Sunday, March 18, 2012

Implementation of Indian river-linking project and concerns for Bangladesh

The Indian Supreme Court’s (SC) recent verdict to implement the Interlinking of Rivers Project (ILRP) has added an additional element to the list of unresolved issues between India and Bangladesh with regards to water resources management in shared rivers. The people of Bangladesh have expressed their disappointment in various news media over the proposed Tipaimukh dam, lack of Teesta water sharing treaty, and the failure to implement the Ganges Treaty in the last 15 years.

This new development (or re-surfacing of the old concept from 2002) on Inter-linking of River Project (ILRP) in India is a matter of concern. This project, if implemented, will have far reaching and long-term impacts on Bangladesh, yet there is no reaction from any major political parties and the government. Recently, the Advisor Mr. Gawher Rizvi declined to make any comment on potential impact of the Indian Supreme Court’s recent verdict to implement the ILRP on Bangladesh until he sees the full text of the verdict. However, based on what is already known from Indian news media, the government could express concern over this unfortunate development and could demand more information from Indian authority.

It is not clear if the GoB has officially asked for additional information from Indian government. It is worth mentioning here that, when the ILRP issue was at the peak of discussion in the news media in 2004-05, the then Foreign Minister of Bangladesh Mr. M. Morshed Khan said “India has agreed on regional co-operation in water sharing management, apparently a major shift in Delhi’s policy to common rivers between the two countries. India assured that it wouldn’t implement its proposed river-link project without consulting the regional countries concerned” (The Daily Star, August 2, 2004), and then Water Resources Minister of India Mr Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi said ” the Congress led coalition government will not implement river linking projects in the Eastern Zone to avoid any dent in relationship with Bangladesh” (The Daily Star, September 3, 2005). Hopefully, the current Indian government will honour the promise made by the concerned authorities in the past.

Recently, Mr. Ramaswami Iyer, the former Secretary of the Indian Ministry of Water Resources and one of the prominent experts on water resources, expressed his reaction to the SC’s verdict in an article posted on His response is well reasoned. He criticized the validity of this verdict by the court by saying that, “There are two problems here. First, assuming that there is a serious water scarcity problem, it is not the business of the Supreme Court to deal with it; there is an Executive Government to deal with such matters.” He is also of the opinion that, before issuing the verdict, the Supreme Court should have considered all view points on the ILRP issue as there are books written on the subject.

The issue of ILRP involves managing water resources on many international rivers that are shared by more than one country, namely China, Nepal, Bhutan, India, and Bangladesh. In this regard, the judges acted completely outside of their jurisdiction by saying that “Besides … benefits to the country, it will help the countries like Nepal etc, uplifting India’s international role (The Hindu, February 27, 2012).” It is not clear as to how the Indian judges can decide on a matter that involves Nepal. If the judges felt the responsibility to help Nepal, then they could have addressed the need of Bangladesh as well.

Bangladesh is a major stakeholder in the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna basin, and her interests need to be considered in all decision making process involving water resources management. However, like the judges, Mr. Iyer also neglected to address the interest of Bangladesh in his article. It is understandable that the Indian environmentalists have to be more concerned about their own issues and interests; however, the ILRP is an issue that requires an understanding the hydrology, ecology, environment, and socio-political ramification for all stakeholders in the G-B-M basin.

A three-day long conference titled “International Conference on Regional Cooperation on Trans-boundary Rivers (ICRCTR)” was held on December 17-19, 2004. The conference was attended by academicians, environmental activists, politicians, diplomats, and general public representing Bangladesh, India, Nepal, China, Japan, and the US. Over 500 people participated in the three-day long conference. The then Indian High Commissioner to Bangladesh Ms. Veena Sikri also spoke on the occasion. There were over 40 papers presented by experts, out of which about 20 were from India. All of the presented papers were published in a proceeding volume. As one of the editors of the proceedings I had an opportunity to read all papers in the document. The proceedings of the conference can serve as the baseline of knowledge about the ILRP for future reference.

To the best of my knowledge, the proceedings of the conference serve as the most authentic knowledge based on the issue of ILRP. The conference was attended by several hundred participants representing Nepal, Indian, Bangladesh, Japan, and the US. Among others were present many dignitaries from India, including Ramaswami Iyer, Medha Patkar, Sudirindir Sharma , Sudhir Vombatkere, S. Rao, S. Sinha, S. Gaguly, J. Bandophadhay, Bigsam Gujja, and Vergeese.

It is hoped that the judges will consider holding off the implementation of the verdict and will have a fresh hearing on the issue. The government of Bangladesh should pay a close attention to this development and stay engaged in the issue. Any party interested in learning all aspects of the ILRP issue should consider consulting the proceedings of the ICRCTR conference in making decision on managing water resources in the G-B-M basin in the future.

For interested readers, I am also including links to a few of my own write ups on the topic and would like to refer to the ICRCTR proceedings for other publications on ILRP.

BY :  Md. Khalequzzaman.