Seeking bridge over troubled waters

Seeking bridge over troubled waters

The Teesta has flowed unquiet for decades between India and Bangladesh. A joint river commission has been ineffectual,ad hoc arrangements have failed,and an expected deal on water-sharing has been called off after Mamata Banerjee objected. Ravish Tiwari looks at the stakes.

The river

Originating at Cholamu lake in Sikkim,the Teesta flows through Sikkim and northern West Bengal before falling into the Brahmaputra at Teestamukh in Bangladesh. It is fed by several streams through its 404-km course,but gains its real might from the Rangeet,its biggest tributary that joins it at the Sikkim-West Bengal border. The river flows 270 km in India and 134 km in Bangladesh; 83 per cent of its catchment area is in India.

The dispute

Over 50 river systems are common to India and Bangladesh,and the managing and sharing of waters has been a constant irritant between the countries. In 1972,a year after Bangladesh’s independence,an Indo-Bangladesh Joint Rivers Commission (JRC) was established with the water resources ministers of both countries to forge cooperation. The JRC was supposed to meet twice every year.

The sharing of Teesta waters has been contentious for years. A large irrigation project in West Bengal is stuck; and it is a domestic political issue in Bangladesh because of apprehensions over the impact on irrigation in poor monsoon years.

The talks


Pending a final agreement,an ad-hoc arrangement was reached in 1983,under which 39 per cent of water was to be allocated to India and 36 per cent to Bangladesh; the remaining 25 per cent was unallocated. But this arrangement could not be implemented in the wake of differences over hydrological data from the two sides.

Bangladesh remains concerned about the reduction in water flows during the lean season,especially February and March; India is mindful of irrigation requirements of the command area being developed by West Bengal on either side of the river,drawing water from the Gazaldoba barrage 90 km inside Indian territory.

The meetings

Given that the historic Ganga waters treaty was signed during Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s previous tenure (1996-2001),India had been hopeful of a Teesta breakthrough with her current government. Hasina herself had indicated a willingness to work towards an accord in order to remove uncertainties over water availability during the lean season. One of the points in the joint statement issued during Hasina’s visit to India in January 2010 was resumption of the JRC meetings after a gap of about five years.

Following a JRC meeting in New Delhi that March,Bangladesh presented a draft agreement on interim sharing of Teesta waters. India presented a draft statement on the principles of the sharing.

Hasina was reported to have discussed the issue again with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on the sidelines of the 16th SAARC summit in April 2010.

The current row

At the secretary-level talks between the two countries in January this year,broad contours of an agreement were learnt to have been firmed up for political approval. Mindful of West Bengal’s concerns,the Centre kept the state in the loop.

To deal with the differences over hydrological data,the two sides agreed on an interim arrangement for 15 years,during which they would have compiled data jointly.

In June,National Security Adviser Shivshanker Menon visited Kolkata to take Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee into confidence. At this meeting,Menon also requested her to accompany the Prime Minister to Dhaka in September. Sources said Mamata didn’t decline the offer.

Meanwhile,the government decided to hold another JRC meeting in Dhaka to firm up the finer details of the interim agreement ahead of the PM’s visit. Water Resources Minister Pawan Kumar Bansal was slated to visit Bangladesh on September 3-4 to finalise the agreement. However,his visit was cancelled after Mamata raised her objections with Menon,who had gone to present the final contours of the agreement to her on August 31. Subsequently,the chief minister pulled out of the trip.

The objections

Mamata’s objections pertain to the finer details. India releases water from the Gazaldoba barrage 90 km inside its territory,which Bangladesh receives at Dalia Barrage,15 km inside its territory. Assuming 25 per cent discharge at Gazaldoba,India managed to persuade Bangladesh that it would get 50 per cent of water because of regeneration after Gazaldoba. A 50-50 sharing deal was,therefore,worked out.

At a meeting on August 30,however,Mamata’s man in the union cabinet,Dinesh Trivedi,argued that making a commitment of 50 per cent would meant West Bengal would concede more than 25 per cent water at Gazaldoba in times of reduced flow. Subsequently,Menon and Water Resources Secretary D V Singh rushed to Mamata,who demanded a specific mention of not more than 25 per cent discharge at Gazaldoba under any circumstances.

Menon then went to Dhaka to secure this condition in the agreement. However,Mamata still pulled out of the PM’s trip.

Mamata’s fears


While West Bengal has officially cited the need for water in irrigation projects in the northern areas,the state’s politics seems to have weighed heavily on her mind. The previous Left Front government was learnt to have offered no more than 25 per cent water from Gazaldoba. She feared that any hint that she was conceding more than what the Left had offered would become a political hot potato. As a counter,Mamata was learnt to have asked the Centre to reduce water discharge at Gazaldoba further from the 25 per cent agreed upon by the two sides.