THE recent visit of the Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, to Bangladesh could have been historic for Bangladesh and India, had the two countries signed a water-sharing agreement on the river Teesta. Manmohan Singh did tell a news briefing that his maiden visit to Bangladesh had been ‘very satisfying’; it might have been from the Indian perspective but, perhaps, not so much from the Bangladesh point of view.
The sharing of Teesta water has been on the negotiations table for four decades. There was a possibility for an agreement on the Teesta to be signed when the Bangladesh prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, paid an official visit to India. However, it was not to be. At the end of her visit, the Dhaka-Delhi communiqué indicated that more survey and data were required to finalise the draft agreement and that the agreement could be signed during Manmohan Singh’s visit.
The agreement looked a certainty during the visit of the Indian national security adviser, Shiv Shankar Menon, to Dhaka in August; it seemed that the agreement was merely waiting to be inked by the two heads of government. Moreover, the Bangladesh water resources minister, Ramesh Chandra Sen, earlier said that the two countries had already signed a draft agreement and that all the terms and conditions had been finalised.
However, as it turned out, the state government of Pashchim Banga had reservations about certain clauses of the proposed agreement, and the agreement fell through. The question then is what the water resources minister of the two countries had been doing for the past two years. Apparently, the two had met at different forums and been working on the treaty. It is unlikely that the central government of India did not consult with the Pashchim Banga chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, at any stage of the negotiations.
It is safe to presume then that Mamata changed her mind at the eleventh hour, thereby casting a shadow on the Indian prime minister’s Bangladesh visit. Suffice it to say, an agreement on the Teesta was generally perceived to be a crucial component of the visit. The question to ask then is why Mamata waited until the last to articulate her reservation. She is also quoted to have said that there is no water in the Teesta to be shared with Bangladesh.
It is pertinent to point out here that equitable sharing of the Teesta water would not have arisen had India allowed to let the river flow its natural course. Needless to say, while erecting a dam on an international river goes against relevant international laws and conventions, India has not allowed such laws and conventions to deter it from damming international rivers and diverting their water to different parts of the country.
Mamata also questioned some issues in the treaty. Although it is not clear what her specific objections are, her government is said to have found the agreement ‘detrimental to the interests’ of Pashchim Banga. There is also speculation that the decision was prompted by her difference with the central government over financial allocation for the state government.
The Teesta is said to be the lifeline of the Indian state of Sikkim, flowing for almost the entire length of the state and carving out verdant Himalayan temperate and tropical river valleys. The emerald-coloured river then forms the border between Sikkim and West Bengal before joining the Brahmaputra as a tributary in Bangladesh.
The idea of using the Teesta for irrigation for the betterment of the people dates back to the British period. During the 1950s, the then East Pakistani authorities intimated the Indian authorities regarding the Teesta project in her territory. After the independence of Bangladesh in 1971, talks on Teesta water sharing continued in the Indo-Bangladesh Joint River Commission. Bangladesh objected to India’s plan to divert the water of the Teesta to the Mahananda basin. Since the independence of Bangladesh, a number of Joint River Commission meetings took place without any results. Over the decades, the river flow on the Bangladesh side decreased because of the diversion of water from the Indian parts of the river during dry season.
Bangladesh wants to split the water evenly at the Indian barrage to have an ensured supply of half of the water during dry season. The proposal from Bangladesh was to keep 20 per cent of the water for environmental flow. India prefers keeping only 10 per cent for the river. Moreover, India wants other factors to be taken into account before distributing the water of these rivers. In case of the Teesta, 85 per cent of agricultural land served by the river was in India and the remaining 15 per cent in Bangladesh (source: internet).
According to international laws, the Joint River Commission will distribute the water based on equity and this equity does not mean equal sharing. For us our experts must do a thorough research and find out what would be this equal share for us (i.e. the equity ratio). If we go back to history, the British India did share the same water without any dispute. The current India’s argument is that the British did not show any interest in developing any particular area with irrigation since they were part of the same country and state. To develop the river basin areas barrages and dams are required. In the given situation, our experts should look at the irrigable area in catchments and the target areas of the project and neglect the actual area under irrigation (on the Indian side).
A better relationship between Bangladesh and India depends on how the latter considers our needs. After the failing negotiation over the Padma, Teesta water sharing is very important for Bangladesh. To make this negotiation successful, Bangladesh has two major bargaining chips — transit and terrorism. Bangladesh did their best to hand over Indian separatists and allow India to use ports in Bangladesh. The much-debated transit deal is also on its way. But the question is what Bangladesh will get in return.
In diplomacy everyone looks for fair equation or at least some part of fairness in the equation. Somehow what we have seen again and again is that India is least interested to build a healthy relationship with its eastern neighbour. India needs to remember without peaceful neighbours one cannot sleep well; one cannot feel safe at home. India for its own stability must need to consider Bangladesh’s demand sincerely. For peaceful existence we need to work together to realise the people’s hopes and aspirations in this region. If India wants to continue its economic growth, it must consider its eastern neighbour and be ready to meet Bangladesh needs. Without regional cooperation, India would not be able to continue its economic drive to success.
The steps that Mamata has taken just before Manmohan Singh’s visit to Bangladesh appear ultra-nationalistic. In the 21st century anyone thinking only of his/her people’s interest cannot be a true leader. We all know India’s central government does not have the power to control the state government but surely it can influence the state government. Mamata Banerjee needs to feel the pulse of Bangladeshis. We may have separate boundary, separate flags but we speak the same language, share the same culture. Only language and culture can bring people closer. Mamata Banerjee needs to understand the demand of Bengalis of the other side of the boundary and should react quickly to meet the demand of Bangladeshi people.
Bangladesh’s foreign minister Dipu Moni, after a meeting Mamata on November 16, rightly noted that the extent of the bilateral relationship between Bangladesh and India depends on the signing of the Teesta treaty. If both the countries want to establish a deep relationship the signing of the Teesta treaty is absolutely essential. Provided that both the countries sign this treaty, other issues and cooperation between the countries will increase enormously. This cooperation will have a great impact in the Southeast Asian region. On the contrary, if the pact is not signed, the bilateral relationship between Bangladesh and India would be affected. Signing the pact not only ensures the water supply for Bangladesh but both the countries would able to establish trust among them. And this trust is required for regional security and peace.
BY : Nadim Jahangir.