India-Bangladesh ministerial meet on rivers: A precursor to a larger deal next week but without Teesta?
The JRC discussion should have recognised the sufferings of the people of both sides because of the water scarcity during the lean season flows of the Teesta river and struck a win-win deal that was beneficial to both sides
After a decade, the long-awaited 38th ministerial-level meeting of the Indo-Bangladesh Joint Rivers Commission (JRC) concluded in New Delhi on August 25 to discuss water-sharing issues as the two countries share 54 rivers between them. The JRC was established in 1972 as a bilateral mechanism to address common border and transboundary river issues of mutual interest.
This time, the meeting was significant for two reasons - first, both countries held the meeting after a decade in order to work closely together to further deepen and strengthen cooperation in the areas of common rivers and water resource management; and second, the meeting came ahead of Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s three-day visit to India in the first week of September at the invitation of her Indian counterpart Narendra Modi.
The visit symbolizes the partnership of half a century between India and Bangladesh that has "strengthened, matured, and evolved" as a model for bilateral relations for the entire region.
At the 38th ministerial-level JRC meeting, Bangladesh and India discussed "issues related to water-sharing treaties" on various rivers, including the Teesta and Ganga. Zaheed Farooque, the State Minister for Water Resources, led the 17-member Bangladesh delegation. Jal Shakti (Water Resources) Minister Gajendra Singh Shakhawat led the Indian delegation.
The meeting was preceded by a Secretary-level interaction that took place on August 23 where officials from both countries had a threadbare discussion on water sharing and other issues.
The ministerial-level discussions, however, revolved around the water-sharing treaties of the Teesta and six other common rivers that included Muhuri, Dharla, Khowai, Monu, Dudhkumar and Gumti. Apart from this, a number of ongoing bilateral issues of mutual interest were covered in detail, including river water sharing of common rivers, exchange of flood-related data and information, joint studies on sedimentation management, river bank protection works, addressing river pollution, common basin management and the Indian River Interlinking Project.
At the meeting, both sides finalized the text of the MoU on Interim Water Sharing of the Kushiyara river which is likely to be signed during Prime Minister Hasina's visit to New Delhi on September 6-7.
According to the JRC, Bangladesh wants to use the Kushiyara river's water to cultivate crops on 5,000 acres of land in Sylhet. Through three canals, water will be extracted from the river and irrigated croplands. Both sides also welcomed the finalization of the design and location of a water intake point on the Feni river to meet the drinking water needs of Sabroom town in Tripura. India was taking 1.82 cusecs of water from the Feni river under an interim agreement signed in October 2019.
India and Bangladesh share 54 rivers, of which seven have been identified earlier for developing a framework of water-sharing agreements on priority. The JRC meeting agreed to add eight more common rivers for the exchange of data and information towards the preparation of the draft framework of an interim water-sharing agreement. One of the important areas of Indo-Bangladesh cooperation is the sharing of real-time flood data, which is helping Bangladesh address unforeseen flood events.
India and Bangladesh agreed in principle on river water sharing of common rivers, sharing of flood data, addressing river pollution, conducting joint studies on sedimentation management and river bank protection works.
According to the Bangladesh foreign ministry, India will make its utmost efforts to conclude the much talked about and long-pending Teesta Water Sharing agreement soon. According to the framework of an interim agreement finalised in 2010, the two sides agreed to share Teesta water on a fair and equitable basis with the 50:50 water-sharing ratio, keeping 20 per cent of the water as environmental flow during the lean season.
The Teesta deal was set to be signed during then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Bangladesh in September 2011 but was put off at the last minute due to objections raised by West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. Banerjee had expressed strong reservations against giving Bangladesh a greater share of water from the Teesta river, fearing water shortage on the West Bengal side which would hit its farmers.
Besides, the issues relating to the renewal of the Ganges water sharing treaty were also prominently discussed in the meeting as the deal will expire in 2026. Both sides agreed to conduct a feasibility study for optimum utilization of water received by Bangladesh under the provisions of the Ganges Water Sharing Treaty 1996. The 30-year-long landmark Ganges water sharing agreement between Bangladesh and India was signed in 1996 during the regime of the Awami League government.
India recently shed light on the issue of water management of the common rivers. At an international conference on rivers in Guwahati, India's External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar mentioned the issue of coordinated action for water management of 54 common rivers.
Thus, it was expected that the JRC ministerial meeting would further strengthen the friendly relations between the two countries through mutual understanding. It was hoped that the meeting would help both sides understand each other's positions better for a meaningful outcome.
However, despite hopes in Dhaka, both countries did not finalize an agreement on the sharing of Teesta water before PM Sheikh Hasina's visit. The JRC discussion should have recognised the sufferings of the people of both sides because of the water scarcity during the lean season flows of the Teesta river and struck a win-win deal that was beneficial to both sides.
(The author is a geopolitical commentator from Dhaka, Bangladesh. Views are personal. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)