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The Hindu Explains | What does Chinese interest in the Teesta mean for India?

Why have negotiations between New Delhi and Dhaka on the Himalayan river not progressed over the years?

August 23, 2020 12:30 am | Updated 01:07 am IST

The Teesta river is pictured at Sevok, some 20 km from Siliguri. File

The Teesta river is pictured at Sevok, some 20 km from Siliguri. File

The story so far: India’s Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla paid a two-day visit to the Bangladesh capital Dhaka on Tuesday and Wednesday (August 18-19) and discussed a two-year road map for bilateral relations. The visit took place amid reports that Bangladesh is likely to receive assistance from China for $1billion for an irrigation project on the Teesta which has been at the centre of a water-sharing negotiation with India. During Mr. Shringla’s visit, a host of issues were discussed, but not Teesta.

What is China’s plan on Teesta?

In September 2016, the Bangladesh Water Development Board entered into a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Powerchina or the Power Construction Corporation of China to carry out a technical study to better manage the Teesta for the benefit of northern Bangladesh’s greater Rangpur region. Bangladesh requires around $987.27 million for the Teesta River Comprehensive Management and Restoration Project. Officially, Bangladesh maintains that it has been in talks with the World Bank, the Japan International Cooperation Agency and the Government of China. But Kabir Bin Anwar, Senior Secretary, Ministry of Water Resources, has told the media that China has expressed interest in funding the mega project.

The Hindu Explains | How did the Teesta water issue come about?

Any foreign funding agency is expected to provide at least $853.05 million as financial assistance for the project. Comments from officials of the Ministry of Water Resources in Dhaka indicate that talks are at an advanced stage with the Chinese side.

The China-Bangladesh plan includes extensive dredging of the river and its many tributaries, the building of dams, reclamation of land wherever necessary, stopping erosion of the embankments during the monsoon months, and help in maintenance of a certain level of water during the lean season. A large reservoir to store water is also part of the plan. The overall project will free substantial land from the river’s embankments and allow Bangladesh to build new economic zones.

What is the viability of the project?

Bangladesh has been trying to combat two aspects of the Teesta. The river causes difficulties for the Rangpur region in north Bangladesh throughout the year. During the lean months (December to May), the Teesta goes dry, affecting agriculture. Bangladesh claims that the dry Teesta during these months is because of India holding most of the winter supplies of the river’s water.

The Teesta, which flows for around 113 km inside Bangladesh before meeting the Meghna/Brahmaputra, swells up within weeks after the arrival of the monsoons and causes enormous flooding and erosion of embankments as the water level rises. As a result, the triangular area including Lalmonirhat has become difficult to develop. The negotiation with India at least since 2011 has been aimed at ensuring that the river would get the necessary water during the lean season to ensure a minimum level to help the agriculture sector of north Bangladesh.

The negotiation with the Chinese was aimed at rejuvenating the river, and stopping it from claiming the embankments during the monsoon months which will also help in better manage the river water for supply during the lean season.

Also read | Sheikh Hasina discusses two-year road map with Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla

Why is a river management project necessary?

The Teesta makes headlines every monsoon as dozens of villages and townships along its banks in Bangladesh are affected. Once the river is dredged and the water is managed with the help of necessary dams, it will most likely be tamed and the damage in the nearby areas reduced.

Will the Chinese project hurt India’s negotiations with Bangladesh on Teesta water-sharing?

China can put up a tough challenge if it can construct this approximately $1 billion river irrigation and rejuvenation project on one of the toughest Himalayan rivers. It will also be the first time that China will construct a mega river management project in Bangladesh. Bangladesh officials have gone on record to say that the project will also rejuvenate nearby markets, townships, and industrial zones will be able to generate additional revenue for Dhaka. The impact will also be in the display of China’s engineering abilities. Theb project will not get Bangladesh the additional water from the Teesta that India alone can provide during the lean season. However, it will reduce the annual devastation that the river causes during the monsoon months. This will allow Bangladesh to use the water of the Teesta optimally as a dredged river can be “managed” better during the lean months.

What is the status of India-Bangladesh talks on Teesta?

The Teesta negotiation between India and Bangladesh was about the water volume of the river. Dhaka wants around 50% of the water of the Teesta from India during the lean months of December to May. The dialogue was not about the building of new infrastructure. It was about water that arrives from the Himalayan source, mountains and monsoon rain. Bangladesh has been saying that the hydropower projects in Sikkim and constructions in West Bengal stop the river from flowing with its natural volume during the lean season. During the monsoon months, India cannot hold back the enormous flows in the upstream Teesta and releases them which causes devastation in the plains of Rangpur. Even during last July, extensive flooding in the Rangpur division, especially in Lalmonirhat district was caused when India had to release the extra water.

The Bangladesh-China discussion on the Teesta is elementally different from India-Bangladesh negotiation. The former is aimed at reviving the river and for building economic zones in neglected areas such as Gangachara and Lalmonirhat. The discussion began in 2016, a year after Sheikh Hasina had sealed the landmark Land Boundary Agreement with India.

Sheikh Hasina after having achieved the Land Boundary Agreement, began negotiation for better management of the Teesta with the assistance of the Chinese.

Why is there an impression that the Chinese project will neutralise the Teesta water-sharing negotiations between India and Bangladesh?

Mr. Kabir Bin Anwar was cited by Bangladesh’s The Independent as saying that the project will allow Bangladesh to build a major water reservoir which can hold water for the lean season. In this way, Bangladesh;s dependence on India releasing water during the lean season will probably decrease. According to observers, consequently the long-winding negotiation for Teesta waters with India, which is stalled because of West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s objection and political skirmishes between Delhi and Kolkata , will lose significance.

Will it affect India?

It is unlikely that it will affect India. But a major display of Chinese engineering in Bangladesh next door is likely to intensify criticism of India’s inability to deal with river-related annual problems in northern and eastern India where the annual monsoon wreaks havoc in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh. and Assam. That apart, loss of significance of the Teesta water-sharing negotiations will highlight the fact that India failed to deliver despite repeated positive assertions from South Block.

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