Water, despite being a natural resource, has become a key economic and political tool in the modern society. Countries enter into unstoppable disputes regarding the claim of a water body. However, it is diplomacy which plays a binding role in mending relations between the nations. India and Bangladesh, the two South-Asian countries together with a fifth of the total world population, are neighbouring nations in the present world, but were at one point of time a part of the same subcontinent. They have shared a common culture, history, heritage and geographical boundary. India had played a crucial role in the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971 and helped the country establish the People’s Republic of Bangladesh. Nevertheless,the relationship between India and Bangladesh has had both synclines and anticlines. There were issues which both the countries had to actively tackle. Issues like the boundary dispute, refugee crisis, transfer of fake notes, and most importantly, the issue of river water sharing, continues to strain relations between the neighbouring countries. Water has been a highly disputed issue between the two countries, ever since the partition of India. India and Bangladesh share 54 rivers and the issue of water sharing has remained unresolved till date.
The river Teesta has been the prime reason of contention between the two nations. Originating in the Himalayas, this river passes through North Bengal, enters Bangladesh and finally drains itself into the Bay of Bengal. It evidently supplies water resources to a significant area within India, and serves as the lifeline of the state of Sikkim. The Teesta is the fourth largest transboundary river in Bangladesh, important primarily for irrigation and fishing activities. The major cause of conflict regarding the sharing of this water body is that while Bangladesh demands 50% of the river’s water, India wants to retain a share of 55% of its water because most of the river’s catchment area is located here.
Negotiations regarding this dispute were under operation since 1983,when an ad hoc agreement had been signed between the countries. This agreement allocated 39% of the river water to India and a share of 36% for Bangladesh. A lesser share for Bangladesh indicated the presence of a groundwater recharge that takes place between the two barrages on the Teesta — at Gazaldoba in Jalpaiguri in India and at Dalia in Lalmonirhat in Bangladesh. There had been no negotiations or agreements regarding the dispute for the next 30 years since the two countries failed to agree on any concrete solution. In 2011, Dhaka and Delhi reached a temporary agreement for 15 years where India would be receiving 42.5% and Bangladesh 37.5% of Teesta’s water during the dry season.This deal also incorporated a clause to set up a joint hydrological observation station to get accurate data regarding the river water for the future.However, this decision made by the Government of India was opposed by the Trinamool Congress (TMC). Mamata Banerjee, the Chief Minister of West Bengal, refused to accompany Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Dhaka, in order to sign the agreement.The Dhaka-Delhi agreement was thus shelved, for two reasons. First, TMC was an important coalition partner of the UPA II government at the centre. Therefore, in order to ensure the party’s support, the central government could in no way ignore its opinion. Secondly, as water is a subject under the jurisdiction of the state, the Teesta Agreement required the Chief Minister’s formal approval in order to be implemented.With opposition from the West Bengal state government, the agreement failed and this prompted Dipu Moni,the erstwhile Foreign Minister of Bangladesh, to warn India that Dhaka-Delhi bilateral relations would become utterly complicated if the water dispute was not mediated sooner or later.
In the year 2014, India experienced a wave of change with the BJP forming a government at the centre. Narendra Modi became the face of this change and soon after taking up office, he proclaimed that mending relations with India’s neighbours and promoting India’s ‘Act East’ policy was the paramount focus of his foreign policy. In the month of May 2015 both India and Bangladesh were able to settle the long pending 1974 Land Boundary Agreement in an effort to establish the government’s ‘Neighborhood First Policy. The Dhaka government began pressurising Prime Minister Modi,to urgently take action regarding the Teesta Water agreement shortly after the Land Boundary Agreement was settled. It even expressed aspirations of renewal of the 2011 agreement, prior to PM Narendra Modi’s Bangladesh visit. The deal, however, did not meet an optimistic response despite the Prime Minister stating that “rivers should nurture the India-Bangladesh relationship and not become a source of discord”. After winning elections in 2016, Mamata Banerjee took a more appeasing tone. She invited the Prime Minister of Bangladesh to visit the state capital, perhaps with the intention of negotiating the Teesta turmoil. In 2016 itself, Prime Minister Hasina told M J Akbar, the Indian Minister of State for External Affairs that even though there existed problems between the two neighbouring countries, these would not in the way of the “friendship and cooperation” that they share. ’
The supreme reason behind India making attempts to accept the Teesta claims rests in its ability to improve bilateral relations with Bangladesh extensively and pave the path for India to use the Chittagong port ,which seems to be a key trading port for India.Without the Chittagong port, India has to traverse a comparatively longer route for its trading activities via Sri Lanka,which becomes both costly and cumbersome for the country. The Teesta Water issue has withheld the port issue, which Bangladesh refuses to deal with until the water dispute is resolved.The Modi government was unable to convince the Chief Minster of West bengal regarding the Teesta Treaty because there arose a new turmoilbetween the state and centre during November 2016, after the implementation of demonetisation. Sheikh Hasina had visited India in the month of April mainly to negotiate the Teesta Agreement.This visit, however, did not bear any fruitful results. Of late, Bangladesh seems to be restless regarding the dispute, chiefly due to the fact that the country will be holding the General Elections in the year 2018.Settlement of this dispute will ensure Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League to retain the position as the ruling party of the country.
The Teesta issue will not only lead to a healthy bilateral relation between India and Bangladesh, but will also mend the centre-state relations in India. It is fascinating to see how natural resources can prove to be an obstacle in the path of peaceful relations between neighbouring countries. The need to have the upper hand in power structures globally leads countries to wage unnecessary and futile cold wars. For the sake of maintenance of international peace and security, both nations must promulgate an agreement for the resolution of the water dispute that has hindered healthy relations between them ever since the inception of Bangladesh.
– Contributed by Rajeshwari