This article is part of the series — India–Bangladesh Relations @50: Commemorating Bilateral Ties.
With “Maitri Setu,” the bridge on the transboundary Feni river shared between Bangladesh and India, being inaugurated on 9 March 2021 by the Prime Ministers of the two riparian nations, another feather was added to the Bangladesh-India friendship cap. Ever since Bangladesh was formed, water has been a critical explanatory factor in Bangladesh-India relations with 54 rivers crossing each other’s boundaries. As such, the 50 years of hydropolitical relations between the two nations can best be described as a mixed bag of sweet spots and some bitter pills. Some of these “bitter pills” were inherited as legacies of the Pakistan-India relations from the times when Bangladesh was East Pakistan. Some bitter pills were made into sweet spots, but not all!
The Bangladesh-India transboundary water relations need to be delineated in the geographical space of the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna basin. The most contentious issue in the hydro-political relations between the two nations, so far, had been the construction of the Farakka barrage, located around 16.5 km upstream of the Bangladesh border. The barrage had been the point of contention right from its design phase when Bangladesh was East Pakistan. The barrage became operational from 1975 with the moot objective of enhancing the flow of the Bhagirathi-Hooghly channel (a distributary of the Ganges) to resuscitate Kolkata Port by flushing out the sediments. Downstream Bangladesh’s contention was that the barrage and feeder canal for water diversion will reduce the dry season flow of the main stream into Bangladesh. The 1996 Ganges Water Sharing Agreement (GWA) between Bangladesh and India saved the hydropolitical impasse. The dispensation at West Bengal enabled this agreement with the Left Front Chief Minister and Finance Minister playing active roles.
The Bangladesh-India transboundary water relations need to be delineated in the geographical space of the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna basin.
The agreement entailed a schedule of flows
from the Farakka barrage during the dry season months from January to May. Data so far reveals strict compliance with the agreement by upstream India. Interestingly, some recent figures
from the Joint Rivers Commission suggest that Bangladesh receives a much higher quantity at their first measuring station over the Ganges, i.e. Hardinge Bridge, than what is released from the Farakka barrage. The flow increase may either be attributed to the additional flow from Mahananda and Pagla rivers — both of which cross the Indian boundary and meet the Ganges in Bangladesh in the upstream of the Hardinge Bridge, or to the underground flow coming to surface. The actual reason is yet to be deciphered.
While the above bears the good news, the problem lies elsewhere. One cannot escape the fact that the idea of the Farakka barrage is mooted in the reductionist engineering paradigm that merely looks at a river basin as quantity of water for use rather than the broader concerns of the basin ecosystem. The GWA is only a fall-out of the same reductionism that infused “arithmetic hydrology” in water governance in India. The GWA fails to acknowledge that a Himalayan river like the Ganges carries heavy sediments that enrich soil fertility, and also form soil. Therefore, the agreement only talked about the flow of water without any mention on how to deal with the sediments or understanding their roles in providing ecosystem services.
The Ganges Water Sharing Agreement GWA is a 30-year-duration treaty whose tenure comes to an end in 2026. Therefore, it becomes imperative to bring in the concern of sediment and the delta in the discussions as one prepares for 2026.
Rather, the trapping of the sediments in the upstream of the Farakka barrage has been allegedly stated to be inhibiting the delta’s soil formation, which has a negative impact on certain parts of the Sundarbans as well. There is some impressionistic evidence that the delta is largely formed by the sediments of the Koshi (a tributary of Ganges emerging from Nepal) that is now getting trapped in the barrage, thereby, inhibiting the critical supporting service of the basin ecosystem that entails resuscitation of the delta soil. The delta is already a victim of sea-level rise, saline water ingressions, and land-losses. The GWA is a 30-year-duration treaty whose tenure comes to an end in 2026. Therefore, it becomes imperative to bring in the concern of sediment and the delta in the discussions as one prepares for 2026. That will witness another dimension of Bangladesh-India hydro-diplomacy.
While GWA and Maitri Bridge over Feni seem to be the sweet spots of success from a hydro-diplomacy perspective, the Teesta river still remains the bone of contention between the two riparian nations. The inherent problem lies with sharing of dry season flow (December-May). This is the period when the irrigated boro
rice is grown in both West Bengal and Bangladesh. An ad-hoc agreement of 1983, which allocated 39 percent to India and 36 percent to Bangladesh, while leaving the remaining unallocated, lapsed within two years. An attempt in 2011 to ink an agreement by the Bangladesh and Indian governments on the basis of the 1984 recommendations could not be implemented due to objection from the state of West Bengal.
Bangladesh has lately been complaining about how the low flow from upstream has affected the standing paddy crops and fisheries, thereby, impairing critical livelihoods. On the other hand, the West Bengal Chief Minister has taken the position that the overall flow in the Teesta in West Bengal has declined though questions have earlier been raised against such estimates
on the basis of which such claims are made.
Both Bangladesh and India’s unbridled penchant for dry season paddy cultivation has been further facilitated by development of irrigation facilities through hydrological interventions, and there seems to be no intention of reversing this trend.
Earlier, the author of this piece had talked of the water diversion from Gajaladoba in North Bengal through the Teesta-Mahananda link canal
to meet the urban water needs of the growing urban centres of Siliguri and Jalpaiguri, and the prevalence and dominance of irrigated paddy fields adjacent to the link canal in West Bengal. One of the critical drivers of dry season water use is the irrigated boro
paddy, which has a crop-water requirement of around 1,800-2,800 mm, i.e. 10 times of those of drier cereals like sorghum or ragi. Both Bangladesh and India’s unbridled penchant for dry season paddy cultivation has been further facilitated by development of irrigation facilities through hydrological interventions, and there seems to be no intention of reversing this trend. Of course, the Minimum Support Price regime that moved the terms-of-trade and therefore the acreage from drier crops to paddy throughout the 1980s and 1990s are also responsible for the same.
But the problem prevails further upstream due to a series of hydropower projects (as many as 30 hydropower projects operating and planned, most of which are in Sikkim) on the Teesta. Despite the claim of hydropower entailing “non-consumptive” use of water being “run-of-river” projects, the water needs to be stored in the upstream “pondages” to ensure adequate mass for the turbines to generate power. This disrupts the flow regime. The successive projects, being located at very short distances from each other, fragment the river, dry up the downstream, and prove detrimental for biodiversity and the ecosystem. The river in the dry season is literally “killed” — a classic example of how myopic economics dominates over long-run sustainability concerns.
Teesta is subjected to “conflictual federalism” with divergent views of the Centre and the state of West Bengal over its use.
From an institutional and governance perspective, the Bangladesh-India Teesta stalemate is largely created due to water being a State subject in the Indian Constitution. The federal structure of water governance as proposed in the Indian Constitution inhibits the Centre from getting into an agreement with Bangladesh if West Bengal is unwilling. Teesta is, therefore, subjected to “conflictual federalism” with divergent views of the Centre and the state of West Bengal over its use.
One needs to note here that the future of Bangladesh-India hydro-relations will not only be contingent upon what New Delhi and Dhaka will think, but will also be dependent on the Centre-State relations, and the federal states’ positions with respect to transboundary water governance. In the case of the GWA, West Bengal played an enabling role, while for the Teesta it is just the contrary. Therefore, the Bangladesh-India transboundary water relations will always emerge as a “two-level” game as far as India is concerned.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.