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What is the lowdown on sharing of Teesta waters?

A general view of the Teesta river is pictured at Sevok, some 20 kms from Siliguri, on September 8, 2011. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan's visit to Bangladesh September 6 has been clouded by the uncertainty over the signing of an accord on sharing of waters of the Teesta River following strong reservations expressed by India's West Bengal state Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, reports said. AFP PHOTO/Diptendu DUTTA   | Photo Credit: AFP

What is it?

Sharing the waters of the Teesta river, which originates in the Himalayas and flows through Sikkim and West Bengal to merge with the Brahmaputra in Assam and (Jamuna in Bangladesh), is perhaps the most contentious issue between two friendly neighbours, India and Bangladesh. The river covers nearly the entire floodplains of Sikkim, while draining 2,800 sq km of Bangladesh, governing the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. For West Bengal, Teesta is equally important, considered the lifeline of half-a-dozen districts in North Bengal. Bangladesh has sought an “equitable” distribution of Teesta waters from India, on the lines of the Ganga Water Treaty of 1996, but to no avail. The failure to ink a deal had its fallout on the country’s politics, putting the ruling Awami League in a spot.

How did it come about?

Following a half-hearted deal in 1983, when nearly equal division of water was proposed, the countries hit a roadblock. The transient agreement could not be implemented. Talks resumed after the Awami League returned to power in 2008 and the former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Dhaka in 2011. Officials were directed to conclude the “[interim] agreements” on a “fair and equitable basis,” as per the joint statement. In 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Dhaka generated more ebullient lines: “deliberations were under way involving all the stakeholders…[to conclude the agreement] as soon as possible.” As both countries are gearing up for another general election, Teesta remains an unfinished project and one of the key stakeholders — West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee — is yet to endorse the deal. Her objection is connected to “global warming.”

Many of the glaciers on the Teesta basin have retreated, says Strategic Foresight Group, a Mumbai-based think-tank. “Estimates suggested that the Teesta river has a mean annual flow of approximately 60 billion cubic metre (BCM). A significant amount of this water flows during the wet season, between June and September. The importance of the flow and the seasonal variation of this river is felt during the lean season (from October to April/May) as the average flow is about 500 million cubic metre (MCM) per month. Consequently, there are floods during monsoons and droughts during the dry periods,” the 2013 report said.

The West Bengal Chief Minister opposed an arrangement in 2011, by which India would get 42.5% and Bangladesh 37.5% of the water during the lean season, and the plan was shelved.

Why does it matter?

India witnessed a surge in insurgency in the northeast during the rule of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) from 2001 to 2005. A new policy to befriend the BNP backfired. Bangladesh allegedly sheltered insurgents engaged in anti-India activities, and nearly all the Home Ministry-level talks ended without agreement, and India had to increase the security budget for the northeast. In a couple of years of assuming office in 2008, the Awami League targeted insurgent camps and handed over the rebels to India. As India’s security establishment heaved a sigh of relief, the relationship improved on multiple fronts. But in 2017, the Awami League is on a sticky wicket. It will be facing one of its toughest elections in two years and water-sharing will be one of the key issues. As the former Bangladesh High Commissioner in Delhi, Tariq Karim, put it, even if most of the agreements are delivered, many in Bangladesh will “only ask why has Teesta not been done.” The Awami League will have to have an answer.

What next?

The answer, according to leading Bangladeshi hydrologist and architect of Ganga Water Treaty Ainun Nishat, is embedded in the construction of giant artificial reservoirs, where the monsoon water can be stored for the lean season. The reservoirs need to be built in India as the country has some mountain-induced sites favourable to hosting dams with reservoirs, unlike Bangladesh, Dr. Nishat told this correspondent earlier. Ms. Banerjee, however, cannot be sidestepped as water is a State subject. But the silver lining is the presence of stakeholders — at the highest level — in Delhi this week. Hopefully, they will be able to strike gold by the next general election in Bangladesh.

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Printable version | Feb 25, 2021 9:17:54 AM |

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