A River Writes the Script of India-Bangladesh Relations

teesta river
The Teesta river dispute is slowly hurting India-Bangladesh relations. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

In 1971 when Pakistan was partitioned and Bangladesh was formed, India was the first country to recognize Bangladesh and Bangladesh’s first diplomatic relationship was established with India. Since then, political, economic, and cultural relations between the India and Bangladesh have remained strong and trade between the two countries has increased rapidly.

Four Indian states, Assam, Tripura, Meghalaya, and West Bengal share a 4096-kilometres-long border and 54 rivers with Bangladesh. The ‘Joint River Commission (JRC)’ was formed in 1972 between the two countries to get the common benefit from these rivers, but the Teesta river water dispute and the goods on Farakka barrage have remained unsolved issues.

The Teesta is crucial for meeting the domestic needs of the growing population and for irrigating farmlands of the northern region of West Bengal, as well as the domestic and irrigation needs in northern Bangladesh. The Teesta is also necessary for the development of hydropower projects in West Bengal and Sikkim. Bangladesh accuses India of not releasing sufficient amount of Teesta water towards Bangladesh at the time of their need i.e. during the dry seasons, due to which  the farmers of northern region of Bangladesh have to face a drought. At the same time, Bangladesh also accuses India of not stopping excess water in the Teesta during monsoon time, causing floods in Bangladesh.

In these times when both India and Bangladesh are affected by droughts and decreasing water levels in the Teesta, it is important that India resolves the Teesta water dispute. Given the current regional dynamics, resolving this dispute is also crucial if India has to improve relations with neighbouring countries, especially Bangladesh.

India and Bangladesh have already been cooperating on other shared rivers.

The countries signed the treaty on sharing waters of the Ganga River on December 12, 1996 for a period of 30 years, in which they agreed to allocate the waters 50 – 50 to each country. India also has some or the other kind of arrangement with Bangladesh on other rivers such as Manu, Muhri, Kovai and Gumti, and both have agreed on the distribution of the Teesta, Feni, Jaldhaka and Torsa rivers. Especially in the case of the Teesta, India and Bangladesh also signed an ad-hoc agreement in 1983, which divided Teesta’s waters in the ratio of 36:39:25 between Bangladesh, India, and the river itself, respectively.

However, post the Ganga Treaty, both countries began negotiating for a better deal over the Teesta. The negotiations almost resulted into signing an agreement between then Indian PM Manmohan Singh and Bangladeshi PM Sheikh Hasina, but due to West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s opposition, the negotiations failed, and have dragged ever since.

Meanwhile, other measures of cooperation have not stopped. As a positive sign of its eagerness to engage with Bangladesh on matters of water resources, India shares water data of important rivers like Ganga, Teesta, Brahmaputra and Barak during the monsoon, which enables Bangladesh to forecast floods.

It is important to mention that West Bengal and North-East India have a special contribution in India’s amicable relations with Bangladesh (as well as Bhutan, which also shares borders with the same part of India) with whom no major conflicts have emerged since many years. Hence it is in national interest that the Indian government speaks to West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee for resolving the Teesta river dispute as soon as possible.

Resolving Teesta issues is necessary to retain Bangladesh’s support when India attempts to resolve the Brahmaputra river dispute with China. The waters of Brahmaputra are beneficial for both North-East India as well as Bangladesh, but it is under the control of upstream China. Persuading China to reach a fair agreement on the Brahmaputra is vital for the interests of India’s North-East; if India gets the support of Bangladesh, the lowermost riparian of the Brahmaputra, then India is in a stronger position to negotiate. Hence the importance of the Teesta Agreement.

India must resolve its water disputes with neighbours to strengthen its position in South Asia. China has always had an eye on India-Bangladesh relations. Off late, China has announced a package of USD 1 billion (INR 7500 Crores) for Bangladesh, for a project on the Teesta river. India refused to fund the Teesta project in Bangladesh earlier, and China seized the opportunity (which India let go of). This will be China’s first investment in Bangladesh’s river management sector.

Domestic politics within India is hampering the finalisation of the Teesta agreement. Even if Article 253 of the Indian Constitution allows the Indian government to override the state government of West Bengal and sign the Teesta Treaty, but in 2011, the then UPA government couldn’t do so due to domestic political equations. In 2013, they signed a short-term agreement with PM Sheikh Hasina under which Teesta waters have been divided 50-50 till 2031, which too is opposed by West Bengal government.

It seems that over the years, Mamata Banerjee and domestic politics have been dominating Centre’s policy towards the Teesta river, and the Teesta river has been increasingly influencing the relations between India and Bangladesh. Domestic politics are certainly important but given that India is now pursuing a “Neighbourhood First” policy, they should not become a hindrance in India’s relations with its neighbours.

India’s relations with Bangladesh are better than its relations with most of the other neighbours, and it should not allow the Teesta river dispute to spoil them. Such disputes need to be resolved through speedy and mutual agreements.

Pawan Kumar Das

Pawan Kumar Das is a Research Scholar in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the Central University of Jharkhand in Ranchi.

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