ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Rivers of Contention

Sharing river waters has more to do with politics and perceptions than technicalities.

The Teesta is not the only river that flows through India and Bangladesh. There are 53 others. But the rivers of contention between India and Bangladesh are primarily two – the Teesta and the Ganga. The dispute is about how their water should be shared by the two countries. It is a classic dispute b etween upper and lower riparian states. In 1972, the two countries set up a Joint Rivers Commission (JRC) to deal precisely with these differences. Yet, it took 24 years to sort out water sharing over the Ganga, culminating in a 30-year agreement that was signed in 1996. Last year, when the JRC met after a gap of five years, there was hope that a 15-year Teesta river water-sharing agreement would be signed by the two countries during the visit by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Bangladesh. But there has been more than a minor hiccup and, for the moment, the draft treaty has been set aside. If one traces the history of the earlier agreement on the Ganga, similar hurdles have occurred at regular intervals. They have had less to do with actual water flow and hydrological data, always fiercely disputed by both sides, and more to do with local politics and perceptions. This time the p olitical stumbling block has been West Bengal’s recently anointed Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, whose last-minute refusal to accompany Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Dhaka has u nderscored the role of local politics in regional agreements in south Asia.

The Teesta rises in Sikkim, flows through north Bengal into Bangladesh where it finally joins the Brahmaputra at Teestamukh. The contentious issues in water sharing revolve around use in just four dry months, from December to March, when farmers in both countries rely on irrigation water. The rest of the year, this region receives adequate rainfall and the river is in full flow. Both countries have built barrages. The Teesta barrage project on the Indian side, commissioned in 1976, is far from complete. It currently p rovides irrigation water to only 66,000 hectares in north Bengal of the total of 9.22 lakh hectares planned and generates 20 megawatts (MW) of electricity as compared to the 67.5 MW planned. The question being debated is how much water India should share with Bangladesh during this period. Should the share be 50/50 or 55/45 in India’s favour or another permutation? West Bengal fears that a formula that r educes its share of water could jeopardise f uture expansion of the Teesta project, the largest in eastern India. Bangladesh is a pprehensive that a larger diversion in the upper reaches of the Teesta before it enters Bangladesh would adversely affect its farmers in the dry months.

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