All You Need To Know About The Teesta Water Sharing Issue

All You Need To Know About The Teesta Water Sharing Issue

October 2, 2013

Bangladesh, with which India has its longest land border among all neighbours, to be of utmost importance to India always. It is against this backdrop that India’s relations with Bangladesh assume a very high importance.

India and Bangladesh share 54 rivers out of which a treaty is already in existence for sharing of the Ganges water. While the two sides are engaged with each other for finalisation of agreements for sharing of water of other common rivers, the Teesta is the most explosive issue among these.

What is this issue all about? Let us examine it through some facts and figures.

Teesta’s flow

  • The Teesta flows for nearly 315 km. Of this, about 130 km is through Bangladesh.
  • In downstream, Teesta enters Bangladesh from Burigram and from Duani Barrage flows 20 km inside Bangladesh to merge with River Brahmaputra.

Teesta barrage backgrounder

  • India and Pakistan (then Bangladesh was called East Pakistan) began talks about sharing the Teesta's waters soon after Independence. The talks went nowhere.
  • In 1961, India adopted unilateral plans to build a barrage on its side of the border, raising concerns downstream.
  • Following more years of failed talks, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a consensus statement in 1976 which directed both countries to arrive at a “fair and expeditious” agreement.
  • Even though the India-Bangladesh joint rivers commission held over a 100 meetings, a deal could not be hammered out.
  • Bangladesh completed construction of the Dalia barrage, the country's largest irrigation project, in 1979. The Dalia project was intended to use the Teesta's waters to irrigate some 540,000 hectares of land in the country's northern rice-growing heartlands. From 1985, the 4,500-km canal network meant to carry the Teesta's waters to farmers opened its gates.
  • The farmers got the water they desperately needed - but then, just a few years later, the canals ran dry.
  • In 1993, farmers in West Bengal began to get water from the Gazoldoba barrage in Jalpaiguri, which India had built on the Teesta. The Indian project supplied water for 228,000 hectares.
  • In 1997, though, a draft treaty on the Teesta was hammered out, a year after the former West Bengal Chief Minister, Jyoti Basu, helped steward a landmark treaty on the Ganga.
  • Little progress was made in the decade and a half since, breeding bitterness in desperately-poor Bangladesh where farmers are hit by crippling water shortages in low-rainfall years.
  • West Bengal has raised doubts about the 50:50 sharing of water, as originally envisaged in the treaty, since that would result in farmers in Bengal getting less water.

Bangladesh’s point of view and its election-year dilemma

  • Experts from the neighbouring country claim that India is channelising a large volume of water to meet her irrigation needs through a barrage at Gazaldoba.
  • Bangladesh has been claiming that its Teesta Irrigation Project, that started in the 80's, is suffering heavily due to this.
  • Apart from the farmers who are having to bear the brunt, even the health of the river on the Bangladesh side is at stake with an inadequate flow of water resulting in siltation.
  • Bangladeshi desperation to conclude the Teesta agreement is evident from the disclosure made by a key advisor of Sheikh Hasina to Outlook magazine in Dhaka during President Pranab Mukherjee's visit in March 2013. The advisor revealed that Dhaka was willing to sign the agreement even if New Delhi assured Bangladesh of as little as 25 per cent of Teesta water flowing from Gajoldoba barrage in North Bengal.

West Bengal’s arguments

  • During the Ganga-Farakka Treaty with Bangladesh, signed during the Jyoti Basu-led Left regime in 1996, a proportionate water-sharing table of a ten-day cycle was prepared for the period from January 1 to May 31.
  • The preceding 40 years’ average was also taken into consideration. And once the viability report was cleared, then Prime Minister Deve Gowda signed the treaty with the then Prime minister Sheikh Hasina.
  • Mamata Banerjee led West Bengal government argues that a proportionate water-sharing table, as was prepared for the Ganga-Farakka Treaty with Bangladesh in the 1990s, should be prepared.
  • On one hand, study should be done on availability of Teesta water throughout the year.
  • The second important factor is to study the life of the people dependent on the river and what happens if the river water is denied to them.
  • Around 15 lakh people in Jalpaiguri live on the banks of the Teesta. Fall in the water table would affect the life of people, the ecology of the river and irrigation. “Plus, many fish will go extinct and birds will stop migrating. People will be displaced and agriculture will be destroyed,” said an expert.
  • River experts deputed by the state government have already informed the Central Water Commission about the ramifications of sharing the Teesta with the neighbour.
  • No wonder, Mamata and her experts believe the Indo-Bangla Teesta Treaty is not pragmatic and will neither serve the interests of Bengal nor Bangladesh.
  • River expert Kalyan Rudra has headed a commission to look into the Teesta water sharing issue. The report has already been submitted to the West Bengal government.

2009 Kalyan Rudra report

  • According to a report by Kalyan Rudra, submitted in 2009, West Bengal receives less than 40 per cent of the available utilisable surface water.
  • More so, the reservoirs only meet 2.44 per cent of the total demand for water (i.e., 5380 X 107 cu m) in the agricultural sector.
  • West Bengal’s major grief is that the delta which was once described as an area of ‘excess’ water in the colonial document,  now suffers from acute dearth of water during the lean months.
  • From the regional point of view, West Bengal’s uncertainty is justified whether the proposed water sharing ratio will be able to meet the mounting demands of the region.

In such a scenario, it is expected that both countries bend to the given situation and recognise that living with low flows in the region is an inevitable aspect.

Parting Thought

Even though an amicable treaty with neighbouring countries is always advised, putting to risk the lives of lakhs of inhabitants of the state, to score diplomatic points is certainly not warranted. A solution to the logjam lies in a thorough scientific study, and should not be sacrificed at the altar of political equations.

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Comments (1)
Prateek Reply
October 03, 2013
Sharing of water is a necessity, but do it judiciously.
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