Restructuring India-Bangladesh relations

August 19, 2013
By Ilmas Futehally

On the surface, India-Bangladesh relations appear to be sailing through troubled waters. The Teesta River Agreement has not been signed. The Indian Parliament has not been able to endorse the land-boundary deal. Power trade has not materialised. Cattle smuggling across the border is a growing problem. However, if we scratch the surface, another reality looks possible.

The stalled Teesta River Agreement is an example. The differences between the positions of Bangladesh, India and the West Bengal Government are highly exaggerated. An agreement is easily feasible if rhetoric gives way to scientific truth.

There are 54 shared rivers between India and Bangladesh, providing an annual flow of 1200 BCM (billion cubic meters). The share of Teesta is only 60 BCM. This river originates in Sikkim, passes through West Bengal, crosses into Bangladesh and merges with Brahmaputra. It is a well-established scientific fact that any river must be allowed an environmental flow, which sustains the river and aquifer beneath it.

If the environmental flow of a river is not protected, the river will disappear before long and the eco-system will be damaged. In the case of Teesta, the environmental flow is measured at 20 per cent or 12 BCM which must be guaranteed until the river meets Brahmaputra. This leaves only 48 BCM of water to be shared by Bangladesh and India. How this is allocated is a matter of negotiations between the two countries.

However, India will have to allow at least one-third of the flow and Bangladesh cannot expect more than half of it. Thus, the margin for negotiation is only about 10 BCM. This is less than one per cent of the total trans-boundary water resources between the two countries. The current rhetoric makes it appear as if there is a huge dispute.

The reality is that the problem is confined to determining the share of merely 1% of the total bilateral water resources, something technical experts can easily resolve if the political leaders give them freedom to find a scientific and sustainable solution.

A more serious problem is the availability of water in the lean season from October to March. In this respect, Northern districts of West Bengal and North-western districts of Bangladesh suffer equally.

The solution is a collaborative and comprehensive strategy of conservation, water harvesting, storage in small ponds to avoid displacement, irrigation innovation, changes in cropping patterns and technology. It is impossible for either country to work unilaterally on such a package. A collaborative approach is essential.

An agreement on sharing of the Teesta River along with a joint programme for conservation and augmentation will open doors for wider cooperation in water resources between the two countries. It took 20 years to negotiate the Ganges treaty and 18 years to negotiate the Teesta. At this rate, if the two countries were to negotiate each of the remaining 52 rivers, it will take more than 900 years.

It is necessary to shift from the current approach of negotiating each river separately to the one where India and Bangladesh manage all their trans-boundary water resources in a holistic manner. In fact, this wisdom was reflected in the bilateral treaty of 1972 when a Joint Rivers Commission (JRC) was established.

At present, the so called JRC is neither Joint nor a Commission. It has been replaced by two parallel committees headed by respective ministers and supported by national bureaucracies. It is necessary to evoke the spirit 1972 and restructure the JRC to have a single chairman and a joint staff from both countries.

Such a Commission should develop shared water resources in a collaborative, and not competitive, manner. More significantly, it should make it possible for integrated management of basins on a long term and sustainable basis without being influenced by short term politics.

The greatest beneficiary will be the state of West Bengal. A comprehensive agreement will make not only sharing but also augmentation and conservation of water resources possible. This will help farmers in West Bengal during the lean season. In the long term, improvement in livelihood prospects in poor parts of Bangladesh will reduce the flow of refugees. There are also political benefits.

The current UPA government has been very patient considering the economic and political needs of West Bengal's northern districts. A future government in New Delhi may not be equally patient and sensitive. If it feels that unscientific and emotional objections compromise India's substantial interests in foreign policy, national security and connectivity, it can use certain constitutional provisions to sign a treaty with Bangladesh. Several union governments have done it before with regards to the Indus and Ganges treaties, as well as a number of trade agreements overriding the objections of various state governments.

Once the misunderstanding over water resources is removed by transferring decision making to a restructured Joint Rivers Commission, the two countries can focus on connectivity, investments, electricity trade, navigation, and vital national security interests. The critical question for India and Bangladesh, governments and opposition, is to determine if they want to develop a strong relationship with a potential to strengthen their economies and security, instead of allowing one per cent of water resources to cloud the prospects. In the end, it is a choice between the politics of emotions and the politics of reason.

This article by Ms. Ilmas Futehally, Executive Director of Strategic Foresight Group, was first carried by ANI News

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