Time to take on the troubling Teesta

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Fuid victory: If Sheikh Hasina gets concessions from India on the Teesta question, she will have an edge over her political opponents

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina got enough from India after her recent four-day visit to New Delhi to convince her people that India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi remains as considerate as ever with regard to maintaining friendly relations between the two next-door neighbours. In all, 22 agreements were clinched between the two sides with India committing a $4.5-billion line of credit to Bangladesh, so essential for undertaking development-related projects.

The joint statement issued at the end of the Bangladesh leader’s visit reflected a clear focus on all kinds of cooperation for fighting the menace of terrorism, which remains a major threat to peace and stability in the SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) region and beyond. As a matter of relief for Bangladesh, the two countries agreed to begin negotiations on the sharing of the Feni, Manu, Muhuri, Khowai, Gumti, Dharla and Dudhkumar river waters.

But will these gains from her India visit help Sheikh Hasina win the next presidential election, due in 2018? It is in India’s interest too that the Awami League chief forms the next government in Bangladesh. She may emerge victorious owing to many factors which go in her favour, but not because of the benefits her country would get after her otherwise successful visit to New Delhi. The failure of the two countries to find an amicable solution to the lingering Teesta water dispute can negate all that the Bangladesh Prime Minister achieved after holding negotiations with Mr Modi in a friendly atmosphere.

But promising an early solution to the vexed issue as India did was what was possible under the circumstances. It must have been comforting for her when Mr Modi said, “I firmly believe that it is only my government and excellency Sheikh Hasina your government that can and will find an early solution to Teesta water sharing.” However, will it ultimately be done? Finding a feasible solution of the Teesta dispute is not as easy as it appears.

Who will convince West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee to look at the Teesta question keeping in view the country’s larger interest? It seems she is not ready to give precedence to India’s national interests over her party’s interests in the state. That she is not prepared to take an accommodative stand is clear from her recent statements made with regard to the Teesta.

“I always want Bangladesh to get water. But we have a problem with the Teesta water because the water supply in the river has gone down and I myself saw this a few days ago. Teesta is the lifeline for the northern part of West Bengal. There will be problem of water for drinking and irrigation purposes if Teesta water is shared. At times, it becomes difficult to run a power plant with Teesta water,” Banerjee commented while referring to the expectations of Bangladesh from India with regard to the Teesta waters.

“I understand Bangladesh’s water needs. Whenever Hasina comes to India, she talks about the Teesta Treaty. I have given a proposal to Bangladesh and the federal Indian government today both at the lunch and again tonight that Bangladesh may consider using the waters of rivers like Torsa, Dharala, Jaldhaka, Dhansiri and Mansiri,” she said during the New Delhi visit of Sheikh Hasina.

Since water is a state subject as provided in the Constitution, the West Bengal Chief Minister has every right to take a stand giving top priority to her state’s interests. However, the Central government can invoke Article 253 of the Constitution to take a decision on sharing waters from a trans-boundary river like the Teesta without bothering about the opinion of the state concerned. Yet if Mr Modi goes by this constitutional arrangement and reaches an agreement with Sheikh Hasina, overriding the concerns of West Bengal, as highlighted by Banerjee, it will amount to risking his party’s interests in the state as well as in the rest of the country. This means the Prime Minister cannot afford to ignore the concerns raised by Banerjee unless a strategy is devised to convince the people that the country’s long-term interests need to be preferred in every situation.

Adopting a middle-of-the-road approach can be the ideal policy, but only if it gets the support of the West Bengal Chief Minister, which is unlikely to come by, as it appears under the circumstances. It was she who shot down an agreement on Teesta water sharing almost finalised on a 50-50 basis during the previous UPA regime in 2011 when Dr Manmohan Singh was the Prime Minister. India wants its share to go up to 55 per cent, which may not be acceptable to Bangladesh, being a lower riparian country.

According to the claim made by Dhaka, the average flow of Teesta in the last 10 days of March, considered a lean season in Bangladesh, was 315 cusecs in 2015 whereas it was 550 cusecs during the same period in 2014. The leanest period is from December to March when the water flow often temporarily comes down to less than 1,000 cusecs from 5,000 cusecs. Bangladesh says that there are as many as 5,427 villages which depend on the Teesta for irrigation and drinking water purposes.

The river is the main source for irrigation requirement of over 14 per cent of the total cropped area in Bangladesh. The Teesta water’s significance for Bangladesh can be understood from another fact: 7.3 per cent of Bangladesh’s population is dependent on the Teesta waters for various kinds of needs.

If Sheikh Hasina succeeds in getting concessions from India on the Teesta question, she will have a major argument to blunt her political opponents’ criticism that she had been giving more than getting from India for cementing India-Bangladesh friendly relations. The Teesta is the fourth largest river after the Ganges, the Brahmaputra and the Meghna which flow from India to Bangladesh. The Teesta originates in India’s Sikkim with its total length being 414 km.
In Bangladesh, the river mainly affects the lives of five northern districts falling in Rangpur division: Gaibandha, Kurigram, Lalmonirhat, Nilphamari and Rangpur. According to a 2013 report on the Teesta by The Asia Foundation, its flood plain covers about 14 per cent of the total cropped area of Bangladesh and provides direct livelihood opportunities to approximately 7.3 per cent of the country’s population. These facts make it clear that the Teesta remains the lifeline for a major segment of Bangladesh’s population. Therefore, India’s accommodative approach, without drastically compromising the country’s own interests, will obviously be appreciated a lot. India’s national interests call for a fresh and close look at the Teesta issue.
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