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Mainstream, VOL LV No 17 New Delhi April 15, 2017

Sheikh Hasina’s Four-Day Visit to Delhi

{Indo-Bangla Teesta Water Treaty: A Human Problem

Wednesday 19 April 2017, by Barun Das Gupta


Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina came to Delhi on a four-day visit from April 7 to 10. During her visit as many as 22 agreements were signed. There was an agreement on defence cooperation and another on civil nuclear cooperation. Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a concessional credit of $ 4.5 billion to Bangladlesh which includes $ 500 milllion for defence supplies..

But the unwritten, unannounced issue that dominated the minds of both Hasina and Modi was the agreement on sharing of Teesta waters. This issue could not be resolved, the impasse could not be broken and much to her chagrin, Hasina had to return empty-handed to Dhaka, The Teesta water treaty has become a live political issue in Bangladesh. This issue is likely to become a major one in the general elections in Bangladesh scheduled to be held a year-and-a-half from now

The wider implications to arrive at an agreement on sharing of Teesta waters will affect not only Bangladesh but India, too.

The Opposition, which includes the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) of former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, the Jamaat-e-Islami and the radical Islamist groups like the Hefazat-e-Islami, have dubbed Hasina as a pawn in the hands of India. Her failure to persuade India to agree to a treaty on Teesta water-sharing, which is vital for Bangladelsh, will go against her and the Opposition will take full advantage of it.

If the Awami League loses next year’s elections and the BNP comes to power, what will it mean for India? The BNP’s main strength will be the Jamaat, just as the RSS is the main strength behind the BJP. Other fundamentalist groups owing allegiance to Pakistan and the Islamic State will become far stronger than they are today with the direct or indirect patronage of the Khaleda Zia Government. Such a development will pose a grave threat not only to those in Bangladesh who want to see Bangladesh as a secular, democratic and liberal society, but also India. India will be flanked by two hostile countries, Bangladesh on the east and Pakistan on the west.

The West Bengal Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee, does not seem to have realised the sinister implications of such a development that will pose a threat to her own State, West Bengal.

She is looking at the problem from her narrow point of view of what concerns her own State’s interest, totally oblivious of the larger human aspect of the problem and its impact not only on bilateral relations between India and Bangladesh but also on the domestic politics of Bangladesh

Nearly three decades ago, some dispute had arisen between India and Bangladesh on the Farakka dam and its impact on Banglaldesh. Bangladesh complained that after the Farakka dam was built, the flow of water from the Ganga river into Bangladesh had considerably reduced and it was hitting hard their farmers. I remember asking Pannalal Das Gupta, the eminent revolutionary who spent the last period of his life in serving rural Bengal, about the India-Bangladesh water dispute.

He smiled and told me: “Just close your eyes and think that India was not divided on August 15, 1947. India is one and what is Bangladesh now is also India. The Bangladeshi farmers of today would then be as much Indian farmers as those in West Bengal. Then which section of peasants would the Indian Government deprive to meet the needs of another section of peasants of the same country? Today ‘they’ are Bangladeshis and ‘we’ are Indians. Then there would be no Bangladeshis and all would be Indians. How would you share the waters between the farmers of the same country living in different parts? It is a human problem. The artificial partition of the country has created these problems.”

That is the crux of the problem. According to an Asia Foundation report, the Teesta’s flood plains cover about 14 per cent of the total cropped area of Bangladesh. In Bangladesh, the Teesta’s flow affects five districts in the north under the Rangpur Division. These are Kurigram, Lalmonirhat, Nilpha-mari, Gaibandha and Rangpur. About 21 million Bangladeshis live in the basin of the Teesta against just eight million in West Bengal and half-a-million in Sikkim. Reportedly, in 2011 the two countries came to an understanding that India would get 42.5 per cent of Teesta waters and Bangladesh 37.5 per cent. But Bangladesh wanted an equal sharing of the waters.

This time, during Sheikh Hasina’s Delhi trip, Mamata Banerjee suggested that instead of Teesta, the waters of Torsa and other smaller rivers of North Bengal could be supplied to Bangladesh. Sheikh Hasina reportedly did not agree. And the stalemate continues.

What is essentially a human problem has become an intractable political problem between the two countries following the partition of India. Today, the Teesta water-sharing issue has assumed a much larger dimension than ever before. On its resolution perhaps depends the outcome of the October 2018 general elections in Bangladesh and which party will come to power and whether that party will be interested in maintaining friendly and cooperative relations with India.

In such a situation, an equal water-sharing treaty will be a political investment by India in having a friendly government installed in Dhaka next year. It may be some sacrifice on the part of India but in the long run the political dividend will compensate the sacrifice we may have to make now. All the stakeholders in India, from Modi to Mamata, should realise it and see it in a larger political perspective.

The author was a correspondent of The Hindu in Assam. He also worked in Patriot, Compass (Bengali), Mainstream. A veteran journalist, he comes from a Gandhian family and was intimately associated with the RCPI leader, Pannalal Das Gupta.

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