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Hasina-Modi Meeting Is Teesta stick in throat deal? -By Salman Riaz

National

The governments on both sides want to develop of large and small infrastructure projects; trade facilitation, cross-border linkages and security cooperation are some of the salient features of this evolving relationship. The Teesta issue is emerging as a major threat to the two countries’ multi-faceted bilateral ties. Effective hydro-diplomacy is essential in correcting troubled India-Bangladesh relations. Due to solution this important deal, Prime minister Sheikh Hasina has visited to India on 7 to 10 April, a four-day state visit. She attended a meeting with Indian Prime Minister Norendra Modi. They signed 22 instruments covering diverse areas of bilateral cooperation, including economic, defense cooperation, power, peacefully use of nuclear energy, outer space, information technology and mass media.

But the Teesta deal is stick in throat. It is a comprehensive water-sharing deal about the river Teesta which flows from West Bengal to East Bengal, across the Indo-Bangladesh border. For that, Delhi has to get Kolkata on board. To give Dhaka a deal, Delhi has to offer a deal first to Kolkata. This will entail compensation for West Bengal that stands to lose from a Teesta deal. Modi has promised to Hasina to implement Teesta Deal. But till now, Delhi has not promised any such compensation to West Bengal. So, for the time being, there is no deal between the two prime ministers.

During this meeting of two countries leader, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee was presented here also. She flagged off new passenger bus services for Khulna-Kolkata route, trial run of Khulna-Kolkata Second Maitree Express and re-opening of Biral-Radhikapur rail route for freight. But notably missing from the instruments was any deal on the share of water of the Teesta River. The two premiers however discussed the issues of water resources management, including sharing of water of common rivers like Teesta, the Padma-Ganges Barrage Project and basin-wise management of the trans-boundary streams.

Why not rely on Mamata over Teesta crisis:

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee met with Sheikh Hasina in Delhi more than once during the Bangladesh premier’s tour of India. Mamata boasted of her “deep love” for the people of Bangladesh and expressed her interest to share river water – only not from the Teesta. She placed a proposal for sharing the water of the Torsa-Dharla-Mansai river systems instead. Many in the media labelled this as her ‘alternative proposal’ to the Teesta water deal. This was proof of how earnest Mamata has been over resolving the Teesta crisis. When there is not much water in the Teesta, she is proposing to give water to the lower riparian country from other rivers of the region that are considered to have a water surplus.

In my understanding, there is no reason for Bangladesh to feel complacent about Mamata’s proposal. She did not make any statement about the proposed Teesta water pact and she only spoke about increasing the water flow in the Teesta. We cannot count on that statement, and here are the reasons why.

Firstly, the West Bengal Chief Minister since 2011 has in many ways been impeding the move to seal the Teesta water sharing pact. The draft of the treaty was about to be finalized, but it was adjourned by the Indian central government following her strong opposition. Mamata, however, continued to come up with volleys of assurances like – “leave it to me, I’m looking after the Teesta issue” or “I do love Bangladesh and want to give water”. In reality, no progress has been achieved regarding the signing of the pact.

Secondly, Mamata’s recent proposal to augment water from the Torsa-Dharala is not a new idea at all. The West Bengal Chief Minister had conveyed to the central government that she would accept the Teesta pact if the surplus water from the likes of Manash-Sankosh rivers in the Brahmaputra basin could be diverted to the Teesta. Was she really serious when she gave that proposal? Or was she making only passing comments. If she was serious, why has she not been able to make any progress in this regard? Why has she been repeating the proposal to divert water from the West Bengal rivers time and again?

Thirdly, standing beside Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, her Indian counterpart Narendra Modi on 9 April categorically stated that the Teesta pact would be signed in the current terms of his and Hasina’s government, which means it would be sealed by 2018. This can also be considered an ultimatum to Mamata Banarjee. The statement implies the Indian government will wait for about 18 months at best and sign the pact with Bangladesh even if Mamata keeps up with the veto. Did Mamata play her new card assessing such a development? It will be a time-consuming process to augment the water from other rivers. So the 2018 time frame cannot be maintained if the so called ‘alternative proposal’ gets the currency. Therefore Bangladesh will have to ultimately rely on Modi, not on Mamata Banarjee.

Forthly, as per diplomatic protocol, there is no scope for a direct relationship between the head of an Indian state and the Bangladesh government. Despite this, we have some commonness in culture and language with West Bengal and government delegations have called on Mamata over the Teesta water share issue. Mamata has also tried her best to swat the concerns aside. Many delegations of different capacities, ranging from former Foreign Minister Dipu Moni to Bangladesh High Commissioner in Delhi Syed Moazzem Ali, have met with Mamata in Kolkaka and presented gifts like Ilish and Jamdani. Was there any return from Mamata? The answer is ‘no’. And although Mamata went to Delhi to meet Hasina this time, the answer was still the same.

Why Teesta matters:

Bangladesh and India share 54 common rivers, both big and small. Owing to its lower riparian status, Bangladesh expects an accommodative attitude from India on water-sharing issues. Following the signing of the Ganga Water Sharing Treaty in 1996, both sides underscored the necessity of reaching an understanding on sharing the waters of the Teesta. The Joint River Commission – a bilateral institutional mechanism formed by the two countries specifically to deal with these issues – noted that the waters of some other rivers, such as the Manu, Khowai, Gumti, Muhuri, Jaldhaka and Torsa also deserve attention. Both countries have since taken steps to protect riverbanks.

Beyond the Teesta, Bangladesh is keen to import power from India’s Northeast, which has significant potential to develop hydroelectric power. Though sources of hydroelectricity are vital for Bangladesh, India’s attempts to dam and divert the water of common rivers have evoked sharp reactions. Bangladesh has, for example, raised concerns about the ecological consequences of the proposed Tipaimukh Hydroelectric Project in Manipur. New Delhi attempted to assure Dhaka that it would not do anything that would hurt the interests of the lower riparian country.

New Delhi and Dhaka reached a common-ground understanding on the sharing of the Teesta and Feni rivers during the September 2011 bilateral summit. Both governments signed a 15-year interim agreement covering the sharing of water during the scarce season between October and April. But the UPA government was perplexed by Mamata’s last-minute withdrawal from the Indian delegation. Union government officials pointed out that she had earlier agreed to a deal that would ensure Bangladesh received a 48 percent share of the Teesta waters. Banerjee subsequently changed her stand, saying she believed that Bangladesh would get 33,000 cubic feet per second (cusec) of water annually, instead of the 25,000 cusecs originally agreed upon. The UPA government, however, said that the government of West Bengal was briefed regarding the matter.

The Central Water Commission has explored the modalities of a mutually acceptable formula for sharing the Teesta waters in 2011. The Commission suggested that the Teesta waters could be shared on a 65 to 35 or 60 to 40 basis at the time of monsoon and on a 70 to 30 ratio during the dry season, when both North Bengal and northwestern parts of Bangladesh face a similar drought-like situation. The Teesta originates in Sikkim near Panhunri glaciers. A key factor that has restricted the flow of water before it enters Bengal has been the construction of more than ten hydroelectric projects over the river in the neighboring province. Mamata’s seemingly irreconcilable position on the Teesta is also related to non-water issues. It seems plausible that Mamata would prefer to continue such tactics while dealing with the Modi-led government at the Centre.

At recent, a report prepared by the Bengal government indicates that India and Bangladesh may not be fighting over anything substantial as they try to end the impasse over sharing the waters of Teesta. The report, prepared by an expert committee set up by the Mamata Banerjee government, says the river has only 100 cumecs (cubic metres per second) of water between February and May when the requirement for farmers of both countries (mainly for irrigation of the dry season boro paddy) is around 1600 cumecs. Report also says, Teesta has only a sixteenth of the water that is needed for agriculture by Indian and Bangladeshi farmers on either side of the border during the dry season, which stretches from February to May.

Is possibility to sign this deal in 2018?
The current government will hold office till December, 2018 and the next general election will be held in early January of 2019. Through the joint media briefing of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her Indian counterpart Narendra Modi on 8 April, it became rather clear that the Indo-Bangla Teesta water sharing deal will be signed during the tenure of both the incumbent governments. Modi said: ‘Only our and Hasina’s governments can ink the agreement and that will happen during our tenure. Mamata Banerjee came to New Delhi, who too loves Bangladesh, and will soon agree to the Teesta agreement, which is just a matter of time.’ Where is this time, it is a myth. The current government will hold office till December, 2018 and the Modi government’s tenure will expire in May, 2019. Hence, it can easily be assumed that the probability of the deal being sealed by 2018 is high. Modi, during his speech, also mentioned how much time is left for this.

Teesta deal can be signed before 2019 polls in Bangladesh, ahead of next parliamentary election, which will be a most people attractive work to gained more vote that election. Hasina is convinced that the signing of the deal then will garner much more political gain. Modi’s speech is proof of the fact that that is where things are heading.

Bringing the Teesta issue to the table, Modi initially thanked the West Bengal chief minister for visiting New Delhi during Hasina’s tour. Mamata, however, is the key obstruction in the way of signing the deal, which is known to all.  For Hasina, it will be food for thought as to what she will highlight as her achievement in the visit after she returns home with the Teesta deal still pending. However, a large country tries to put many things on a small one by creating pressure, which the latter accepts despite its unwillingness in many cases. The Indo-Bangla relations are shrinking. But if Teesta deal applied, it will be proven that Hasina has done many things, during her tenure and she managed to earn her rightful status from India.

Writer: Journalist and Geopolitical Analyst.

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