On the face of it, the joint communique issued at the end of Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit to New Delhi on September 7 was quite impressive, with India being involved in a number of big-ticket infrastructure and connectivity projects. But the communique glossed over the Teesta River water-sharing issue, which is critical for Bangladesh – and also for the political future of Hasina, arguably the only steadfast friend of India in Bangladesh.
Dodging the Teesta issue will not be in India’s interest, as it is a politically emotive one in Bangladesh.
The Joint Communique undoubtedly looks good from the Indian point of view. According to Asit Ranjan Mishra of Business Standard, Bangladesh had become India’s fourth-largest export destination in the fiscal year 2022, jumping five places in two years. And that growth looks set to continue.
“Due to the possible bilateral trade agreement, there exists a potential of additional export from India to Bangladesh, ranging from $4 billion to $10 billion. This export potential in addition to existing exports could be achieved by India in a time span of five years,” Mishra wrote, quoting from the joint study conducted by Bangladesh and India on their proposed Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA).
Bangladesh too will gain, albeit from a lower base. “The potential for additional exports to India could range from $3 billion to $ 5 billion in a time span of 10 years,” the study found. “The total additional potential bilateral gains in trade in goods due to a possible CEPA ranges between $7 billion to $15 billion.”
India is the largest market for Bangladeshi exports in Asia. However, Bangladesh exports only $1.9 billion worth of goods to India, against imports totaling $16.15 billion. This gap has to be reduced. A yawning trade deficit between the neighbors will affect bilateral relations.
The September 7 joint communique said that the two prime ministers directed trade officials to start negotiations for CEPA before the end of 2022 and to complete these as soon as possible, in time for Bangladesh’s final graduation from least developed country (LDC) status in 2026. The FTA will help Bangladesh in the context of the transition.
Beyond trade ties, India is helping construct the Rupsha rail bridge to connect the upcoming Mongla port in Bangladesh’s south to Khulna. Both the rail line and the port are being financed under a concessional line of credit from India, as announced during Hasina’s trip to India. The project is to cost $389 million.
Both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Hasina inaugurated the first unit of the Maitri Super Thermal Power project in Bangladesh. The project will add 1,320 Mw in Bangladesh. Indian tycoon Gautam Adani will supply more power to Bangladesh from his upcoming power project in Jharkhand, set to be operational from December 16.
That leaves the two countries with the unsolved river water issue. This issue was sidestepped in the joint communique, which only said that Hasina raised it. There was no clue as to what the Indian side said in reply.
As I have written elsewhere, in the lean season, the Teesta River is dry as a bone. But both countries need large amounts of water as they have encouraged rice paddy cultivation during the dry season. Both countries had built diversion dams (or barrages) on Teesta, only about 100 kilometers apart, to provide irrigation to around 920,000 hectares in West Bengal in India and 750,000 in Bangladesh – over 1.6 million hectares in total.
The Gajaldoba barrage in India and the Teesta barrage in Bangladesh impound water for irrigation. Downstream, the reduced flow creates large dry tracts of sand that are devoid of fertile silt. The sun bakes them into hard islands, unsuitable for cultivation. In the monsoon, these tracts constrict the flow of the river and the swelling waters inundate the neighboring fields. Every year crops are destroyed.
Recognizing the lack of adequate water in the Teesta, a committee of the West Bengal government under Indevar Pandey, principal secretary of the Public Works Department, decided that the state would irrigate only 52,000 hectares with the Teesta’s water, a reduction of over 90 percent from the original plan. Pandey was opposed to sharing more water with Bangladesh because of the lack of water.
Hydropower generation is another problem. During the lean season, all large plants have to impound water for power generation, which reduces the flow of the river. The Indian state of Sikkim has a number of such power stations on the Teesta River.
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had said that she would allow more Teesta waters to be released to Bangladesh if West Bengal got water from inter-linked Indian rivers. But interlinking rivers has been an unrealized dream in India for a long time. As in Bangladesh, in West Bengal too, water is a politically sensitive issue affecting millions of poor people who are voters in elections. Politicians will always cater to their potential voters, not voters in another country.
India’s Strategic and Political Interest in Resolving the Teesta Issue
However, India has strategic interests to keep in mind as well. If New Delhi is to keep its rival China at bay in the neighborhood (including Bangladesh), it has to match China in terms of building infrastructure and increasing investment and trade with these countries. But this is not all. Equal importance should be given to the needs of the average citizens in these countries, their concerns and views. The Teesta waters issue is a farmers’ issue, a layperson’s issue. And the average citizen is the final arbiter in a democracy.
Addressing the average Bangladeshi’s concerns will pay rich dividends to India on a long-term basis, said a Bangladeshi commentator. “A relationship based on compassion and understanding will last for a longer time than one based on dollars and brick and mortar projects,” he said.
If India is to help Hasina, its only genuine friend in Bangladesh, it has to help her through policies that will give her political credit. Though she appears unchallenged now, with the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) in tatters and leaderless, she would have to face an anti-incumbency factor at the polls in 2023. Even if the weak BNP is unable to exploit it, Islamic radicals could exploit popular discontent to India’s discomfiture. Now is the time for New Delhi to address the Teesta issue.
Simultaneously, both India and Bangladesh could jointly devise programs to encourage farmers served by the Teesta River, on both sides of the border, to go for crops that are less water-intensive than rice. Drip irrigation could also be introduced. There are several ways to tackle the issue, but any solution will require attention and political will from both sides.