Move in step with rail, road and maritime linkages

Bangladesh, Nepal and India are discussing collaboration in river water sharing, an emotive issue in all three countries, highly placed sources said.

“There could be a tri-nation meeting very soon. We are working on it.”

The broader idea is to rope in Bhutan as well, where public opinion has not been as vocal as in these three countries over hydel projects and sharing waters of common rivers.

Bangladesh has been the most enthusiastic about a sub-regional water sharing arrangement and India, lukewarm. The move is aimed at keeping in step with the other linkages developing among these countries in the form of rail, road and maritime connectivity as also in the power sector.

The sources said the tri-nation initiative on a common basin management of rivers could in future be expanded to include other countries, especially China, which is the source to the Brahmaputra, the mightiest river in the eastern part of the Indian subcontinent.

Explaining why this idea remained in gestation for a long time, the sources said: “When you are entering into a project of such dimensions and ramifications, one should not be hasty. There are political and non-political repercussions.”

They cited a Meghalaya cement project, which was to cater for the needs of both India and Bangladesh. But a legal loophole almost shut down the project, causing hardship to people on both sides.

More recently, New Delhi suffered a diplomatic embarrassment when the India-Bangladesh interim treaty on sharing Teesta waters was put in abeyance because West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee felt she had not been kept in the loop during the negotiations. “This has great impact on diplomatic relations. Also, we should avoid people taking a negative perspective about a multicountry project,” the sources said.

By addressing public sentiments, the countries will also be facilitating common linkages in other sectors as well, said sources in Dhaka. A rail link between Howrah and Agartala going through Bangladesh is “almost in the final stages of agreement on a common draft'' and the two countries are looking at power grid connectivity at three points, in addition to joint power plants in Bangladesh (near Khulna) and India (in Tripura).

Officials in Dhaka say Bangladesh is strongly in favour of common basin management as this will provide a lasting solution for disputes over water sharing. In this respect, they refer to Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's observations at the SAARC summit in the Maldives last November.

While this tri-nation initiative will take time to take shape, India for now is focussing on the actual deliverables — with Bangladesh it is actively negotiating the Teesta treaty, which should give way for one on River Feni, and with Nepal the ambitious, multipurpose project approach to shared rivers has been tempered by misgivings in political circles in Kathmandu.

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