Despite objections from Central Ministries fearing delay and undue veto power to Bangladesh

The Prime Minister's Office (PMO), backed by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), has overruled the demurring among other Central Ministries over giving Bangladesh a stake in the mega Tipaimukh multipurpose hydel project in Manipur. But India is playing it safe and would first like general discussions to be held with a team from Bangladesh that is expected to arrive soon to discuss the possibility of Dhaka acquiring equity in the project, said government sources.

The project had given rise to misgivings in Bangladesh, which fears greater exposure to floods during monsoons and low flows during the lean season. As a result, in 2009, a team of Bangladeshi Parliamentarians was airlifted to the site to convince people that the project was for hydropower and flood control, and not irrigation.

Talks on Tipaimukh could lead to discussions on joint partnership in hydel projects in Sikkim on the Teesta, whose water-sharing agreement with Bangladesh was blocked at the last minute by West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. This caused diplomatic embarrassment to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on his first visit to Dhaka last year, during which pacts on Teesta and Feni were to figure prominently.

But the Prime Minister had assured his counterpart Sheikh Hasina that India would not take any steps on the project that would adversely affect Bangladesh. The MEA too has been telling the stakeholders that any development on the project, however insignificant, should be communicated to Bangladesh as a confidence-building measure.

Bangladesh has been flagging its interest in nine hydel projects under construction or being planned in the north-east and Sikkim. Besides Tipaimukh and Teesta III and IV, these include another mega project, Subansiri, and a host of under-100-mw projects.

Highly-placed Bangladesh diplomatic sources expect collaboration in hydel projects on common rivers flowing from the Himalayas to subsequently lead to tri-nation initiatives (India-Bangladesh-Bhutan) on common basin management. This could in due course be expanded to include China and Nepal and thus remove misgivings of lower riparian countries about the intentions of upper riparian ones in building hydel projects.

During Bangladesh Foreign Minister Dipu Moni's visit in early May, India had said it would not take any unilateral decision on the Himalayan component of the proposed river interlinking project which may affect Bangladesh. It had also welcomed Bangladesh's intentions to collaborate on hydel projects common rivers. On Tipaimukh, India and Bangladesh had agreed to set up a sub-group that would go into all its aspects.

But before the government decided to invite Bangladesh to discuss a stake in Tipaimukh project it had to overcome opposition from other Ministries. They were against holding discussions as they felt the project, which will take at least seven more years, will be delayed and Dhaka could make similar demands on other projects.

After two meetings chaired by National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon, the PMO invoked the Prime Minister's name to rule out opposition to a proposal that could improve bilateral ties in other areas.

“The Prime Minister has approved that as a first step, a Bangladeshi delegation could be invited to India to discuss the possibility of Bangladesh taking a stake in Tipaimukh project. This would be the preferred course at present rather than getting into formal or semi-formal mechanisms that may give Bangladesh a veto on this and a number of similar projects,” said a missive.

Progress in power

India and Bangladesh have recently made progress in cooperation in the power sector. The two sides have agreed on a road map for supplying 500 mw of power to Bangladesh. A joint venture will set up a 1,320-mw coal-fired plant near the Sundarbans. An agreement on Tipaimukh would lend another dimension to cooperation in the power sector.

This report has been corrected for factual errors

More In: National | News