In the second week of October, a month after Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina returned from New Delhi without a word of assurance on the sharing of the waters of the River Teesta, the Chinese ambassador to Bangladesh, Li Jiming, visited the Teesta barrage site in the country’s Lalmonirhat district.
Li told journalists that he was hopeful that the Teesta mega project can be started “within a very short time.” Later, at another event, while stating that the project “is under serious assessment by the government agencies in Beijing,” he also said that there was some reluctance on the part of China to go ahead with the project considering the possibility of Bangladesh backing out.
“There are some sensitivities that we sensed and observed,” he said, adding, “if someone comes out and says – well this is again another case of Chinese debt trap – there (also) are some particular geopolitical sensitivities.”
Li’s statement indicates that China is putting pressure on Bangladesh to come to a decision on whether to depend on India for solving the Teesta water crisis or go with China’s proposal.
Hasina’s visit to the Indian capital was preceded by the 38th meeting of the India-Bangladesh Joint Rivers Commission (JRC) in New Delhi in August. This was the first meeting of the JRC after 12 years, the 37th edition having been held in 2010. But there was no word on sharing of Teesta River’s water, not least in the official media statement, even though it was one of the most significant issues discussed during the 37th meeting, where “an expeditious conclusion” was hoped for.
The two countries nearly reached an agreement on sharing the waters of the Teesta in 2011 but the final signing did not happen due to objections from the Chief Minister of India’s West Bengal state, Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamool Congress (TMC) party.
The 414-kilometer-long river originates in the Himalayas in the northern part of India’s Sikkim state and passes through Sikkim and West Bengal before entering Bangladesh, where it meets the Brahmaputra.
In September, before Hasina left Dhaka for New Delhi, the one question that the Bangladeshi media was most keen to ask her was whether her visit would result in any positive outcome toward solving the Teesta water issue.
Since her return, leading Bengali and English language media houses in Bangladesh have published innumerable reports on the Teesta water-sharing problem, mostly criticizing India for its role. Some have described it as a diplomatic failure by Hasina.
Irrespective of the public sentiment in Bangladesh over the issue – and any possible impact that it may have in the 2023 parliamentary election there – the ground reality in Teesta’s catchment area in the northern part of West Bengal, an eastern Indian state sharing the longest border with Bangladesh, does not offer hope for any agreement between India and Bangladesh anytime soon.
Given India’s federal structure, the government of India cannot take any decision over sharing water of transboundary rivers without taking the state concerned, West Bengal in this case, into its confidence. But the state’s Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who has been refusing to share Teesta water since her ascent to power in 2011, is set to be in power in West Bengal until 2026 at the least.
On the other hand, since the 2010 JRC meeting, the Teesta has further dried up and new dams have been erected on it in Sikkim. Among the biggest are the 1,200-megawatt Teesta Stage III in north Sikkim, operational since 2017, and the 500-megawatt Teesta Stage VI in lower Sikkim, which i s presently under construction. These have further restricted the water flow.
Even though Sikkim’s hydropower policy, based mostly on the Teesta, has remained a reason West Bengal gets less water, Sikkim has hardly ever featured in the Teesta discussion. Rather, Sikkim has plans for more dams in the pipeline.
People in the northern parts of West Bengal and Bangladesh are heavily dependent on the Teesta’s waters for fishing and farming. But people in Bangladesh allege that the Gajaldoba barrage in Jalpaiguri district of West Bengal has almost totally deprived the northern Bangladesh districts of Rangpur, Nilphamari, Lalmonirhat, Kurigram, Gaibandha, Dinajpur, and Bogra of the river’s water, except in the monsoon season.
The West Bengal chief minister has on several occasions clarified her objection; she does not want to deprive the northern districts of Jalpaiguri, Cooch Behar, Alipurduar, Uttar Dinajpur, Dakshin Dinajpur, and Malda at a time when the water in Teesta has already reduced in recent years. There is not enough water in Teesta to share, she had said, offering to share water from other rivers, which Bangladesh has refused.
However, the matter has become more complicated and diplomatically sensitive since China entered the scene in 2020, offering to pull Bangladesh out of the crisis. China proposed a major dredging work to revive the river and build strong embankments and reservoirs, without India having to play any role.
The two countries have conducted joint studies but Bangladesh has been keeping the project on hold, possibly considering that India, its closest bilateral friend, would be offended and might object to China’s involvement.
However, as India is failing to promise a timeline, pressure is mounting on Hasina at home. Soon after Li’s visit, the Teesta Bachao, Nodi Bachao Sangram Samiti, a civil society group pressing for the Teesta’s revival, staged a demonstration in Rangpur, demanded that the Bangladesh government expedite the Teesta project with Chinese collaboration, and threatened to launch an agitation in November.
These developments have put the governments of both India and Bangladesh in a delicate situation, as India’s relations with Bangladesh have been most friendly when Hasina has been in power. Neither wants to offend the other. India certainly does not want Hasina out of power.
However, the Modi government in India is in no position at present to pressure Banerjee on this sensitive issue.
In the 2021 West Bengal assembly election, northern West Bengal emerged as the last bastion of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the eastern state, while Mamata Banerjee’s TMC held sway over most parts of the rest of the state. Pressuring Banerjee to give away Teesta water – an issue most sensitive in northern West Bengal – could cost the BJP its popularity in this region. The region accounts for eight of India’s 543 Lok Sabha constituencies and in the 2019 parliamentary election, the BJP won seven of them. It would not want to lose any of them in 2024.
India neither wants to see Hasina in trouble at home from the anti-India forces in Bangladesh nor does it want to see Chinese presence just across West Bengal’s border. Sikkim is highly unlikely to agree to let Teesta flow freely and Banerjee would not accept any measure that would deprive her people in the northern districts.
The Modi government seems to have few options and will most likely have to think up “out of the box” solutions.