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Commentary: A decade when ministers never talked water

  • Published at 11:00 pm March 14th, 2021
Dry river Teesta
File photo of Teesta River Syed Zakir Hossain/Dhaka Tribune

The Teesta River was high on agenda at the 37th Indo-Bangla JRC ministerial meet in Delhi  

This March marks completion of a decade in which water ministers of Bangladesh and India never discussed rivers on their common platform, the Joint River Commission (JRC).

The last time the two co-riparian South Asian neighbours, who share 54 rivers, held a JRC Ministerial Meet was in New Delhi on March 18, 2010. The next meeting was due to be held in Dhaka a year later, but it has still not taken place.   

The sharing of water from the Teesta River was high on agenda when then-Bangladesh Water Resources Minister Ramesh Chandra Sen met Indian counterpart Pawan Kumar Bansal at the 37th Indo-Bangla JRC ministerial meet in Delhi.  

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's visit to India in January that year helped put the JRC back in motion, so much so that a water treaty on the sharing of Teesta water was about to be struck the very next year,whenthen-Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh came to Dhaka on a return visit. The Teesta deal has faced obstacles since September 2011, when West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, scheduled to visit Dhaka with Singh, opted out of the trip in opposition to the agreement.

Fishing on Teesta River | Syed Zakir Hossain

Ever since the much-anticipated Teesta deal fell through, there has been a dry spell in Indo-Bangla water talks as far as harnessing transboundary river resources for mutual benefit is concerned.

Both Ramesh and Pawan have long left their ministerial portfolios in their respective countries. Subsequent ministers shouldering water responsibilities in India and Bangladesh have never had a chance to talk rivers and water-sharing at the JRC forum. 

All these years, the two countries have held water talks at the technical expert levels and last year at the water secretary-level.

Since Bangladesh and India devised the JRC instrument in 1972, they have held as many as 36 JRC ministerial meetings, with some of the key achievements being an interim Teesta deal in the 1980s and Ganges treaty in the mid-1990s. Unfortunately, the water ministers of the two countries have met in the JRC only once in last 16 years:in Delhi2010.

Also Read - Foreign Secretary: Dhaka wants to hear good news on Teesta from Delhi

Ever since the Teesta water sharing move was aborted, both sides have largely failed to advance talks on six other common rivers (Manu, Muhuri, Khowai, Gumti, Dharla and Dudhkumar) all these years, except for when a technical committee in January this year agreed to exchange data on water flow and water withdrawal. Pending a JRC-level river water sharing arrangement, Bangladesh made a unilateral humanitarian gesture in October, 2019, by allowing India to withdraw 1.82 cusec of water from the Feni River to supply drinking water for the people of Subroom in Tripura State. 

Bangladesh now desperately needsthe water talks to get rolling. In absence of a water sharing treaty, the country is unable to harness the Teesta’s water and failing to utilize the Teesta Barrage to its full potential. 

Bangladesh is also facing opposition harnessing Kushiyara water for the benefit of farmers in northeast Bangladesh.

Why is Teesta so important for Bangladesh?     

Originating in India's Sikkim, Teesta enters Bangladesh through West Bengal. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has been opposing the water deal based on the argument that if India commits to certain cusecs of guaranteed water share from Teesta to Bangladesh, her state might be deprived of water during the dry season.

Her fear stemmed from the fact that India has built many hydro-power projects upstream over the years,thereby drying up the stream to a certain extent as the river meanders through West Bengal. Not only in Sikkim, the Teesta water was also diverted in West Bengal through the building of a dam and hydro-power project in Gajaldoba near Siliguri. 

India completed the Gajaldoba project at a time when Bangladesh had to abandon its planned 2nd phase of Teesta Barrage irrigation project, as the command area of the 1st phase dried up due to poor flow of water through the Teesta.    

Forget anything else (i.e., natural justice, riparian’s rights, equity), if one considers just in terms of percentage of population in different catchment areas where livelihoods dependent on the Teesta, Bangladesh must get its due share of water without any delay. The Teesta River basin is densely populated with around 30 million people,however, intra basin differences in population are vast.

Dry Teesta River | Syed Zakir Hossain

In Sikkim, where the river originates close to the Indo-Tibet border, there is a mere 2% of the basin population because of the state’s mountainous nature.A further 27% of the basin population is in West Bengal, which comprises of hilly areas as well as plains, while an overwhelming majority of 71% of the basin population lives in northwest Bangladesh.    

The upstream and midstream areas of the Teesta basin are inhabited by various ethnic groups such as Lepchas, Bhutias, and Nepalis.

In the downstream Jalpaiguri site, people around 20 years ago were engaged in regular traditional system of low-land agriculture, fishing, and wage labour in the nearby towns and Siliguri town, and marketing of agriculture produce for subsistence needs.

However, a recent survey with financial support from the UK Government’s Department for International Development and the International Development Research Centre, Ottawa, Canada, found that the situation in West Bengal’s Siliguri-Jalpaiguri region has changed and the area is affected by recurrent and severe floods, degrading the agriculture land suitable for cultivation after India completed building water diversion barrage at Gajoldoba.

The Bangladesh part of Teesta basin is densely populated, with 69% of people in the area directly or indirectly involved with agriculture while 11% depend on business. Farming is the primary occupation of the people living both in the Bangladesh and Indian parts of the Teesta downstream areas. Average land holding of the people in this area is less than one acre.

Also Read - ‘Demand for water to rise by 50% by 2050’

However, 60% of surveyed households in the downstream areas have no ownership of the agricultural land.This number is very low in upstream (11%) and midstream areas (17%).

Rice is the main crop grown across the downstream area of the basin.

The Teesta basin is the main rice producing zone in Bangladesh and it is not among the industrially developed regions of the country. The Teesta Barrage that Bangladesh initially conceived nearly four decades ago to facilitate irrigation in its rice-rich northwest region, couldnot be completed as Bangladesh had to halt the 2nd phase of the barrage when it failed to provide irrigation water to the total catchment area of its 1st phase. 

During winter, a vast swath of the Teesta downstream area in Bangladesh becomes bone dry due to poor water flow from upstream, while excess water flows flood its banks during monsoon.   

Bangladesh and India often boast that their relationship is very friendly and this is reflected in mutual cooperation in the areas of trade and commerce, infrastructure development and connectivity, electricity. However, when it comes to the sharing of river water, the story is entirely different.