Last month, shortly after the new Modi government came to power, the External Affairs Minister of India, Dr S Jaishankar, met his Bangladeshi counterpart AK Abdul Momin on the sidelines of the CICA (Conference of Interaction and Confidence measures in Asia) in Tajikistan. AK Abdul Momin invited Dr S Jaishankar to direct Indian investments to almost 100 Special Economic Zones (SEZ) in Bangladesh. He also wasted no time in emphasising the need to sign the Teesta Treaty.
Teesta, the 400-km-long river shared by India and Bangladesh, has been, if not a bone of contention, a source of friction between the two neighbours for almost half a century now, especially since the construction of the Gajaldoba barrage upstream of the Teesta in West Bengal, India. However, negotiations on the Teesta picked up steam only after the Ganga Treaty was signed in 1996 and culminated into a draft treaty which was to be signed in 2011 by the erstwhile PM Manmohan Singh of India and PM Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh during the former’s visit to Dhaka. However, the last-minute refusal of West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee to support the provisions of the Teesta Treaty disrupted the negotiations and the treaty was not signed. Bangladesh has been trying to get the treaty signed ever since. The UPA-led coalition government under Dr Manmohan Singh could do little to reverse CM Banerjee’s stand as her party, the Trinamool Congress (TMC), was the second largest in the UPA at that time. The NDA government which came into power three years later did not face any such limitation, yet political and ideological differences between the centre and a strong CM Banerjee left the Teesta Treaty unsigned.
However, Bangladesh has been persistent in pursuing the signing of the treaty; after all, Teesta is the principal river of Rangpur, the poorest and most backward division of Bangladesh, as well as a large part of drought-prone north-western Bangladesh, and provides sustenance, directly and indirectly, to over 21 million Bangladeshis. At its highest levels, the Indian government recognises the role of an operational water sharing agreement over the Teesta in maintaining the strength and success of Indo-Bangladeshi relations. However, whether it recognises the potential role of the agreement in furthering its larger “Act East” policy remains to be seen.
By signing the Teesta Treaty, India can embark on the adoption of water as a tool of foreign policy in its immediate and extended neighbourhood. India shares rivers with four of the other six BIMSTEC members—Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Myanmar. While it has various river agreements with all four countries, these agreements are limited in scope, techno-centric, and lack a basin-wide and comprehensive approach.
The current draft of the Teesta Treaty is no different; there are no provisions for management of shared groundwater aquifers, disaster mitigation, socio-economic development of riparian communities, demand management, combating climate change and management of natural and cultural heritage of the Teesta basin. The Indian government and its Bangladeshi counterpart could do well by revisiting the draft treaty and refining it to make it more comprehensive, sustainable and effective. Signing a thus improved treaty could very well pave the way for reforms in other water sharing agreements which India has signed with Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar. These, in turn, would certainly help inculcate a sense of fairness and mutual benefit and take the edge off India’s perception as a “hydro-hegemon” among its riparian neighbours. India would be able to expand its soft power, and at the same time, check the aggressive expansion of China in its neighbourhood.
By signing water sharing agreements which are economically efficient, socially just and environmentally sustainable, India can spur all-round economic development in its neighbourhood. While the gains would come at a slower pace, they would be more substantial; inclusivity would raise purchasing power across communities, and expand markets in the process, focus on environmental sustainability would help mitigate natural disasters, secure primary sector livelihoods, and build climate change resilience among communities, and economic efficiency would enable conservation of resources, increase productivity across all economic sectors, and boost growth and exports. Linking all this solely to comprehensive water sharing agreements would be simplistic. However, given the centrality of water in human health, society, economy, environmental health and our very survival, agreements which take proper cognisance of the fundamental and multidisciplinary role of water would provide a framework within which we could redesign our economies and societies to realise the gains mentioned above.
India has enough economic, political and cultural clout to lead its eastern riparian neighbours towards a model of joint development based on water. Unlike China which is aggressively expanding into the economies of Nepal, Myanmar and Bangladesh, India would be taking a softer and less aggressive approach, which would make the countries look at India more favourably. Systematic planning and use of water to boost economic and political relations with its neighbourhood would also project India as a country with an articulate foreign policy; something which has not been apparent through its struggles to balance its non-aggressive, pacifist image with its aspirations to be a formidable global power.
India has traditionally made use of tools such as trade, economic growth, military clout, development and humanitarian aid, and the ideology of non-alignment to achieve foreign policy objectives in the short and long term. In the 21st century, water promises to be a tool of great potential in fulfilling India’s global aspirations. It needs to be wielded carefully and well, balancing ably the interests of society, economy and the environment with diplomatic interests and geopolitical aspirations.
The task is herculean, but like all other tasks, it begins with a single step. That step can be the Teesta Treaty—redrafted and refined to boost economic efficiency, social justice and environmental sustainability across the Teesta basin. By signing such a treaty, India will have won over its most trusted friend and neighbour in South Asia. The move could also benefit India’s own eastern states and the north-eastern region which, due to years of neglect and/or landlocked geography, has been unable to taste the fruits of India’s economic successes. It would also pave the way towards better water sharing arrangements, joint development programmes and better political relations with Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar. And it would enable India to maintain its stronghold over its eastern neighbourhood despite the advances made by China.
The year 2020 marks the centenary of the birth of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. It would be a fitting occasion for India to sign a fair, meaningful and sustainable Teesta Treaty with Bangladesh, and embark on its quest for realising its geopolitical destiny through effective transboundary water diplomacy.
Gauri Noolkar-Oak is a transboundary water conflicts researcher who has studied river basins in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and South Asia. Her Twitter handle is: @curiousriparian
The Marathi version of this article was first published on ORF Marathi.