April 24, 2014
Bangladesh and India are going to sign some important deals during the visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Dhaka on June 6-7, but it is uncertain whether the most important issue for Bangladesh – the Teesta water sharing deal – will be signed or not.
Just 10 days ahead of Modi’s visit, officials in Bangladesh’s Water Resources ministry said they had not had any recent correspondence about the Teesta deal with their Indian counterparts.
“No, there is no mentionable update about it. We have not heard from India about the Teesta issue in recent days,” Abdur Rahman, additional secretary in the ministry, told thethirdpole.net.
But the issue will obviously come up during the state visit, especially since the deal had been finalised nearly four years ago. It was scheduled to be signed in September 2011, when the then Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Dhaka. But everything fell apart at the last moment due to opposition from West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.
Under the deal, India and Bangladesh would share the waters of the Teesta equally. But Banerjee said West Bengal needed more water from the river that flows through Sikkim and West Bengal before entering Bangladesh and joining the Brahmaputra.
The collapse of the deal in 2011 led to serious dissatisfaction in Bangladesh, which shares 54 rivers with India. Marches were taken out when the water flow in the Teesta fell to almost nothing in the lean months over the last four years.
But the situation changed this February, during the Dhaka visit of Banerjee. “Do not worry about the Teesta treaty. It will be signed very soon,” she said, raising hopes in the country whose north-western section depends heavily on the waters of the Teesta for farming and fishing.
Now there is confusion again.
“I am not sure the deal is going to be signed this time as I have not seen any progress since it was finalized in 2011,” Faridul Islam Feroze, the convener of the NGO Teesta Bachao Andolon, told thethirdpole.net. “The deal will not be signed as long as India shows a big brother attitude.”
When asked about the water flow in the Teesta at the moment, Feroze – who lives on the bank of the river – said there was only some rainwater stagnant in the riverbed. “Today people may cross the river on foot.”
Others in Bangladesh continue to hope.
An official from the India-Bangladesh Joint River Commission (JRC) said the signing of the Teesta treaty is a political decision and it is still possible to sign the deal during Modi’s visit. “All the technical glitches of the Teesta deal were settled. Now if the two prime ministers take a decision it is possible to sign the deal at the last moment even with a preparation time of one hour,” said a JRC official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
“There is no problem from our side, now it is India that needs to settle their internal issue and sign it. So I am not surprised they are not communicating with us regarding the matter,” he said.
A statement by India’s Home Minister Rajnath Singh in Kolkata on May 26 also raised hope in Dhaka. Singh said, “Both the countries will give their approval to it (the Teesta agreement) very soon. We are hopeful that we will get full cooperation from West Bengal government.”
But reports from West Bengal government ministers and officials said they had no information about Modi wanting to sign the Teesta deal. “We have not been told anything on the subject in the past few weeks,” a minister claimed.
Another West Bengal government official said, “We are more worried about the Atrai river, where Bangladesh is upstream, and they have blocked the flow of water.” Officials in Dhaka confirmed that temporary rubber dam had been placed on the small river in Dinajpur district.
The Indian High Commission in Dhaka remained cautious. Its May 26 statement said, “During the visit, the two premiers will have official discussions where the entire gamut of bilateral relations would be shared for further bolstering the excellent relationship between the two countries.”
Bangladesh and India have long pending issues including over transboundary rivers. Of the 54 rivers shared between the two countries, there is a treaty only on the Ganga.
But even without the Teesta deal, Modi’s visit will be significant because the Indian parliament has finally approved the 1974 Land Boundary Agreement by which the two countries can exchange enclaves in each other’s territory. This will help thousands of people who were effectively stateless since the partition of the subcontinent in 1947.
A land transit agreement is also on the cards, by which Bangladesh will be able to trade with Nepal and Bhutan far more easily, while India will get far shorter links between West Bengal and the north-eastern parts of the country. The prime ministers are expected to launch two bus services – Dhaka-Shillong-Guwahati and Kolkata-Dhaka-Agartala.
“If Bangladesh wants to trade with Bhutan and Nepal, it will be able to use Indian road, rail and waterways,” Cabinet Secretary M Musharraf Hossain Bhuiyan said in April, after the agreement was finalised. It is expected that the agreement will be signed now.
This bilateral agreement will lead to a larger agreement between Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal to allow free movement of vehicles through their borders. It is expected that this agreement will be signed on June 15, and the deal will become functional by the end of the year.
Another important deal ready for signature is for Bangladesh to import more electricity from India