Indian negotiators still unaware of West Bengal's special objections to water deal, highly placed sources say

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has said that the West Bengal government assented to a strategic water-sharing agreement with Bangladesh before backing out of it over the weekend — and thus forcing India to resile on its international commitments.

Dr. Singh said he had consulted with Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee for over a month on the details of the treaty, asking National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon “to seek guidance from her.” “I was told that all technical details were sorted out,” Dr. Singh told journalists on-board his flight home from Dhaka.

Last week, the Trinamool Congress raised objections to the draft treaty at a meeting of the Cabinet's Political Affairs Committee. “I again sent Shankar Menon to visit Kolkata,” Dr. Singh said. “He had a meeting, and what the Chief Minister said, and what Mr. Menon understood, he took to Dhaka, and the arrangement was made.”

But, Dr. Singh continued, “some other factors came up and therefore Ms. Banerjee said that she will not accompany me to Dhaka. “It was only subsequently,” he insisted, “that I learned her disagreement was on account on what we were attempting to do on the Teesta.”

Indian negotiators, a highly placed government source told The Hindu, have still received no explanation for West Bengal's eleventh-hour decision to reject the draft water-sharing treaty — making it impossible for them to explain the country's stand to their Bangladesh counterparts or to lay the foundations for an alternative agreement.

Bangladesh's Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed said on Tuesday night that New Delhi and Dhaka had “reached an understanding on water-sharing in the Teesta and Feni rivers” — the first official acknowledgment of just how close negotiators were to closing a deal.

The agreement, diplomatic sources told The Hindu, envisaged that India would be entitled to just under half the Teesta's waters, and called for both sides to carry out joint studies on how much was available before setting up a bilateral body charged with administering the treaty.

However, New Delhi was forced back out of the deal just hours before the Prime Minister's arrival in Bangladesh, after Ms. Banerjee refused to travel with him to Dhaka. Ms. Banerjee has made not offered an explanation of precisely what objections she has to the proposed treaty, but sources in her party said the draft presented to Bangladesh differed from the one she discussed with Mr. Menon.

The Prime Minister declined to discuss Ms. Banerjee's claims, saying he did not want to “enter into a disputation.”

The troubled Teesta

Even though farmers in Bangladesh will be the immediate beneficiaries of the Teesta treaty, it has huge implications for India. The treaty, which will provide a template for agreements to share the waters of 53 rivers with Bangladesh, will also help India establish principles for pressing its claims to rivers originating in China.

India and Pakistan began talking about the Teesta's waters soon after Independence. The talks went nowhere. In 1961, India adopted unilateral plans to build a barrage on its side of the border, raising concerns downstream.

Following more years of failed talks, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a consensus statement in 1976 which directed both countries to arrive at a “fair and expeditious” agreement. Even though the India-Bangladesh joint rivers commission held over a 100 meetings, a deal could not be hammered out.

Bangladesh completed construction of the Dalia barrage, the country's largest irrigation project, in 1979. The Dalia project was intended to use the Teesta's waters to irrigate some 540,000 hectares of land in the country's northern rice-growing heartlands. From 1985, the 4,500-km canal network meant to carry the Teesta's waters to farmers opened its gates.

The farmers got the water they desperately needed — but then, just a few years later, the canals ran dry.

In 1993, farmers in West Bengal began to get water from the Gazoldoba barrage in Jalpaiguri, which India had built on the Teesta. The Indian project supplied water for 228,000 hectares — farmers who used their votes to ensure that their needs were met before Bangladesh.

From 1996, scholars Yoshiro Higano and Muhammad Fakrul Islam have noted, India's “exclusive control of the Teesta's water in the dry season at Gazoldoba made the Dalia barrage useless.” In the monsoon, they said, releases of water from the barrage caused “floods and bank erosions, leading to serious suffering”.

In 1997, though, a draft treaty on the Teesta was hammered out, a year after the former West Bengal Chief Minister, Jyoti Basu, helped steward a landmark treaty on the Ganga. “He was a great man,” the Prime Minister acknowledged today.

Little progress was made in the decade and a half since, breeding bitterness in desperately-poor Bangladesh where farmers are hit by crippling water shortages in low-rainfall years.

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