India and Bangladesh must resolve the Teesta water sharing issue for mutual benefits

di Anup Sinha


On the 6th of June, 2015 India & Bangladesh decided to implement the 1974 land boundary agreement which marked the long overdue peaceful settlement of all the border disputes between the two countries. Despite the corona pandemic the Indian leadership has graced Bangladesh with their presence during the celebrations of the birth centenary of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the 50th year of Bangladesh’s independence. These incidents have again reaffirmed India’s long-standing commitment to its ‘Neighborhood First’ policy and show the potential of the future course of the bilateral relations between the two countries. But all these friendly exchanges have again failed to address the long ‘bone of contention’ that still remains between the two countries; that is the Teesta River water sharing dispute. Resolution of this issue can not only benefit Bangladesh alone can become mutually beneficial in all aspects.

Originating in the Panhunri mountains of the Eastern Himalayas the Teesta River which is a tributary of the Brahmaputra flows through the Indian states of Sikkim and West Bengal before entering into Bangladesh through the Fulcharri Upazila of Gaibandha district. The Teesta River dispute mostly originated after 1947 when India was allotted the controlling areas of the Teesta River basin. In 1972 a Joint Rivers Commission between India and Bangladesh was set up to look into the matter. In 1983, an ad-hoc settlement was reached on the water sharing issue of the Teesta River where India would receive 39 percent of its waters while Bangladesh would receive 36 percent. All along these years attempts to negotiate a resolution was made but with very minimal progress. In 2011, the BJP government reached a deal with Bangladesh where it agreed to give Bangladesh 37.5 percent share of the waters of Teesta while itself containing 42.5 percent. But this deal was never quite implemented due to stern opposition from the West Bengal state government led by Mamata Banerjee.

Bangladesh being a lower riparian country is very much sensitive to the bilateral water sharing issues. Agriculture and livelihood in Bangladesh north-western Rangpur region largely depend on the waters of Teesta. A fruitful solution to this problem will not only benefit Bangladesh economically but will also help to strengthen the bilateral ties between India and Bangladesh. But India has long stalled to any feasible solution to this problem. The last Joint River Commission meeting which was held almost 12 years ago in New Delhi in 2010 did not address the Teesta water sharing issue at all. Moreover, despite sharing a total of 54 rivers between themselves; India and Bangladesh have not signed a single bilateral treaty on water sharing in the last 26 years.

India’s long apathy to solving the crisis has drawn Bangladesh towards China. In recent times China has put forward a proposal for Bangladesh where they offered to dredge and embank large portions of the Teesta River on the purpose of forming a single manageable channel. Naturally India has strongly opposed any sort of Chinese inclusion in the region because it does not want China anywhere near the ‘Siliguri corridor’, the most vulnerable portion of India’s landmass. Experts in Bangladesh has so far supported China’s proposal due to India long silence on the issue but the Bangladeshi authority are still pondering all their options.

It is often said that Bangladesh and India are currently witnessing a Golden period in their bilateral relations. But no addressing such a contentious issue can largely harm this existing harmony. India should act quickly to reach a concluding remark on the dispute before Bangladesh embrace Chinese cooperation on the issue. It is very much well known that Bangladesh has agreed to become a part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). But despite it has also given signals that it still considers India as its most important neighbor and ally. Sheikh Hasina is very much eager to resolve the Teesta River sharing issue due to growing domestic demands. But any further stalling tactics from India may compel her to turn otherwise.

This deal will greatly benefit the Indian camp as well. It a bilateral treaty goes forward then it will be able to appease all stakeholders within Bangladesh. India will surely be able to strengthen its position as a strong ally of Bangladesh and will be able to develop a robust economic and diplomatic partnership. So, it is in India’s best interest to act quickly on the matter and cement the ‘Golden Period’ in its bilateral relations with Bangladesh.

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