In the absence of water-sharing deal, India should help Bangladesh with Teesta water management

Building a reservoir on the Teesta will help Bangladesh create a climate-resilient infrastructure which will be useful in better managing the common river water.

Anand Kumar Sep 23, 2022
Prime Minister Narendra Modi (right) meets with Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina (left), at Hyderabad House, in New Delhi(Photo:PIB)

The recent visit of Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to India once again highlighted the continuous deepening of bilateral relations. In the last decade or so both countries have not only been able to solve a number of long-pending disputes but also made tremendous progress in trade, commerce and connectivity. Cooperation in the area of energy security has been intensified, which is very critical for Bangladesh. A breakthrough has also been made in sharing of the water of Kushiara river, but the deal on sharing of water of Teesta river remained elusive, though Bangladesh was quite keen to have it. 

The deal on sharing Teesta water could have helped Bangladesh economically as farmers in northern Bangladesh depend for irrigation on its waters. Besides, it could also have positively affected the electoral fortunes of PM Hasina in the elections that are likely to take place in early 2024.

A deal on sharing of Teesta water was about to be signed in 2011 during the visit of then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. But this could not happen as West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee dropped out at the last minute from the visiting delegation. Mamata’s presence would have helped in signing the deal as water is a state subject under the Indian Constitution. Moreover, water from the Teesta river also helps irrigate farmlands in northern Bengal. Thus any deal on Teesta is going to materially affect the state which also makes Mamata’s consent for it critical. Mamata Banerjee, therefore, chose not to sign the deal and the issue has been hanging fire since then. Actually, the situation has got further complicated by the construction of a number of dams in the northeast Indian state of Sikkim.

In recent times as the closeness between India and Bangladesh increases the number of high-level visits has taken place. Both Prime Ministers have also met a number of times. After the pandemic, Bangladesh was the first country to be visited by PM Modi who went there to participate in the birth centenary celebration of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman who is considered the Father of the Bangladeshi nation. Similarly, Sheikh Hasina has also visited India on a priority basis.

Teesta a litmus test?

Opposition parties in Bangladesh know that the Teesta deal is facing some hurdles in India and it will not be easy for both sides to achieve this despite both governments wanting it. Hence they invariably raise this issue whenever the top leaders of both countries are visiting each other. A deal on Teesta is presented as some kind of a litmus test of bilateral relations.

Since the deal is not taking place because of the political complications involved, the failure to get the deal by the Hasina government is used as a stick to beat her government. The opposition in Bangladesh conveniently forgets all the achievements of the three consecutive terms of the Hasina government. The growth of Bangladesh's economy has surprised everyone. 

According to some estimates, Bangladesh has even overtaken India in per capita income. Due to the friendly environment prevailing between India and Bangladesh both countries have been able to solve many long-standing issues. They have sorted out land boundary and maritime border issues. The problem of terrorism and insurgency in the northeast has also been successfully handled. Bilateral trade between India and Bangladesh is booming and has reached an all-time high. Both India and Bangladesh are the largest export destinations for each other in South Asia. Connectivity between both countries has increased manyfold.

In Bangladesh, a major chunk of power is produced using diesel and gas. Due to the Russia-Ukraine war, the cost of petrol and diesel has increased severalfold in Bangladesh. This has resulted in increased cost of power and the closing of many industries which are dependent on this. India is helping Bangladesh in dealing with its energy crisis.

Indian help in multiple sectors 

For the last many years, India has helped Bangladesh by exporting power from Tripura as well as West Bengal. During the latest visit to Hasina one unit of the Rampal power plant was inaugurated. India’s Adani group will also be exporting power to Bangladesh from its new plant in Jharkhand.

Besides, India helped Bangladesh during the pandemic by supplying essential goods through the railway. This also made both countries realize the potential of the railway as an efficient means of transportation for trade. India will now be helping Bangladesh improve its railway infrastructure and train its manpower.

Both sides knew very well that after the resolution of most pending issues the sharing of water from common rivers is going to be an important issue this time. India and Bangladesh share 54 rivers between them. Now both countries are trying to reach an understanding over sharing of water of these rivers. Just before Sheikh Hasina’s visit, a meeting of the Joint Rivers Commission (JRC) took place. This resulted in the signing of an agreement for sharing of water of Kushiara river. Using the same approach it will not be difficult for both countries to share the water of the remaining rivers.

Teesta however presents a different challenge as it is a major river after the Ganga and Brahmaputra. Moreover, before reaching Bangladesh, Teesta passes through two Indian states –Sikkim and West Bengal. These two states are heavily dependent on the water of the Teesta for irrigation and the production of hydropower. The water consumption in these areas has increased because of a growing population and increased cultivation.

Teesta water management

It is possible that the complications involved in sharing Teesta water may not allow a deal in the near future. Teesta deal may also not happen for political reasons as Prime Minister Modi and Mamata Banerjee are political adversaries. A deal on Teesta might present PM Modi in a positive light which may not be to the liking of Mamata Banerjee. The ruling party in India may not like to thrust a deal on West Bengal as it is also trying to expand its political footprint in the state.

The lack of a deal on Teesta would allow the opposition in Bangladesh to put Sheikh Hasina on the defensive in her policy towards India. In a situation like this India can help Bangladesh better manage the water of the Teesta river. In the past, Bangladesh has contemplated building a reservoir on the Teesta river with Chinese funding so that the water stored there could be used during the lean season. India can help Bangladesh in a similar project through its own funding. 

In any case, rain patterns everywhere are becoming unpredictable. Building a reservoir on the Teesta will help Bangladesh create a climate-resilient infrastructure which will be useful in better managing the common river water. India has already allocated a line of credit to Bangladesh which remains underutilized. A part of that could be used for this purpose.

The opposition parties in Bangladesh will surely find some other issues to corner Sheikh Hasina's government for following India-friendly policies. They have already done so by blaming her for not being able to get India to pressurise Myanmar over the Rohingya repatriation issue, or for raising the issue of so-called border killings by Indian security forces. But they will not be able to use the issue of sharing Teesta water with the same venom if India can help Bangladesh with better water management.

(The author is an associate fellow in the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies & Analyses (MP-IDSA), New Delhi. Views are personal)

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