Monday, January 9, 2012

Is Bangladesh Doing Enough About Tipaimukh?

Tipaimukh dam threatens to do to Indo-Bangla relations what Farakkha did earlier. The level of concern about the possible impact of the dam in North-Eastern India has fired up enough anxious fires in Bangladeshi bellies to fuel many hostilities as well. The political price of this dam is enormous and it will not only sink any future Indo-Bangla goodwill that exists but allow the fanatic pro-Islamic and pro-Pakistani forces to come forward and exert influence on politics and security issues in South Asia.

As things stand today, the Tipaimukh dam is bad news but it is made worse by the attitude of Bangladeshi leaders who seem to be saying that India is constructing this with Bangladesh interests fully in its mind. Bangladesh was never consulted when the plans were drawn up so how that can be so is unknown.

Since India’s track record as far as water sharing is terrible (Example: Farakkha) and its readiness to comply with treaties is poor as the Ganges water sharing treaty record says, Bangladesh government should be showing more concern than observed. Sheikh Hasina is risking a lot by displaying inadequate concern and one is not sure if anyone around her knows what is going on and what needs to be done.
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Some have argued that the Tipaimukh dam will not harm Bangladesh and may even benefit it as far as flood reduction is concerned but little evidence has been provided to support this. Flood reduction is based on appropriate water withdrawal during rainy season but since the schedule is not known and has not been shared with Bangladesh, no one can be sure. DR. Khalequzzaman, of Lock Haven University, US and a member of the Bangladesh Environmental Network (BEN) who has studied the issue since 2008 argues that it is difficult to see how flooding during the rainy season and reduced flow during the dry season can be avoided.

His summation is as follows:

“To produce electricity, India will have to release water from the dam from its highest level at 178m (when 15 BCM will be captured behind the dam) to 136m. A rough calculation indicates that, the amount of water that will be released equals to about 8 BCM. In other words, about 7 BCM of water will always be kept behind the dam to maintain enough pressure-head needed to generate electricity from the dam. This 7 BCM will be the dead storage (i.e. kept behind the dam permanently), which is equivalent to about 9,000 cusec.

In other words, if that 7 BCM was released evenly throughout the year, then it would equal to about 9,000 cusec of additional flow in the Barak River, which will eventually reach the Surma (60%) and Kushiara (40%) in the amount of 5,400 cusec and 3,600 cusec, respectively.
So, it is possible that during ordinary rainy season (unless there is a major rain event, in which case they will open all gates to secure the dam) flow in the Surma and Kushiara will be reduced by 5,400 and 3,600 cusec, respectively.

But, the same amount of reduction in dry season will have the potential to dry off these two rivers.”
As yet, no credible contest of this argument has been made. It is very difficult to identify what benefits the Tipaimukh dam will earn for Bangladesh. One wishes the authorities would spell it out.
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But it is not the technical arguments that makes Tapaiamukh a threat but the political process that has followed it. In fact the dam is a tri-partite affair involving the Indian state, the Bangladeshi people and the Manipuris of the North East India. In this case, the Indian government has not received consent from the two protesting people affected by the dam. Over time as protests and resentment have built up, many feel that the dam is really part of a bigger plan of a circle of dams of which Tipaimukh is the first.

As some have pointed out, the total electricity generation is only1500 MW at a cost of Rs. 6,979 million ($1.4 billion) which is really not significant given the environment and political risks which this dam is generating. It is pointed out that the more damaging Fulertal diversion barrage in Assam or such other constructions has to follow to make economic sense
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It is practical for Bangladeshis to remember the Farakkha sequences of events when despite protests, international advocacy and international legal opinions showing that the Indian position was untenable, India went ahead. One can understand that India was intransigent before 1971 when Pakistan was the enemy state but it was finalised during the Bangladesh era. At that time, Sheikh Mujib was in power who was obviously an ally. Now under a different ally Sheikh Hasina, India has initiated another challenge to Bangladesh’s survival and positive mutual relations. However, this time it is not too late, one hopes.
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India didn’t begin the basic project work by consulting Bangladesh although both are partners in the same river. The Tipaimukh dam will have the maximum capacity to hold 15 billion cubic metres (BCM) of water, which, as per the Central Water Commission of India, accounts for about 30 percent of the total flow of the Barak River. This means that India will have unilateral control over 30 percent of the flow in an international river. In itself, this cannot be acceptable to a lower riparian country like Bangladesh but this has been the same case before.

The Ganges Treaty was not signed before the barrage was built but afterwards when it became a major bone of contention between the two countries. But again in the 12 years of its existence, India broke the terms of accord in nine years of the 12 according to Bangladeshi experts. In case of Tipaimukh, there may be an opportunity to do something before the damage is done though much of it depends on India and the kind of pressure Bangladesh can bring upon it.
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At this point of time India has not yet proven its adequate good faith and Bangladesh has also not displayed any serious intent of making Tipaimukh a joint effort. India has acted as it has done before in dealing with a weak neighbour and like many times before didn’t bother to call. Bangladesh is such a sorry mess that India knows ignoring it is possible and it has done so. All plans and arrangements for the dam were made beforehand so the Indian position is obviously not one which is loyal to the principle of consensual approach.
Given that scenario the onus of trying its best to make it a ‘joint’ project squarely lies on Bangladesh.

If it is really serious about trying to make Tipaimukh non-harmful to Bangladesh, the following demands must be made.

- Suspend all activities relating to the dam planning before a joint environmental, socio-economic, security assessment is made jointly by India and Bangladesh.

- Establish a learning project for Bangladeshi experts, activists and media so that exchanges and interactions on the project are knowledge rather than emotion based.

-Develop public consultation process in Bangladesh to inform the people about the dam, learn about public perception of the same and also understand if the people are behind the actions being taken by the Bangladesh government.

- Engage international bodies on the issue so that the matter of an international river sharing is revived at a level where some impact is possible.

- Contact civil society bodies in India and various Saarc fora to discuss the topic and urge consensual actions on the dam’s future.

These are not original suggestions but are an attempt to fill the gaps that has emerged out of the Tipaimukh affair. Many more suggestions are possible.
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Modern states operate out of the principles of enlightened self-interest though the first part is often missing. When it comes to dealing with another country, such countries particularly the big ones don’t feel obligated to act fairly as there is no enforceable international regime to ensure that everyone behaves fairly towards each other. Therefore the responsibility falls on the affected nations to ensure creation of situations and circumstances that will make arbitrary actions less damaging.

India will do what it thinks is the best and Bangladesh must do what it thinks will preserve the interest of Bangladesh. Till date, Bangladesh has fallen much short of that responsibility.

BY :   Afsan Chowdhury.