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The political economy of Teesta river

Hasnat Abdul Hye | May 15, 2024 00:00:00

Teesta River in Rangpur —Collected Photo

There was nothing unusual about the visit of the Indian foreign secretary to Bangladesh last week. Given the fact of being the closest and most pervasive neighbour of Bangladesh and having a very cordial mutual relation, to boot, such visits may be considered as routine. But when the visiting dignitary called on Bangladesh foreign minister and told him that India wanted to finance the Comprehensive Teesta River Management Project it must have come as a great surprise. It may have been embarrassing also to the foreign minister of Bangladesh. The surprise is because of the late reaction by India to the project that is almost eight years' old and is one in the basket of projects earmarked for financing by China that moved beyond the drawing board some years back. Embarrassment stems from the fact that India, that was supposed to sign Teesta river water sharing agreement in 2011 but has failed to do so during a period of long fifteen years, should now be eager to finance a project that has resulted in no small measure from the failure to sign the promised agreement. Given these facts, the recent declaration of intent to participate in the implementation of the project by the Indian foreign secretary is nothing less than a diplomatic faux pas. One credited Indian foreign ministry with a better sense of savoir faire and panache than this crass and amateurish behaviour.

The topic of Teesta river has become a saga of two neighbouring countries entwined in political economy spread over past several decades. It is a river shared by two countries, India and Bangladesh. So it is natural for one side to become interested in its developments in projects that are meant to manage its flows. But it cannot be a blanket interest irrespective of one side's experience at the receiving end. If the impact of one side's intervention is not on the economy of the other, then the interest or concern shown by the latter can only be inferred to stem from politics. If it is the latter, the moot point is whether it is domestic politics or real politick or geo- politic? Any response to the interest or concern shown by one country to the management of the shared river by the other has to take this into account. But first of all, the backdrop to the declaration of interest by India about the Comprehensive Teesta River Management Project has to be gone through to know why the present development viz the project has taken place.

Teesta is the fourth largest river of Bangladesh, including Brahmaputra, Padma and Meghna. Originating in Sikkim, India, it has a total length of 414 kilometres and flows through eight districts in the state of West Bengal and Rangpur district of Bangladesh where it meets with river Brahmaputra. The mean annual flow of Teesta is 60 billion cubic meters. A significant part of this flows during monsoon season (June to August) but during the lean winter season (September to May) the flow dwindles to as low as 500 cubic meters per second (cusec). According to a report prepared by the Water Development Board of Bangladesh (WDB) in 2013, the floodplain of Teesta covers 14 per cent of the total cropped area of the country. It is estimated that out of 40 million people living in the Teesta river basin more than 30 million are on the Bangladesh side. Teesta river is the main source of water for surface irrigation in six districts of Bangladesh - Nilphamary, Rangpur, Dinajpur, Bogra, Gaibandha and Joypurhat.

In 1998 the Teesta Barrage Project was completed with a command area of 75,000 hectares as command area in the six districts. But because of many barrages built for irrigation and projects for power generation in Sikkim and West Bengal, water flow available for Bangladesh has drastically reduced, adversely affecting irrigation in the command area of the Teesta barrage project. According to an estimate by WDB, before West Bengal constructed a barrage in Gajaldoba in 1995 the water flow at the border point of Dalia was 671,000 cusec. After Gajaldoba became operational the flow was drastically reduced, coming as low as 2,000 cusec in winter. This has adversely affected irrigated agriculture, forcing farmers to seek irrigation from underground water, using deep and shallow tube-wells. As a result of this the water level in the northern districts has gone down in recent years, by 10 meters, according to WDB. The impact of reduced water available for irrigation on production of food and other winter crops has been significant and serious. According to the International Food Research Institute (IFFRI), based in Washington, Bangladesh lost about 1.5 million tonnes of boro rice annually because of water shortage in the command area of Teesta barrage. This is about 8.9 per cent of the total rice production of Bangladesh. The findings of IFRI estimated that rice production in Bangladesh may be reduced by 8 per cent by 2030 and 14 per cent by 2050 because of reduced water flow in Teesta.

Considering the crucial importance of Teesta river for its agrarian economy, the government of Bangladesh has held negotiations with India for an equitable sharing if the river's water flow over several decades. In 1983 an agreement was reached for ad hoc sharing of the river water for five years that would lead to a final agreement. But the implementation of the ad hoc sharing was delayed by India. Finally, a consensus was reached between river experts of the two countries and the Teesta river agreement was slated for signing in 2011. According to the agreement, India would receive 42.5 per cent and Bangladesh 37.5 per cent of the water flow in winter season for 15 years ( till 2026) after which it will be reviewed for renewal. But Mr Manmohan Singh, then Indian prime minister, during his visit to Dhaka in 2011 did not sign the agreement without citing any reason. Bangladesh was surprised and greatly disappointed. Later it transpired that the state of West Bengal had objected to the agreement on the ground that it would affect farmers in the Teesta river basin in West Bengal. Under the constitution of India, the federal government is authorised to sign agreement with another country on any subject including river water. It is implicit in this that the federal government would consult concerned states before finalising an agreement that may have any implication for the states. That the government of India did not comply with this requirement and took the government of West Bengal into confidence came as a surprise to policy makers in Bangladesh. Dismayed, the government of Bangladesh continued its diplomatic efforts for the conclusion of the agreement that was considered equitable by both sides. Narendra Modi, who succeeded Manmohan Singh as India's prime minister, renewed 'India's commitment' to sign the Teesta river agreement on the occasion of his visit to Bangladesh and Bangladesh prime minister's visit to India. But nothing tangible has come out of these diplomatic efforts so far. On the other hand, Bangladesh has been expanding its co-operation with India on a wide front, the most important of which is giving transit facilities. It is unfortunate that these friendly acts have not been reciprocated by India, at least not in the case of sharing Teesta river.

In 2016 China's president Xi Jinping visited Bangladesh when a memorandum of understanding was signed between the two countries for implementation of projects worth $24 billion. A project for the management of Teesta river in Bangladesh was included in the portfolio that came to be known as the Comprehensive Teesta River Management and Control Project. It will be implemented by WDB and the Power Corporation of China which signed a memorandum of agreement at the time of President Xi's visit to Dhaka. On the basis of a feasibility study by the Power Corporation of China, an implementation plan has been drawn up which was approved by both sides in 2019. It was given the status of a priority project in June, 2020. The project is envisaged to be completed by 2025.

India has now, at this stage, expressed its desire to participate in the project. On the face of it, the very idea of any other country to come forward as a financier is preposterous. Firstly, it is a bi-lateral project that does not leave any room for participation by another country. Secondly, neither of the countries, Bangladesh and China, has requested India to participate in the implementation of the project. Thirdly, if it is the case is that India, feeling guilty for its failure to sign the Teesta river agreement, wants to make amends then it should have come up with the idea much before the Bangladesh-China bilateral project was taken up. It is too late now for India to participate in a joint project over Teesta.

The important question is why does India want to finance the Comprehensive Teesta River Management Project? Does it affect India's economy in West Bengal or India in any way ? Of course not, because the project is in the downstream within Bangladesh territory. The implementation of the project will not affect India's economy. Then why is India interested? The answer is obvious: politics, geopolitics to be more precise. India does not want to see China expanding its footprint in its neighbourhood.

Bangladesh has been walking the diplomatic tightrope of being good partners with both India and China for a long while. It has succeeded in maintaining this balance, though the going has not been easy. This time around, the response to India's overture is simple. India should be told that having entered into an agreement with China over Teesta river would not affect the Indian part of the river upstream at all. So, the government of Bangladesh does not find any reason to consider India's proposal. If India would deign to put pressure on Bangladesh on this, nevertheless that would be one pressure too many.

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