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Tista (Teesta) : The New Dilemma

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I believe everyone, who want India to have a better relationship with Bangladesh, is following the recent bonhomie between India and Bangladesh. Bangladesh did their best possible to hand over Indian separatists and allowing India to use ports in Bangladesh. The much-debated transit deal is also on its way. But the question that is asked now – what is the return? In an era of selfish-for-own-people foreign policy, everyone wants their equation to look as healthy as possible. However, the red-tape and Indian constitution are the two most obstacles in improving the pay-back. How? The details follow …

1. Brief about Tista (Teesta in Bangladesh)

The River Teesta or Tista is said to be the lifeline of the Indian state of Sikkim, flowing for almost the entire length of the state and carving out verdant Himalayan temperate and tropical river valleys. The emerald-coloured river then forms the border between Sikkim and West Bengal before joining the Brahmaputra as a tributary in Bangladesh. Total length of the river is 315 kilometres. The river crosses 97 km in Indian plains before it enters into the extreme northwest region of Bangladesh. It flows about 124 km in Bangladesh and joins Brahmaputra River.

2. Brief about dispute

The idea of using the Teesta River for irrigation for the betterment of the people is as old as the British period. During the 1950s, the then East Pakistani authorities intimated the Indian authorities regarding the Teesta Project in her territory. After the independence of Bangladesh in 1971, talks on the Teesta water sharing continued in the Indo-Bangladesh Joint River Commission. Bangladesh objected to India’s plan to divert the water of the Teesta to the Mahanada basin area. The talks continued without any result until 1983, when the two parties reached an adhoc allocation agreement, according to which India was to get 39 percent, Bangladesh 36 percent and the remaining 25 percent was to be reserved for reallocation later, after further study. However, even this agreement has not been executed and the amount of dry season water on the Bangladesh side has gradually decreased.

3. Barrages in dispute

The Dalia Barrage is the largest irrigation project in Bangladesh. It stands across the Teesta River at Doani-Dalia point in the Lalmonirhat district of Bangladesh. The barrage was completed successfully in August 1990 and its operation commenced in 1993.

The Gazoldoba Barrage stands across the same Teesta River in the Jalpaiguri district of India.India had started to construct a barrage at Gazoldoba, which began to be used for irrigation in 1993.

4. Talks, Discussions …

The high level committee of JRC in both India and Bangladesh sat for meetings about 33 times for the Teesta water problem but no fruitful decisions were made. Dhaka and Delhi have been discussing the Teesta sharing issue since 1972.

5. Proposal from Bangladesh

Bangladesh wants to split the water at 50:50 ratio at the Indian barrage to have an ensured supply of half of the water during dry season. The proposal also considers to keep 20% of the water for environmental flow.In other words – the draft proposed that Bangladesh and India each would get 40 percent water of the Teesta and 20 percent water would go to Bay of Bengal (via Brahmaputra) for maintaining the channel of the river.

6. Proposal from India

India prefers keeping only 10 percent for the river. Moreover, India wants other factors to be taken into account before distributing water of these rivers. In the case of Teesta, 85 percent of agricultural land served by the river was in  India  and the remaining 15 per cent in Bangladesh. So, India wants water to split in that ratio. The ratio of catchment area are also another point mentioned in the argument.

7. The role of Indian Constitution

Indian constitution offers the sovereignty of water resources (and irrigation too) to the State, in this case West Bengal. As per various newspaper reports, Indian Govt is keen on resolving the water issue almost at par with Bangladesh offer.  But West Bengal refuses because the consequences will directly affect them and not the rest of the country.

To explain more on this, Indian constitution bars the Govt of India to have a treaty with Bangladesh without the consensus of West Bengal. Even if they do sign it, West Bengal can appeal against it in Supreme Court and a victory would enable them to nullify the treaty. On the other hand, if West Bengal agrees, the Central Govt has no power to stop them to go ahead with a treaty. This is why Jyoti Basu played a key role in getting Farakka treaty done.

According to some news sources, West Bengal Govt does not want to commit anything before upcoming elections next year as it could potentially be used against the ruling party. We can hope for a progress after 2011.

8. Bangladesh allows India to draw 1.82 cusec of water from the Feni river for drinking water. What is the impact of this?

It sounds strange but it does not affect the treaty at all. The reason is mentioned in the above article. The withdrawal of water is from river Feni which flows through the state of Tripura. So, the benefit goes to that state. Since state is in power of water resources, West Bengal sees no benefit from it.

9. What does International Law says on this dispute?

The International Convention and India-Bangladesh treaty of 1996 points to the same fact – distribute river water in terms of equity. The concept of equity is a bit complex and I discussed it at length in another post. There are 7 or more factors to be taken into account when measuring what an equitable share should mean.

One important thing to remember is that equity does not mean equal sharing. For example, the Indus water treaty allows India to use approximately 20% of the water since the area under irrigation and population dependent on it are close to that ratio. It is an example of equitable sharing of water resource. If the water of Brahmaputra is distributed at 50:50, it won’t be an equitable sharing since Bangladesh is overwhelmingly dependent on it.

10. How are the factors of equity for Bangladesh and India?

Factor Bangladesh India
Population in Catchment 7620913 8028752
Catchment Area 2071 sq km 12650s km
Catchment Irrigable Area 2071 sq km 2970 sq km
Population in Irrigable area 7620913 7488259
Geography Plains Plains and hilly
Area currently under irrigation 111,000 hectare 527,000 hectare
Target area 750,000 hectare 922,000 hectare

The numbers are obtained from Govt websites. The parts of West Bengal (total area – area in Sikkim) is assumed to be the irrigable area in the catchment – the reality should be close to that. The population is calculated adding the population of concerned districts.

The Tista project in West Bengal actually covers areas in Dinajpur also, which may distort the population numbers. In that case district population figures add up to 9827331.

11. How logical is West Bengal argument on sharing water in proportion of area under irrigation?

There are a couple of fallacies in the argument to distribute water in proportion with area under irrigation. As the water withdrawn is solely used in irrigation, the target irrigation area can be the sole determining factor in this treaty. However, it’s wrong to look at current area under irrigation and ignore the potential. The reason that area under irrigation in Bangladesh is so low despite having a decent target area is the availability of water. Since water is not at all available after the upstream dam diversion, Bangladesh did not proceed with increasing area under irrigation. So, the argument loops back itself – very purpose of the treaty is being used as a parameter of it.

If we go back in history, India had under 10% usage of Indus basin water resources before partition. During Indus basin negotiations, India argued that their Colonial masters did not show any interest in developing any particular area with irrigation since they were part of the same country and state (Punjab). Indian argument was valid and was accepted during negotiation. Similarly, Bangladesh didn’t get a fair chance to bring the irrigable area under cover due to upstream diversion. The factors we should look at are the irrigable area under catchment and the target areas of the project and neglect the actual area under irrigation.

As the numbers indicate, the proposal from Bangladesh is what is closer to equity if my argument is considered. In fact, a research by Yoshiro Higano and Fakrul Islam proposed Bangladesh to have 40% of water in order to maintain equity.

12. Are there any other areas of focus for the treaty?

There are a few more potential areas of co-operation under the same treaty. India is building 50,000 MW hydroelectricity dams (most of these are run-of-the-river) on Tista and it’s tributaries. Bangladesh can grant a “no-objection” to that plan since that will probably not affect the dry season flow. In future, India can build a reservoir to facilitate the dry season flow and solely use the entire augmented water in West Bengal – the treaty can have provisions for that. To move the relationship in a better direction, the reservoir can be built as a joint venture and electricity and irrigation water can be shared. With the same reservoir, any flood moderation plans can also kick-in.

Sources  (Will be updated):


Written by Diganta

September 29, 2010 at 8:55 am

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