The Big Picture – Teesta deal: Why is it Again on the Backburner?
The sharing of river waters whether it is between two or more states within the country or between the countries have always been a contentious issue and takes years to resolve them. In the case of Teesta River, which originates in Sikkim and flows through West Bengal into Bangladesh, settlement has not been arrived at for decades now. In 2011, when the then Prime Minister wanted to strike a deal with Bangladesh on Teesta river West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had then strongly opposed any deal which would harm the interests of her state. Now, with the present Prime Minister Narendra Modi scheduled to visit Bangladesh later this week, the West Bengal CM has once again opposed any treaty regarding the river raising concerns about the post treaty. In 2013, an agreement was drafted which allowed for the 50:50 allocation of teesta waters between the countries during the lean season, when the real problems of allocation crop up. However, that was not acceptable. In the last two years further discussions have taken place between the two countries and Modi was hoping to finalise the agreement during the forthcoming visit. India and Bangladesh share 54 rivers between them.
West Bengal has been opposing the treaty fearing that the loss of higher volume of water to the lower riparian would cause problems in the northern region of state, especially during drier months. It is estimated that the Teesta River has a mean annual flow of 60 billion cubic metres but a significant amount of this water flows only during wet season i.e. between June and September, leaving scant flow during the dry season i.e. October to April/May wherein the average flow gets reduced to about 500 million cubic metres (MCM) per month. This creates issues of equitable sharing during lean season.
Historically, the progress of the India-Bangladesh relationship has always hinged on issues of water-sharing, in part because of Bangladesh’s vulnerable position as a downstream riparian and in part because of the sheer amount of rivers, 54, shared between the two countries. Therefore for a robust relationship to develop between the two countries, a timely resolution to the long-standing Teesta issue is paramount. Towards this objective it’s important that the key shortfalls that have impeded cooperation so far are addressed. In 1983, India and Bangladesh had agreed into an ad hoc sharing of the water during the dry season with an allocation of 36% for Bangladesh and 39% for India, leaving 25% to be decided later.
The current ad-hoc water sharing arrangement is considered insufficient for Bangladesh’s needs. This is based on claims that the country’s basin dependence is higher than India’s : there are 21 million people living in the Teesta river basin in Bangladesh as opposed to 8 million people in West Bengal and half a million people in Sikkim. Bangladesh has claimed that West Bengal’s Gazaldoba barrage is ‘unilaterally’ channelizing a large volume of water on the Teesta, due to which the country’s historic flow has been reduced to only 10% and its Teesta Irrigation Project has suffered. This is further compounded by the downstream nature of Bangladesh wherein any construction by India affects the water flow available to Bangladesh. Furthermore, there are proposals to build 31 dams in the upper catchment area of the Teesta in Sikkim, along with the 4 dams that are already underway. While these have been termed ‘run-off the river’ dams, ie dams which do not impact river flows, lean season will lead to increased storage and evaporation, which will invariably impact water available downstream to Bangladesh. Apart from the farmers who are getting adversely affected, the health of the river on the Bangladesh side is also at stake since the inadequate flow of water has created siltation. These are all realistic concerns that make it essential for the Indian government to provide a fair deal to Bangladesh.
While the Central government is well within in its right to enter into bilateral water-sharing agreements with other countries, for a lasting arrangement to be achieved, the state government has to be brought on board. The potential in the Teesta treaty to provide future benefits to West Bengal are immense and it is up to the Central government to make these more widely known as way of creating consent. Once the Teesta agreement is signed, it will open the way for a Joint Investment Plan in the Teesta Basin to augment water flow in the lean period, store flood water during summer for retrieval in dry months, introduce drought resistant crops, and hold the potential to transform the economy of the northern districts of West Bengal and north-western districts of Bangladesh.
A lack of consensus is stalling progress and preventing further development in other areas. One of the important factors responsible for diminishing flow of water is the building of about 12 hydel power projects over the Teesta in Sikkim where the river originates.