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During Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit to India in the first week of September, both sides signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on the water withdrawal by India and Bangladesh from the common border river Kushiyara – a distributary of the River Barak. The pact is envisaged to benefit Sylhet in Bangladesh and facilitate water projects in South Assam in India.
Second, India requested Bangladesh for an early signing of the interim water-sharing agreement on the Feni river. In 2019, Bangladesh had agreed to let India withdraw 1.82 cusecs of water from the Feni river for drinking purposes, meant for the people of Sabroom town in Tripura.
Third, in the joint statement, India and Bangladesh also appreciated the Joint Rivers Commission’s decision to add a number of rivers “for prioritising the exchange of data and formulating the framework of the interim water sharing agreements”. Finally, the two countries also welcomed the formation of a Joint Technical Committee “to conduct a study for optimum utilisation of water received by Bangladesh under the provisions of Ganges Water Sharing Treaty, 1996”.
Multiple issues of the Ganges Waters Treaty
As anticipated, the matter pertaining to Teesta waters matter was largely missing from the table. As per the draft of the interim agreement on river Teesta waters, finalised in 2011, India would get 42.5% and Bangladesh would receive 37.5% during the lean season from December to March. The deal could not be concluded because of strong opposition from West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee.
She has correctly pointed out that Teesta waters are needed for irrigation and other purposes in north Bengal. On Teesta, Bangladesh premier Hasina said, “I recall that the two countries have resolved many outstanding issues in the spirit of friendship and cooperation, and we hope that all outstanding issues, including Teesta water-sharing treaty, would be concluded at an early date.”
As India and Bangladesh continue to engage on the river water issues, a question that emerges is how will the two sides act on the 1996 Ganges Water Treaty, which is set to expire in 2026. As per Article XII of the Ganges Treaty of 1996, it may be renewed by mutual consent. However, given the current water situation in the Ganges basin region, it is difficult to believe that Dhaka and New Delhi would easily consent to renew the 1996 treaty or renegotiate the terms, or even draft a new treaty. The role of an economic or political pay-off cannot be entirely ruled out in deciding the new format for sharing the Ganges waters between the two countries.
Many in Bangladesh believe that during the dry season the country does not receive the promised amount of water, assured under the treaty.
In their paper – ‘A Critical Review of the Ganges Water Sharing Arrangement’ – authors Kazi Saidur Rahman, Zahidul Islam, Umme Kulsum Navera and Fulco Ludwig find that 94 out of 300 times between 1997 and 2016, Bangladesh received less water at Hardinge bridge than what “presumably” was released from Farakka barrage in India.
If one takes into consideration the critical dry periods, the authors observe that Bangladesh, during the same period, did not receive its guaranteed flow 39 out of 60 times. Such failures occurred frequently during the dry periods between 2008 and 2011. There is also an issue regarding inaccurate data about water availability at Farakka and Hardinge bridge.
Moreover, the water demand-supply gap is widening in the Ganga river basin region. Several studies and assessments show that climate change, agriculture, industrialisation, urbanisation and increasing population have added new water woes to the already water-stressed Ganga basin.
In their study, scientists Abhijit Mukherjee, Soumendra Nath Bhanja and Yoshihide Wada demonstrated that the groundwater, which contributes about 30% to the river Ganga’s volume of water in the summer season, is declining due to excessive water pumping in the region.
Then, there are growing voices against the Farakka barrage – an important component of the 1996 treaty. The barrage is located in the Murshidabad district of West Bengal and is about 16.5 kilometres from the Bangladesh border. Its main objective is to divert an adequate quantity of Ganga waters for the “preservation and maintenance” of the Kolkata port located downstream.
In the 1960s, Kapil Bhattacharya, then chief engineer at the irrigation and waterways directorate of the West Bengal government, was called a “traitor” and “spy of Pakistan” for his concerns over the construction of the Farakka barrage. At present, many in Bangladesh blame Farakka for denying it required waters and threatening the Sundarban delta.
In 2017, even the chief minister of the Indian state of Bihar, Nitish Kumar, asked for decommissioning of the Farakka barrage. He said that the barrage had no use and caused floods every year.
More importantly, the fate of the Ganges waters treaty after 2026 depends on the position of the Indian states through which the river flows. As per Article 253 of the Indian constitution, parliament has the power to make laws regarding the implementation of treaties, agreements, or conventions with other countries. However, the West Bengal government’s attitude on the Teesta waters sharing issue clearly showed how helpless the Union government could be if a riparian state does not cooperate on the transboundary water pact. Later, the Union government agreed that it would not move on Teesta waters issue without consulting the state government.
Hence, any move on the Ganges water treaty of 1996 will test the perceived “golden chapter” phase scripted between India and Bangladesh in terms of water sharing. More importantly, it will test the nature of Indian federalism in matters of water issues and legislations.
Amit Ranjan is a research fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. His forthcoming book is on inter-state water disputes in India.