Teesta water sharing: Some hard facts
IN New York on September 27, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had a 20-minute meeting with her Indian counterpart Narendra Modi, who reportedly stated that he would seriously look into the Teesta water sharing issue while the implementation of the Land Boundary Agreement was “only matter of time.” Since Prime Minister Modi could not provide time-bound action for both the issues, the Bangladesh prime minister reportedly urged Modi for their early resolution.
Meanwhile, it was reported in the Indian media that the Teesta water agreement could not be concluded before 2016 as the election in West Bengal will be held in that year, and that it is not desirable politically to conclude an agreement on Teesta water before the state-election. If this is true, Bangladesh has to wait another two years on the Teesta issue.
Teesta is the most important river in northeast of Bangladesh and is the 4th largest river of the country. It originates in the Sikkim Valley of the Himalayan Range within India. Sikkim reportedly has built five dams, and is building 31 more on the upper region of the Teesta River.
The flow comes down to West Bengal where India has built a barrage at Gazaldoba from which 85% percent of water flow is reportedly diverted from Teesta River through a link-canal to the upper Mahananda River, which falls on in the Meichi River in Bihar that links the Fulhar River and reaches the Ganges River upstream of Farakka Barrage.
During the recent visit of the Bangladesh foreign minister to New Delhi, the Indian side reiterated its earlier commitment that it would not take any unilateral decision on the Himalayan component of the proposed river interlinking project which may adversely affect Bangladesh, although the fact is that by diverting Teesta waters to Bihar, India is implementing the river-linking project, thereby adversely affecting Bangladesh,
India has plans to irrigate an area of 9.22 lakhs hectares of land and is reportedly increasing withdrawal of water from the Teesta. At present, there are more than 1 lakh hectares under irrigation project, further depleting water for Bangladesh.
The plan adversely affects about 21 million Bangladeshi people who live in the basin of river Teesta, while only 8 million live in the basin in West Bengal and half a million in Sikkim state. The population ratio is 70 for Bangladesh 30 for India.
When Bangladesh needs water in the dry season, it does not get it, but when it does not need water during summer and monsoon it gets enough to the point of flooding, which destroys houses, roads and river banks and embankments. Accordingly, sharing of water of the rivers is absolutely necessary for Bangladesh in the dry season.
Initially, Dhaka reportedly proposed equal sharing of the water, keeping 20% for river flow of Teesta at Gazaldoba. This means the sharing would be out of 80% remaining water and Bangladesh would get 40% and India 40%. But India asked for 55%. In June 2011, it was reported that India and Bangladesh might have agreed to share at the ratio of 42.50% (India) and 37.50% (Bangladesh). Furthermore, India proposed a 15-year agreement on water sharing of the Teesta River.
Later, West Bengal Congress lawmaker Abu Hashem Khan Chowdhury reportedly opposed the Teesta sharing agreement and wrote a letter to the Indian PM conveying his fear that whatever figure was agreed with Bangladesh in the water-sharing agreement it might affect the agriculture of West Bengal “perversely.”
Lawmaker Chowdhury told the BBC in early September 2011 that India would retain 75% of Teesta river water while Bangladesh would receive the rest (25%). He reportedly said: “Presently, we are taking only 39% of Teesta water. But after the agreement we will get 75%. So, it will be very beneficial.”
Chief Minister Ms. Mamata Banerjee had appointed an expert committee headed by Kalyan Rudra to study the Teesta water-sharing issue. It is believed that Rudra's report was in favour of Bangladesh but Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had reservations on the report which remains unpublished.
On September 17, a Foreign Office spokesperson of India, Syed Akbaruddin, while addressing the media about the Bangladesh foreign minister's meeting with his Indian counterpart, said that India required political consensus over Teesta issue. He said water was a “sensitive” issue that needed to be addressed in a manner which was fair and equitable, and none of the parties would be negatively impacted. In fine print it means that the Modi government will protect the interests of West Bengal on the Teesta water issue.
Interestingly, records tell us that Bangladesh could not sign any water agreement, either with the Congress or the BJP- led governments in New Delhi. The 1977, Ganges Water Agreement (for 5 years) was concluded with the Janata government led by Morarji Desai and the 1996 Ganges Water Treaty with the United Front coalition government led by Deve Gowda.
The writer is a former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva.