Analysis: India – Bangladesh water deal

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Jane Austen

“Where the waters do agree, it is quite wonderful the relief they give”.

When the Ancient Mariner lamented that there was ‘water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink’, little could some relate to the plight of the stranded mariner of Samuel Coleridge’s famous poem.

Fast forward a few years, and the roadside squabbles on whose pots would get filled first from the huge tankers or even the local hand-pipe, have blown into major water disputes between the world’s nations.

One such dispute that had received media attention and made the headlines of our daily newspapers is that of the ‘Indo – Bangla Water Dispute’ and the subsequent Agreements.

With the mighty Ganga – Brahmaputra – Meghna basin forming the heart of the treaty with 54 rivers flowing through the two nations, the Ganges treaty was signed by India and Bangladesh in 1996, to share the waters at the Farraka Barrage.

Initially, the Ganges rivers ran its course through the Hooghly river in India. However, a shift in its course was seen in the 1500s when it shifted towards the Bengal delta in Bangladesh. The Farraka Barrage was set up by India to maintain the port that had been set up by the British in India for transportation of goods, thus, enabling the diversion of flow of the Ganges rivers to the Hooghly during dry climate.

As per the Treaty, it had been clearly stipulated that in case of availability of more than 75,000 cusecs in the Farraka, India shall be allowed to withdraw 40,000 cusecs while balance of flow is Bangladesh’s share; in case of availability between 70,000 and 75,000, India share is the balance of flow and Bangladesh can withdraw up to 35,000 cusecs.

If the availability in the Barrage is less than 70,000, it shall be shared equally. However, this agreement in itself has drawn up some flak on both sides – on the Indian side, it has been criticized that Bangladesh’s water allocation leaves it with less water to maintain the Calcutta port while Bangladesh has raised issues of raising salinity levels, adversely affecting Hooghly at Calcutta port and so on. The Farraka Barrage has also caused some unprecedented floods in Bangladesh.

The Teesta River has been the heart of yet another dispute between the two countries. The river, which originates in Sikkim flows through West Bengal and finally makes its way to Bangladesh. Bangladesh has time and again, requested for India’s cooperation in getting a fair share of the river. In 1983, an Ad – hoc agreement between the countries envisaged 39% water share to India and 36% to Bangladesh.

In 1984, a Joint River Commission had been appointed for allocation of water between the countries. The Commission opined for 42.5% for India and 37.5% for Bangladesh. In 2011, the agreement fell through. There has been scepticism about the agreement ever since West Bengal adopted the opinion that the agreement would prove to be a disaster, resulting in the drying up of the northern region.

It was also of the opinion that in view of the Teesta Barrage, the Bangladeshi farmers did not deserve more water than what was already availed of, by them. In light of these conflicts between West Bengal and the Centre, the Agreement has not moved past to the enforcement stage.

The Feni River also finds itself in a tussle between the nations. The river flows through Sabroom in Tripura and enters Bangladesh. The dispute with regard to the water sharing had not found a resolve for quite long.

Modi meets Sheikh Hasina : The Six River Agreement

The recent meeting between the Indian PM, Narendra Modi and his Bangladeshi counterpart has proved to be quite fruitful. The meeting which had discussed even issues such as border security and cultural exchange and other programs, culminated in two MoUs on ‘Coastal Surveillance System’ and on withdrawal of 1.82 cusec of water from Feni by India.

The latter has proved to be a true boon for the village of Sabroom. The two leaders had also expressed their pleasure over the Terms of Reference to conduct Feasibility Study of the Ganges Barrage Project for optimum utilization of waters as per the 1996 agreement.

The discussion also had its prime focus upon the drafting of a framework for Interim Sharing of six rivers, or the ‘Six River Agreement’. The six rivers forming the part of this agreement include Manu, Muhuri, Khowai, Ghumti, Dharla and Dudhkumar. The leaders exhorted the Technical Committee of the Joint Rivers Commission to draft the same, as expeditiously as possible.

Why West Bengal resists?

As noted previously, the West Bengal government has resisted the agreement with Bangladesh on the ground that the same would prove to be fatal to the State. Water, being a State subject, the State also has a take on the issue, which cannot be overlooked.

Further, the concerns raised by the State include that India would not benefit from the said agreement in a prominent way and Bangladesh, already availing the requisite amount, could not be entitled to more. Recurrent floods in West Bengal which may ensure river diversion, appears to be the prime concern behind the State’s resistance.

The way forward

The two States having shared amicable ties over the years and continue fostering the same even at present, this agreement of sharing of waters between themselves could prove to further strengthen the ties, if implemented effectively.

Sharing of water has often been regarded as a source of tension and has also led to major humanitarian crises in many cases, reinstating why water is indeed a precious resource! In this context, neither of the nations ought to take the agreement lightly and must work towards implementing the same in the best way possible.

-This article is brought to you in collaboration with Navya Benny from National University of Advanced Legal Studies (NUALS), Kochi.

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