Ganga Water Sharing Treaty – A Model for Settlement

India and Bangladesh, in the current decade, are in a tussle regarding the water body – Teesta. However this is not the first time that contention over a natural resource has surfaced between the two countries. Prior to the Teesta turmoil, the countries faced the much larger issue pertaining to Ganga water body, which was resolved after decades of contention, discussions, and negotiations. Let us try to look at the origins of Ganga water issue between both countries and how it was finally resolved.

Prior to the partition of India, the resources within the Indian subcontinent were sufficient to fulfill the needs of the people of the country. However, problems arose post-partition, when the country got divided into two nations, i.e. India and Pakistan. The newly created domains, entered into a conflict regarding the division of resources. When Bangladesh (former East Pakistan) gained independence in 1997, it had demanded territorial rights and rights over natural resources including Ganga water.

The River Ganga originates in the Gangotri glacier of the Himalayas, and empties itself in the Bay of Bengal. After traversing a long journey in India’s Northern Plains, it flows as a boundary between India and Bangladesh. It enters into the Bay of Bengal after passing through Bangladesh where it merges with the Brahmaputra River to form the River Padma. The Ganga Water Dispute can be traced back to 1951, when Bangladesh was considered as Eastern Pakistan. The problem emerged with the construction of the Farakka Barrage in West Bengal during the 1950s. The barrage plan was initiated to regulate the flow in the river Bhagirathi-Hoogly by diverting water from the Ganges during the dry season to prevent accumulation of silt, thus easing the operation in the Calcutta Port. This step enabled the improvement in navigation of the harbor, by providing sufficient water during the lean months. Bangladesh, the low riparian, was dependent on the Ganga water, primarily for irrigation purposes, inland navigation and keeping in check the intrusion of salinity from Bay of Bengal. The subsequent course of negotiation regarding the Ganga Water Dispute can be divided into two phases, one between India and Pakistan and the other between India and Bangladesh after 1971.

During 1960s, about 10 meetings were held between India and Pakistan regarding the Ganga Water Sharing. However, the two countries failed to arrive at a concrete solution due to the absence of sufficient data on water resources and the quantity of available water. In the year 1972, a Joint River Commission was established by the two countries. They could not take it forward as the Bangladesh Liberation War had already broken out by then. After Bangladesh’s independence, Awami League, under the leadership of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, took up office, and resumed the negotiations regarding water sharing.

Meanwhile, the Joint River Commission formed in 1972 was entrusted with the task of conducting river survey and collecting data on the availability of Ganga Water. Mujibur Rehman visited India and the nations reached a common ground that there was insufficient Ganga water to meet the requirements of the two nations. The discussions failed due to differences regarding the method and quantity of water sharing. Bangladesh came up with a solution to build storage facilities in Nepal to utilize the water during the lean months. However, India opposed this suggestion with the idea of building a gravity link canal to divert the water of river Brahmaputra. Due to the polarization of views, India proposed the plan of signing an interim friendly treaty with Bangladesh that was active from the period – 21 April to 31 May 1975. Till the date this agreement sustained, Bangladesh received more water than India, but on the expiration of the treaty, Bangladesh was affected adversely. Differences between the two countries aggravated the problem instead of resulting in any concrete settlement.

Bangladesh brought up the issue on international platforms, like the Economic and Social Commission for Asia Pacific, 7th Islamic Foreign Ministers Conference, 31st UN General Assembly Session, etc. After few years, UN advised both the parties to negotiate and solve the dispute instead of extending it further. Angered by Bangladesh’s stance on internationalizing the issue, Indira Gandhi, the Prime Minister of India at that time argued that the construction of the Farakka Barrage was an absolutely unalarming issue for Bangladesh. Mrs. Gandhi’s failure in the 1977 election, brought Morarji Desai to power who attempted to solve the two decade long dispute by putting forward a five year treaty. The treaty favoured Bangladesh’s claim in which the country was to receive 80% of the available water during the lean season. This treaty was criticized in India because of its lenient nature towards the neighbouring country. India felt that the decision by Morarji Desai would deprive the country of her own natural resources. With the temporary treaty coming to an end, Bangladesh wanted to pursue their proposal to build storage facilities in Nepal. In the following years, relations took a sour turn between both countries with respect to the river as it appeared there wasn’t any common ground for agreement.

Finally, the dispute received a constructive solution during mid 1990s when Ms. Sheikh Hasina was elected as the Prime Minister. Negotiations between the two countries led to Awami League’s efforts being reciprocated by the United Front in India. Finally in the year 1996, the two nations signed the ‘Ganga Water Sharing Treaty’, which decided the fate of the water dispute and tried to improve the bilateral relations between the two nations. The treaty signed on 12th December 1996 consisted of 12 clauses and 2 annexes. It was based on the report of quantity and flow of Ganga water over the past 40 years (1949-1988). According to the treaty, water was to be shared between the two neighbours in a cycle of 10 days in lean period. Article 3, deleted India’s unilateral power to reduce the share of water that reaches Bangladesh. Article 4 aimed at the establishment of a Joint Commission to regulate the entire water sharing scenario between the nations. Article 10 mandated a review of the treaty after every 5 years and with its expiration after 30 years, a promised supply of 90% water resources until a new treaty is concluded. This led to the peaceful end of the almost 50 year old strife between the neighbours.

It was diplomacy which led to the signing of the Ganga Water Sharing Treaty, and settlement of the issue which was straining relations between the countries for decades. The Ganga Settlement should act as a model for the settlement of the Teesta dispute, which is the main reason of contention between Dhaka and Delhi in the present day scenario. Disputes over natural resources not only strains neighbourly relations but also creates imbalances in the regional cooperation. Hence to strengthen regional collaboration, and promote international peace and security, it is imperative the solve issues which act as thorns between diplomatic partners.

– Contributed by Rajeshwari

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