Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently concluded his visit to Bangladesh after participating in celebrations commemorating the 50th year of Bangladeshi independence and the centenary of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman amidst much fanfare. While the visit reaffirmed his long-standing commitment to a ”Neighborhood First” policy and explained the future course of the burgeoning partnership, the high profile visit failed to address the Teesta river water sharing dispute which is the most important bilateral issue concerning India and Bangladesh today.
The Teesta river, a tributary of the Brahmaputra, originates in the Teesta Kangse glacier and flows through the state of Sikkim and West Bengal before entering Bangladesh. It has been mired in conflict since 1947 when the catchment areas of the Teesta were allotted to India. After the setting up of the India-Bangladesh Joint Rivers Commission in 1972, an ad hoc arrangement on sharing of Teesta waters was made in 1983, with India receiving 39 percent of the water and Bangladesh 36 percent of it. The Teesta river issue assumed significance after the conclusion of the Ganga Water Treaty in 1996. Negotiations between India and Bangladesh on the sharing of the river waters began soon after but have made limited progress.
In 2011, India agreed to share 37.5 percent of Teesta waters while retaining 42.5 percent of the waters during the lean season between December and March. However, the deal never went through due to opposition from West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee who strongly opposed the treaty. The sharing of the Teesta waters has been a long standing demand of Bangladesh since the livelihood of millions is attached to the river’s water. Moreover, constant building of dams along the Teesta in Sikkim has resulted in lean seasonal flow draining into Bangladesh. Since Bangladesh is a lower riparian country, it is naturally sensitive about transboundary river issues, and the sharing of the Teesta waters currently holds the key to improved India-Bangladesh relations.
However, India has consistently shied away from addressing the Teesta water issue and this has irked Bangladesh. The Dhaka Tribune has noted with dismay recently that despite the friendly relationship between the two countries, India and Bangladesh have not discussed the river water issues (including the Teesta issue) through their common platform, the Joint River Commission (JRC) in the last 10 years with the last JRC Ministerial Meet being held in New Delhi in March 2010. Similarly, Daily Star had lamented that despite sharing 54 rivers India and Bangladesh had not signed a single bilateral treaty on water sharing in the last quarter of a century.
Due to India’s intransigence, Bangladesh had attempted to cultivate China and was “considering a proposal from China to dredge and embank large portions of the Teesta River so that it formed a single manageable channel.” India had opposed the project since it did not want Chinese technicians close to the “Chicken Neck” corridor near Siliguri that links mainland India to its northeast. However, leading Bangladeshi scholars have questioned India’s stance on the issue and implored Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to go ahead with the project with the Chinese.
At a time when India and Bangladesh are apparently witnessing a Shonali Adhyaya (Golden Era) in their bilateral relationship, not addressing this contentious issues properly can dampen the spirit. It is in India’s interest to conclude the Teesta water sharing agreement before Bangladesh slips into China’s tight embrace. Bangladesh has made its position clear. It will be a part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) though it continues to believe India is its “most important partner.” Dhaka is walking a diplomatic tightrope while it attempts to maintain cordial relations with both Beijing and New Delhi. Sheikh Hasina wants to conclude the Teesta agreement to appease her domestic audience. Shiekh Hasina has been viewed as “pro India” by Bangladeshis and it is important for her political future that the agreement goes through.
India also has much to gain from the conclusion of the treaty. If India signs the treaty, it will be able to send a positive signal to all stakeholders within Bangladeshi society and assuage fears that exist in the minds of average Bangladeshi about India’s intentions. India will be able to cement its position as an all-weather friend of Bangladesh in the neighborhood and in due course of time, it will be able to further develop a robust economic and strategic partnership without worrying about the party in power in Bangladesh. After the Land Boundary Agreement that was signed in 2014, it is this Teesta water sharing agreement that will be remembered as part of the Shonali adhyaya of India-Bangladesh relations. But India must act now.