Why India and Bangladesh Need a Resolution on Teesta Water Sharing

The Teesta water-sharing arrangement is likely to be one of the top concerns during Sheikh Hasina's upcoming trip to India.

During the upcoming visit of Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to India, from April 7-10, the most important issues the two countries are expected to discuss is the deal on releasing about 48% of waters from the Teesta river to Bangladesh. This despite the fact that, according to a news report in The Daily Star, “Teesta water-sharing treaty is not on the agenda”.

Teesta is the fourth largest transboundary river shared between India and Bangladesh, after the Ganges, Brahmaputra and the Meghna (GBM) river system. The total catchment area of the GBM is about 1.75 million square km. The Teesta originates in the Indian state of Sikkim and its total length is 414 km, out of which 151 km lie in Sikkim, 142 kms flow along the Sikkim-West Bengal boundary and through West Bengal, and 121 km run in Bangladesh. In Bangladesh, the river mainly affects the five northern districts of Rangpur Division: Gaibandha, Kurigram, Lalmonirhat, Nilphamari and Rangpur. According to a report on the Teesta by The Asia Foundation in 2013, its flood plain covers about 14% of the total cropped area of Bangladesh and provides direct livelihood opportunities to approximately 7.3% of its population.

Where the dispute originated

Historically, the root of the disputes over the river can be located in the report of the Boundary Commission (BC), which was set up in 1947 under Sir Cyril Radcliffe to demarcate the boundary line between West Bengal (India) and East Bengal (Pakistan, then Bangladesh from 1971). In its report submitted to the BC, the All India Muslim League demanded the Darjeeling and Jalpaiguri districts on the grounds that they are the catchment areas of Teesta river system. It was thought that by having the two districts, the then and future hydro projects over the river Teesta in those regions would serve the interests of the Muslim-majority areas of East Bengal. Members of the Indian National Congress and the Hindu Mahasabha opposed this. Both, in their respective reports, established India’s claim over the two districts. In the final declaration, which took into account the demographic composition of the region, administrative considerations and ‘other factors’ (railways, waterways and communication systems), the BC gave a major part of the Teesta’s catchment area to India. The main reason to transfer major parts of Darjeeling and Jalpaiguri to India was that both were non-Muslim-majority areas. Darjeeling had a 2.42% Muslim population while Jalpaiguri had 23.02% Muslims. The League’s claim was based on ‘other factors’.

During East Bengal’s days as a part of Pakistan, no serious dialogue took place on water issues between India and East Pakistan. After the liberation of East Pakistan and birth of a sovereign Bangladesh in 1971, India and Bangladesh began discussing their transboundary water issues. In 1972, the India-Bangladesh Joint Rivers Commission was established. In its initial years, the most important concerns of water bureaucrats from both countries were the status of river Ganges, construction of the Farakka barrage and sharing of water from the rivers Meghna and Brahmaputra. Although the issues related to the distribution of waters from the Teesta were discussed between India and Bangladesh, the river gained prominence only after the two countries signed the Ganga Water Treaty in 1996.

In 1983, an ad hoc arrangement on sharing of waters from the Teesta was made, according to which Bangladesh got 36% and India 39% of the waters, while the remaining 25% remained unallocated. After the Ganga Water Treaty, a Joint Committee of Experts was set up to study the other rivers. The committee gave importance to the Teesta. In 2000, Bangladesh presented its draft on the Teesta. The final draft was accepted by India and Bangladesh in 2010. In 2011, during then Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Dhaka, a new formula to share Teesta waters was agreed upon between the political leadership of the two countries. But West Bengal’s chief minister Mamata Banerjee, who was then in a coalition with the Union government, opposed the agreement. Even when the Narendra Modi government accepted the new arrangement between India and Bangladesh, Banerjee did not. In 2015, during Modi’s visit to Dhaka to exchange the ratified papers of the Land Boundary Agreement between India and Bangladesh, Banerjee joined him. But she maintained a silence over the issue of sharing Teesta waters.

Current issues

Although Article 253 of the Indian constitution gives power to the Union government to enter into any transboundary river water-related treaty with a riparian state, the Centre cannot do it arbitrarily without taking into consideration the social, political and economic impact of such a treaty in the catchment area.

One of the reasons for Banerjee not accepting the new deal on the Teesta is confusion over the agreed percentage of water to be shared between India and Bangladesh. The deal says that Bangladesh will receive 48%of the waters. This means, as Rupak Bhattacharjee has written, Banerjee believed in 2011 that Bangladesh would get something around 33,000 cubic feet per second (cusec) of water annually, instead of the 25,000 cusecs originally agreed upon in earlier meetings to finalise the new agreement. She has said that releasing so much water to Bangladesh would affect irrigation systems in five districts of the North Bengal – Coochbehar, Jalpaiguri, South and North Dinajpur, and Darjeeling – which constitute some of the poorest blocks in her state.

In 2011, the West Bengal government commissioned a study on the Teesta issue under the hydrologist Kalyan Rudra. He submitted his findings in the form of a preliminary report to the West Bengal government in December 2012. The detailed report is not publicly available, but Rudra’s academic writings on the Teesta issue are well known. In a paper published in The Ecologist Asia in 2003, Rudra had been critical of the big projects on the river like the Teesta Barrage Project in Jalpaiguri district and hydropower projects of the National Hydro Power Corporation (stage III and IV) in the Darjeeling district of West Bengal. He wrote, “Siltation has been a major problem, with projected capacities decreasing at alarming rates, often before the entire project is completed! Evaporation from the reservoirs and seepage of water from canals deprived the marginal land of the command area from the water that it was assured during the planning of the project. The dams that were designed to moderate floods have created floods by releasing excess water at the peak of the monsoon.” The paper supports an idea to reduce the burden on the Teesta by slicing down the number of multi-purpose hydro projects on it. This would help the river provide enough waters for irrigation purposes, he said.

On the issue of sharing Teesta waters between India and Bangladesh, it is being assumed that Rudra’s study has probably proposed a 65/35 or 60/40 division of waters during the monsoons and on a 70/30 ratio during the dry season, when both North Bengal and northwestern parts of Bangladesh face drought situations. This basis would certainly not be acceptable to Bangladesh, where the water from river Teesta is mainly required during the leanest period, from December to April. The demand turns (at worst) between March and April, when the water flow from Teesta often goes below 1,000 cusecs from 5,000 cusecs.

The success of the deal on the Teesta is considered to be a political necessity for both governments. The deal, as anticipated, will help New Delhi get more political leverage, which, it thinks, is necessary to check the rising influence of an extra regional power – China – in the Bay of Bengal region. For Hasina, the deal will support her chances to retain political power in the 2018 general elections in Bangladesh by projecting her as a leader who can secure her country’s interests and not a ‘pawn’ in the hands of India, as she is being often called by opposition groups.

Amit Ranjan is a visiting research fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University Singapore. Views are personal.