi who went there to participate in the birth centenary celebration of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman who is considered as the father of the Bangladeshi nation. Similarly, Sheikh Hasina has also visited India on a priority basis.
The opposition parties in Bangladesh know that the Teesta deal is facing some hurdle in India and it will be easy for both sides to achieve this despite their desire. Hence they invariably raise this issue whenever the top leaders of both countries are visiting each other. A deal on Teesta is presented as some kind of a litmus test for the bilateral relations.
Since the deal is not taking place because of the complications involved in it, the failure to get the deal by the Sheikh Hasina government is used as a stick to beat her government. The opposition in Bangladesh conveniently forgets all the achievements of three consecutive terms of Sheikh Hasina government. The growth of Bangladesh economy has surprised everyone. According to some estimates Bangladesh has even overtaken India in per –capita income. Due to friendly environment prevailing between India and Bangladesh both countries have been able to solve many long-standing issues. They have sorted out land boundary and maritime border issues. The problem of terrorism and insurgency in northeast has also been successfully handled. The bilateral trade between India and Bangladesh is booming and has reached an all-time high. Both India and Bangladesh are the largest export destination for each other in South Asia. Connectivity between both countries has increased many fold.
In Bangladesh a major chunk of power is produced using diesel and gas.Due to Russia-Ukraine was the cost of petrol and diesel has increased in Bangladesh. This has resulted in increased cost of power and closing of many industries which are dependent on this.India is helping Bangladesh successfully deal with its energy crisis.
For last many years India has helped Bangladesh by exporting power from Tripura as well as West Bengal. During the latest visit of Hasina one unit of Rampal power plant was inaugurated. India’s Adani group will also be exporting power to Bangladesh from its new plant in Jharkhand.
Besides, India helped Bangladesh during pandemic by supplying essential goods through railway. This also made both countries realize the potential of railway as an efficient means of transportation for trade. India will now be helping Bangladesh improve its railway infrastructure and train its manpower.
Both sides knew very well that after the resolution of most pending issues the sharing of water from common rivers is going to be an important issue this time. India and Bangladesh share 54 rivers between them. Now both countries are trying to reach an understanding over sharing of water of these rivers. Just before Sheikh Hasina’s visit a meeting of Joint Rivers Commission (JRC) took place. This has resulted into signing of agreement for sharing of water of KushiaraRiver. Using the same approach it will not be difficult for both countries to share the water of remaining river.
Teesta however presents a different challenge as it is a major river after Ganga and Brahmaputra. Moreover, before reaching Bangladesh Teesta passes through two Indian states –Sikkim and West Bengal. These two states are heavily dependent on water of Teesta for irrigation and production of hydro power. The water consumption in these areas has increased because of growing population and increased cultivation.
It is possible that the complications involved in sharing of Teesta water may not allow a deal in near future. Teesta deal may also not happen for political reasons as Prime Minister Modi and Mamata Banerjee are political adversaries. A deal on Teesta might present PM Modi in a positive light which may not be to the liking of Mamata Banerjee. The ruling party in India may not like to thrust a deal on West Bengal as it is also trying to expand its political footprint in the state.
The lack of deal on Teesta would allow opposition in Bangladesh to put Sheikh Hasina on defensive in her policy towards India. In a situation like this India can help Bangladesh better manage the water of Teesta River. In the past, Bangladesh has contemplated building a reservoir on Teesta River with Chinese funding so that the water stored there could be used during the lean season. India can help Bangladesh in a similar project through its own funding. In any case rain patterns everywhere are becoming unpredictable. Building of a reservoir on Teesta will help Bangladesh create a climate resilient infrastructure which will be useful in better managing the water of Teesta. India has already allocated a line of credit to Bangladesh which remains underutilized. A part of that could be used for this purpose.
The opposition parties in Bangladesh will surely find some other issues to corner Sheikh Hasina government for following an India friendly policies. They have already done so by blaming her for not being able to use India against Myanmar over the Rohingya issue, or for raising the issue of so called ‘border killings’. But they will not be able to use the issue of sharing of Teesta water with the same venom.
Anand Kumar, Ph.D., Associate Fellow, Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA)
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The Rohingya is one of those issues where everybody knows that there is a problem. So I wanted to start by asking something that maybe we don’t read about enough, which is that – what is daily life inside the camps like? And in particular, what kind of challenges are coming up that you’ve been seeing more and more?