During an India-Bangladesh dialogue exactly one year ago, Bangladesh foreign minister A.H. Mahmood Ali said the settlement of the land boundary dispute between the two countries in 2015 proved that anything is possible with political will. Now, as Bangladeshi Prime Minister Shaikh Hasina arrives on her first state visit to Delhi in seven years this weekend, it is all but clear that the same political will has fallen short on the issue of resolving the outstanding dispute over sharing of the Teesta river waters. An agreement arrived at in 2011 fell by the wayside over West Bengal’s refusal to sign on at the time. Even today, Mamata Banerjee’s opposition to water sharing remains the biggest stumbling block to an agreement on the Teesta river.
Some in Delhi have argued for the need to set aside this dispute for the moment, instead focusing on other areas of cooperation, notably defence and security. In one of the largest-ever financial commitments, India also plans to open a line of credit of five billion dollars for Bangladesh, for it to use on projects of its choosing. And over 25 agreements, especially business-to-business deals, are expected to be signed during the visit.
But for Dhaka, it is not going to be as simple. The gap between her visits is enough indication of the tremendous pressure Hasina faces back home to push for an agreement. Late into her second term as prime minister, public opinion is sharp and Hasina’s political opponents have consistently accused her of being soft on India. And, as we all know too well in the subcontinent, even with several agreements with India to go back with, it will be political perception, rather than fact, that she will have to fight.
The Teesta is Bangladesh’s fourth largest transboundary river for irrigation and fishing activities. According to available data, its floodplain today covers an area of 2,750 square km in Bangladesh. Its catchment area supports 8.5% of the country’s population – roughly around ten million people – and 14% of crop production. Over one lakh hectares of land across six districts are severely impacted by upstream withdrawals of the Teesta’s waters in India and face acute shortages during the dry season. Bangladesh wants 50% of the river’s water supply, especially in the months between December and May annually, while India claims a share of 55%.
Eighty-three percent of the Teesta’s catchment area lies in India, the remaining 17% in Bangladesh. Negotiations have been on since 1983, when a preliminary arrangement had allocated 39% for India and 36% for Bangladesh. The remaining 25% was left unallocated for a later decision. The 2011 agreement, after decades of negotiations, set up an interim arrangement for 15 years where India would get 42.5% and Bangladesh 37.5% of the Teesta’s waters during the dry season, and planned to create a joint hydrological observation station to gather accurate data for the future. But Banerjee, who was to accompany then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Dhaka at the time, cancelled at the last minute. She is believed to have accepted an invitation to Delhi during Hasina’s visit this weekend as other measures like bus services from West Bengal are announced, but it will be interesting to watch for any comments she makes on the Teesta.
Out over over 230 rivers that flow into Bangladesh and empty into the Bay of Bengal, 54 flow through India. So far only one agreement signed in 1996 on sharing Ganga waters exists, and even that is up for renewal in 2026. India accepted the status of the Ganga as an international river only in 1970 and the Ganges Water Treaty was a product of 25 years of negotiations that finally recognised Bangladesh’s rights as a lower riparian state and set up a procedure to manage Ganga waters and ensure Bangladesh got an equitable share during the dry season.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on a visit to Dhaka in 2015, had said river waters should nurture, not divide the people of India and Bangladesh. And yet, the Teesta is only one of several water-sharing disputes with Bangladesh. Resolving it could set the template for others – over the Feni river that originates in Tripura and crosses into Bangladesh after journey of 90 km, nearly all of which is a common border, with one river bank in India and the other in Bangladesh. Bangladesh is also concerned over the building of the Tipaimukh dam on the Barak river in Tripura, arguing that the project will impact the water in the Meghna river downstream. (The Meghna, Ganges and Brahmaputra form the three major river basins that nourish Bangladesh.)
While India can certainly argue its case for a greater share of river waters based on its own needs and political compulsions, there is no way out of equitable agreements on water sharing. As both an upper riparian (with rivers that have their source in India and flow downstream) and a lower riparian (with rivers that begin elsewhere and flow into India), India is at the epicentre of transboundary river politics and diplomacy, and must acknowledge the necessity to strike workable agreements in order to prevent major conflict over water. While international law has made provisions for the sharing of transboundary river waters on mutually acceptable terms, India has done well with bilateral frameworks with Bangladesh in the past. Delhi and Dhaka have the advantage of an existing Joint Rivers Commission, set up in 1972 after Bangladesh won independence precisely for the purpose of water management. It was this commission that negotiated the Ganges Water Treaty – as significant as the Indus Waters Treaty with Pakistan, because it was an entirely bilateral effort and was a genuine pact to share water.
Under the previous government, dialogue on outstanding disputes was left to special envoys – India’s former National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon and Hasina’s special representative Gowher Rizvi from Bangladesh. The resolution of the land boundary dispute is credited to their constant communication, even though it only came into effect after the 2014 general election. Perhaps now the time has come for this government too to recognise the need for special envoys assigned specifically to the task of resolving water disputes with Bangladesh. If not a formal water sharing agreement, the government could well consider announcing such an appointment and empowering the Joint Rivers Commission to oversee such a dialogue. Such an announcement would indicate Delhi’s commitment to resolving the Teesta dispute in a more concrete way and thereby possibly silence Hasina’s critics in Dhaka.
Maya Mirchandani is a senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation and consulting editor (India matters) at NDTV.