The problem with Teesta

  • Sarah Hasan

The Modi government needs to break from traditional, statist methods of conducting water diplomacy and distinguish itself by including the concerns of basin inhabitants on both sides to find a lasting solution to the Teesta issue.

"Prime Minister Narendra Modi's swearing-in ceremony, well-attended by the heads of SAARC nations, has set a positive tone for India's future engagement in South Asia. While it's still too early to ascertain the new NDA regime's roadmap for foreign policy, the time is ripe for India and Bangladesh to consolidate their understanding on key issues.

Recently, the Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina wrote to Mr Modi to convey her hopes for a resolution to the long-standing dispute on the Teesta river, shared by both countries. In a letter dated May 26, Hasina referred to the Teesta dispute and called for a "speedy resolution" to "all pending issues between the two countries." Additionally, the Indian Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh confirmed that in the brief meeting between Mr. Modi and Ms. Shirin Sharmin Chaudhary -- the Bangladesh Speaker who was in India to attend Modi's swearing-in ceremony -- India was able to reaffirm its commitment towards resolving the Teesta conflict. Such a move is a good harbinger for the India-Bangladesh relationship as it can provide much needed momentum for the deadlock on this issue.

However, arriving at an acceptable solution requires caution as the Teesta has proved to be a political landmine in the past. The Teesta is the fourth largest river in South Asia and due to its geographical profile, has multiple stakeholders. It originates in Sikkim, flows through West Bengal and then enters Bangladesh. The main problem arises because of seasonal variations in its flows. It is estimated that the Teesta River has a mean annual flow of 60 billion cubic metres but a significant amount of this water flows only during wet season i.e. between June and September, leaving scant flow during the dry season i.e. October to April/May wherein the average flow gets reduced to about 500 million cubic metres (MCM) per month. This creates issues of equitable sharing during lean season.

Keeping these concerns in mind, the Indian government and Sheikh Hasina's regime were poised to sign an agreement in 2013. This agreement, negotiated over a period of 18 years, allowed for a 50-50 allocation of the Teesta between the two countries during lean season, leaving aside 20% of the total flow of the river as environmental flow. But the water deal could not be ratified after the UPA government caved into last-minute opposition raised by West Bengal's Chief Minister Mamata Bannerjee. This was based on claims that an equal water-sharing arrangement between the two countries would be 'unfair' to West Bengal as it would adversely impact the water-flow available in the state.

Historically, the progress of the India-Bangladesh relationship has always hinged on issues of water-sharing, in part because of Bangladesh's vulnerable position as a downstream riparian and in part because of the sheer amount of rivers, 54, shared between the two countries. Therefore for a robust relationship to develop between the two countries, a timely resolution to the long-standing Teesta issue is paramount. Towards this objective it's important that the key shortfalls that have impeded cooperation so far are addressed.

From Bangladesh's perspective an equal sharing of the river is essential for two reasons.

Firstly, the current ad-hoc water sharing arrangement is considered insufficient for Bangladesh's needs. This is based on claims that the country's basin dependence is higher than India's : there are 21 million people living in the Teesta river basin in Bangladesh as opposed to 8 million people in West Bengal and half a million people in Sikkim.

Secondly, Bangladesh has claimed that West Bengal's Gazaldoba barrage is 'unilaterally' channelizing a large volume of water on the Teesta, due to which the country's historic flow has been reduced to only 10% and its Teesta Irrigation Project has suffered. This is further compounded by the downstream nature of Bangladesh wherein any construction by India affects the water flow available to Bangladesh. Furthermore, there are proposals to build 31 dams in the upper catchment area of the Teesta in Sikkim, along with the 4 dams that are already underway. While these have been termed 'run-off the river' dams, ie dams which do not impact river flows, lean season will lead to increased storage and evaporation, which will invariably impact water available downstream to Bangladesh. Apart from the farmers who are getting adversely affected, the health of the river on the Bangladesh side is also at stake since the inadequate flow of water has created siltation. These are all realistic concerns that make it essential for the Central government in India to provide a fair deal to Bangladesh.

However, West Bengal's concerns cannot be undermined either. Shortly after the 2013 deal fell through, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Bannerjee had stated "Teesta has dried up. There is an acute drinking water problem. Yet, the Centre was giving away Teesta water." The objections to equal sharing are because in lean season West Bengal is reportedly left with insufficient water flow to meet its own irrigation needs. The West Bengal State Irrigation Minister Rajib Bannerjee claimed in 2013, "not enough water is flowing into the Teesta to meet our irrigation needs...How can we give Bangladesh more water without meeting our own needs? That's why we are opposed to the Teesta Treaty....we cannot let our own farmers suffer."While many have accused the state government of politicising the issue for votes, there is some substance to the anxieties in West Bengal.

However, it is important that the fears of the state be allayed by the Centre, because from any perspective, the role played by West Bengal on the Teesta negotiations is a vital one. As the former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had rightly claimed in 2011, "Provincial sentiments (regarding the Teesta) cannot be wished away." In fact, water is a state subject according to the Constitution and any decision on water sharing has to be with the assent of the state government.

While the Central government is well within in its right to enter into bilateral water-sharing agreements with other countries, for a lasting arrangement to be achieved, the state government, in this case the Mamata Bannerjee regime, has to be brought on board. The key to resolving this lies in the draft agreement of the treaty itself, as it is fair and has kept the concerns of both countries in mind. The potential in the Teesta treaty to provide future benefits to West Bengal are immense and it is up to the Central government to make these more widely known as way of creating consent. Once the Teesta agreement is signed, it will open the way for a Joint Investment Plan in the Teesta Basin to augment water flow in the lean period, store flood water during summer for retrieval in dry months, introduce drought resistant crops, and hold the potential to transform the economy of the northern districts of West Bengal and north-western districts of Bangladesh.

But even a formal bilateral arrangement, which has West Bengal on board, is not enough. The new government needs to break from traditional, statist methods of conducting water diplomacy and distinguish itself by including a basin-wide management concerns or the concerns of basin inhabitants on both sides i.e. farmers and fishermen who are directly affected by the outcome on the Teesta. Therefore the need of the hour is a bilateral arrangement which can co-opt the consensus of all stakeholders: from people inhabiting the basin, to the concerned states and the central governments of both sides.

The new NDA regime clearly has its work cut out for itself. It will have to foment consensus for equal sharing of the Teesta with all stakeholders in West Bengal. This government is definitely better placed to achieve this due to the comfortable majority it has garnered in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, which makes it less vulnerable to coalition pressures than its predecessor.

But, at the same time, it is also crucial that a mutually acceptable solution to the Teesta need to be reached, without reversing the progress achieved by the previous regime vis-a-vis Bangladesh in areas of land border agreement, security and trade. It is vital to balance the demands of the state with the country's bilateral commitment to Bangladesh and therein lies the real diplomatic challenge for the Modi government.

(The writer is a Junior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

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