Confusion and Realities over Water Sharing: IDSA

Punam Pandey

Institute of Defence Studies & Analysis

Sharing of river waters has been one issue that has always raised strong sentiments in Bangladesh. Even as the resentment over not signing the Teesta Agreement has not yet died down completely, another controversy has erupted over the dam on Barak river; a controversy that has been sparked by the news of the signing of the Agreement between India’s state-owned National Hydro Power Corporation and Manipur government in October 2011 to build the Tipaimukh project on the Barak. This has given rise to frenzied protests against the dam in Bangladesh by the government, the opposition as well as different civil society groups. The opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) chief Khaleda Zia wrote a letter to the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently in which she raised a number of demands like stopping the Tipaimukh project and conducting a joint survey before India undertakes any activity. General Ershad of the Jatiya Party, a key ally of the ruling Awami League, staged a march from Dhaka to Sylhet against Tipaimukh. In the spirit of the competitive nature of domestic politics, Bangladesh’s water resource minister threatened to go to the international court on the dam issue if India did not stop work.

It is true that this is not the first time that controversy over Tipaimukh has arisen. In 2009, the news about the Indian government’s plan to build the dam led to strong protests from Bangladesh. The issue became so heated that the Indian government invited members of Bangladesh’s Parliament to visit the dam site to assess the situation. But the BNP did not nominate any member to the parliamentary committee that visited Manipur in 2009 although bad weather prevented the helicopter carrying the team from landing at Tipaimukh. Instead, it wanted to send experts arguing that it was a technical matter and called the Parliamentary trip to Manipur a ‘picnic’.

During Sheikh Hasina’s January 2010 visit to India and again during the Indian prime minister’s September 2011 visit to Bangladesh, Dr. Manmohan Singh assured that nothing would be done on Tipaimukh that harm Bangladesh’s interests. But these assurances have not been able to inspire confidence among the people as well as political parties of Bangladesh. The BNP’s demand to conduct a joint survey to assess the adverse impact of the proposed dam on Bangladesh and further the Jatiya Party president’s demand that even if the joint survey findings suggest that “the dam will not affect Bangladesh, India must guarantee through an international treaty that it will not withhold water for irrigation” suggest that politics dominates the issue within Bangladesh. This controversy raises several issues, which need to be taken into account by both countries.

When Mamta Banerjee refused to accompany Manmohan Singh to Bangladesh, it raised the vital issue of the central government far more seriously engaging Paschimbanga. Notwithstanding whether Ms. Banerjee was apprised about the details of the impending agreement or not and the politics involved, the fact of the matter is that the Agreement on the Teesta could not be signed for which the governments of India and Bangladesh had worked for months because of objections raised by Kolkata – the affected party. Unlike earlier, the Indian political scene today is marked by strong regional political parties that not only rule their respective states but are also important partners in the coalition governments at the centre. The central government therefore cannot take state governments for granted.

Another important aspect is the question of proportionality, in the sense of the number of people being dependent on a particular river basin in a country, which needs to be factored into any discussion on the water issue. For example, in percentage terms, out of the total drainage area of the Ganga, 79 per cent belongs to India, less than five per cent to Bangladesh and almost 14 per cent to Nepal. This clearly demonstrates that the Ganga has a greater flow in India in comparison with the other riparians. In terms of population as well, while almost 500 million Indians are dependent on the river, only 23 million Bangladeshis do so. This is of course not to deny the fact that since Bangladesh is a deltaic country it needs more water per capita than India to keep the problem of salinity under control. A study needs to be carried out to determine what level of water flow has to be maintained for the good health of the people and the land. Both India and Bangladesh should also maintain a regular channel of communication to maintain this level of water flow. Further, India should agree in principle that it will not let water go below this level. In short, India should earnestly try to accommodate and address the legitimate concerns of Bangladesh.

Punam Pandey specialises on issue relating to environmental security.