Famed across the land for their beauty, but fearing their love would be forbidden, the river spirits Rangit and Rongnyu decided to leave the shadows of the Teesta Khangtse glacier and elope to the plains. Led by Parilbu the snake, Rongnyu soon made it to their rendezvous. Tufto the mountain bird, though, proved an unreliable guide, distracted by colourful flowers and buzzing insects. Enraged by the long, winding route, Rangit threatened to head home—but the lovers reconciled, Lepcha legend records, never to be parted.
Entwined for millennia with the joys and sorrows of the peoples who live on its banks, the Teesta river has also bitterly divided the two nations it runs through.
This week, as Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed visited India, she has let it be known that securing an agreement on sharing the Teesta waters is a centrepiece of her diplomacy. In public remarks, Hasina called on India to “show more generosity” in ongoing negotiations. Bangladesh and India did succeed in reaching a deal on the less-contentious Kushiyara, running from Assam to Sylhet, but the Teesta remained out of reach.
Ever since he was elected in 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been promising Hasina he is committed to a deal. The prime minister’s resolve, though, has run into an intractable reality: In this, India’s national interest isn’t good for millions of Indians.
Partitioning the rivers
Like so much else to do with India and Bangladesh, the struggle over the Teesta is entwined with Partition. Ever since the late nineteenth century, British colonial officials first considered diverting the Teesta and Ganga to Hooghly in order to flush out silt from strategically vital Kolkata port. Following independence, the government pushed forward with the Farakka barrage, a more complex project involving power-generation and irrigation infrastructure meant to catalyse development in West Bengal.
Fifty-four rivers ran from India to East Pakistan—and the smaller country feared the Farakka barrage would become a template for a thoroughgoing choking of its water resources. In response, Pakistan announced plans to build its own barrage downstream of Farakka. The fraught relationship between India and Pakistan ensured there was no serious effort to arrive at a sensible resource-sharing arrangement.
Even after Bangladesh won its independence, though, arriving at a water-sharing deal proved difficult. Law scholar Bikramjit De has noted that an interim agreement signed in 1975 lasted for just 41 days. A five-year deal brokered by the United Nations in 1977 gave Bangladesh an 80:20 share of dry-season flows, but that deal proved unsustainable.
Then, in 1979, Bangladesh completed work on its own barrage, at Dalia, designed to irrigate over half a million hectares of land. Five years later, Bangladesh opened the 4,500 kilometre canal network carrying water from the Dalia barrage to the country’s rice and maize farms. In just a few years, though, the canals run dry.
Across the border, India had completed another barrage, at Gajoldoba in Jalpaiguri, supplying water to 228,000 hectares of farmland. From 1996, economists Yoshiro Higano and Muhammad Fakrul Islam have observed, India’s “exclusive control of the Teesta’s water in the dry season at Gajoldoba made the Dalia barrage useless.” In the monsoon, by contrast, releases of water from the overflowing barrage caused “floods and bank erosions, leading to serious suffering”.
In turbulent waters
Ever since 1996, a framework for resolving disputes over the Ganga and Teesta waters has been in place: The Ganges Water Treaty, signed in 1996 by Hasina and Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda, committed India to release water from Farakka to farmers in Bangladesh. In practice, political scientist Fahmida Aktar has noted, flows often fall below the minimum Bangladesh is entitled to in the dry months. The lack of a dispute resolution mechanism in the treaty, moreover, made it ineffectual.
Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government hammered out a compromise in 2010. The draft agreement proposed giving Bangladesh and India 40% of the flow each, with provision for arbitration of disputes by the International Court of Justice. For months, then-National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon worked to win West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s consent for the deal, winning her assent.
Then, for reasons that have never been made public, Banerjee pulled out. Prime Minister Singh—whose government depended on the support of the Trinamool Congress (TMC)—was forced to pull out of the deal.
According to some accounts, Banerjee believed the deal would lead to farmers in West Bengal losing some 8,000 cubic feet per second of water in the critical dry months—hitting agriculture in Coochbehar, Jalpaiguri, South Dinajpur, North Dinajpur, and Darjeeling. Instead, West Bengal pushed for a 70:30 division of the water in the driest months, from December to April.
Even though TMC leaders no longer have leverage over the Union government, the political factors standing in the way of a Teesta deal remain. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is working to expand its electoral presence in West Bengal, is reluctant to back a treaty which would hurt farmers in the state. The Modi government is, moreover, reluctant to risk popular unrest in strategically sensitive regions like Jalpaiguri, Cooch Behar and Darjeeling, which are key to the link between India and its North-East.
The problem on both sides of the border, meanwhile, is becoming more intense each year. The hydrologist Kalyan Rudra, who conducted a study of the issue for the West Bengal government on the Teesta issue in 2011, has observed that siltation is reducing storage capacity in existing barrages and dams. The demand for water is also increasing—and that means more friction between India and Bangladesh.
Facing mounting pressure
The Bangladesh prime minister’s calls for action are becoming increasingly desperate. Elections are due in Bangladesh in 2023, and Hasina knows her close relationship with India is giving ammunition to an increasingly aggressive opposition. Ever since she took office, Hasina has extinguished jihadist threats, provided unprecedented counter-terrorism cooperation and crushed anti-India insurgencies. The prime minister’s failure to do a deal on the Teesta, though, hurts Bangladesh farmers, and is weakening her hold.
Evidence that Hasina is being forced to make concessions to India’s enemies isn’t hard to come by. Islamists supported by the ruling party are waging a tenacious culture war—mobilising against women wearing western clothes to campus, and purported blasphemers. Bangladesh has also sought support from China for water-management projects on the Teesta, an obvious strategic concern for India.
Experts say there are things India can do to ease the situation, short of a treaty. Gauri Noolkar-Oak has suggested that better management of releases of water from dams in Sikkim, for example, can make more water available for use in both West Bengal and Bangladesh. The two countries could also work to enhance groundwater availability, and rationalise agricultural water demand.
A deal on the Teesta will have real costs for poor and marginal farmers in West Bengal—costs the Modi government needs to engage with and address. The cost of a hostile government and civil society in Bangladesh, though, will far outweigh that burden.
The author is National Security Editor, ThePrint. He tweets @praveenswami. Views are personal.