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Indian PM’s Dhaka visit: Assurances but no action on Teesta

The Indian prime minister’s visit to Dhaka was important from the perspective of security, economic ties and connectivity but there was no decision on the key issue of sharing the waters of the Teesta river
India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi (top left) and Bangladesh's Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina witness the exchange of agreements between the two countries during Modi's recent visit to Dhaka (Image by Press Information Bureau, Government of India)
India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi (top left) and Bangladesh's Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina witness the exchange of agreements between the two countries during Modi's recent visit to Dhaka (Image by Press Information Bureau, Government of India)

It was made clear a week before Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Dhaka that the much talked about agreement on sharing of the Teesta river waters, a critical and long-pending issue between the two neighbours, would not be inked this time. But the disappointment that the high profile visit yielded nothing on the issue is evident nonetheless.

The people of Bangladesh expected a concrete statement beyond assurances on the Teesta deal from Modi, who is well aware of the anxiety over the sharing of river waters. The two countries share 54 rivers between them but the Teesta – which originates in the Himalayas in Sikkim and runs through the Indian state of West Bengal before reaching downstream Bangladesh where it irrigates about 14% of the country’s farms – is one of the most pivotal.

Ainun Nishat, professor emeritus at Dhaka’s BRAC University and a former member of the Bangladesh-India Joint Rivers Commission (JRC) said, “It is one of Bangladesh’s weaknesses that its bureaucrats do not do enough homework before negotiations. The land boundary deal was settled and signed in 1974. It took 41 years to implement it. So Bangladesh did not achieve anything new. People expected that the Teesta deal would be signed during this visit. But now it is delayed for an uncertain period.”

India and Bangladesh signed a number of agreements during Modi’s visit.

But Syeda Rizwana Hasan, environmentalist and chief executive of the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA), is unimpressed with the outcome of the visit and with India’s assurances. “It was basically old wine in new bottle. India promised us many things but did not give us anything, not even the waters of the Teesta which was already a settled issue,” she said.

“If Bangladesh does not get its due share of water, we will now not be able to battle climate change,” Hasan told thethirdpole.net. Bangladesh, she said, should press for a regional forum or a board involving all the countries in the region, including China, on the sharing of trans-boundary rivers rather than going in for bilateral negotiations.

In a statement while he was in Dhaka on June 6-7, the Indian prime minister had assured Bangladesh, “Our rivers should nurture our relationship, not become a source of discord. Water sharing is, above all, a human issue.”

He also expressed his determination to reach a solution on the long-standing issues of the Teesta and Feni (originating in the Indian state of Tripura) rivers “as soon as possible”.

“I am confident that with the support of state governments in India, we can reach a fair solution on Teesta and Feni rivers. We should also work together to renew and clean our rivers,” he said at a joint press briefing with his Bangladesh counterpart Sheikh Hasina on June 6. Also present was West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, whose visit to Dhaka in February had led to hopes that a Teesta deal would be signed soon.

More than three years ago, then Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh had been all set to sign a 50:50 Teesta water sharing agreement with Bangladesh. However, Banerjee vetoed the deal on the grounds that West Bengal needed more water from the river.

According to Faridul Islam Feroze, the convener of the Teesta Rakkha Sangram Committee, a platform working to ensure equal share of the Teesta waters, a deal would not be easy as it had become a political hot potato. “Maybe connectivity will be established and the economic relation will work. But the Teesta deal would be delayed at least till the election in West Bengal next year as it has become a political issue in India,” he said.

When asked about the water flow in the Teesta, Feroze, who lives on the banks of the river, had said last month that there was only some rainwater stagnant in the riverbed. “Today people may cross the river on foot.”

The government, it appears, is willing to wait. Bangladesh Foreign Minister A.H. Mahmood Ali had said in a press conference a day before Modi’s visit that discussions between Bangladesh and India on the Teesta were going on behind the scenes. He asked people “to have patience for a concrete outcome”.

Other rivers

In a joint statement, Modi and Sheikh Hasina also said that discussions on the sharing of waters of other Bangladesh-Indian trans-boundary rivers, including the Manu, Muhuri, Khowai, Gumti, Dharla and Dudhkumar, were going on at technical levels under the Joint Rivers Commission (JRC).

“The officials concerned have been asked to take quick steps to conclude the sharing arrangements at the earliest,” the statement added.

The Indian prime minister also assured his Bangladeshi counterpart that India would not take any unilateral decision on the Himalayan component of its river interlinking project which might affect Bangladesh.

Modi said that the Tipaimukh hydropower project in northeast Manipur was unlikely to be taken forward in its present form. Given that the Tipaimukh dam could dry up the Surma and the Kushiyara, two important rivers in north-eastern Bangladesh, Modi assured that there would be no unilateral decision that may adversely impact Bangladesh.

Hasina also sought India’s cooperation in jointly developing a barrage on the Padma river in Bangladesh. In response, Modi said he would have the matter examined by the agencies concerned in India, according to the statement.

Correcting errors of the past

Rail, road and water connectivity was established between what is now Bangladesh and other parts of India long before 1947 when the Indian subcontinent was divided into two countries, India and Pakistan.  In 1965, when India and Pakistan fought a war, all connections were cut off. After the formation of Bangladesh (the erstwhile East Pakistan) in 1971, only inland water communications with India reopened.

Modi touched on the four-decade legacy during his 36-hour visit, saying that the two neighbours had been “paas-paas” (close) for long but would move “saath-saath” (together) from now on.

The mainstream Bangladeshi media referred to Modi’s visit as ‘historic’, as it was important from the perspective of security and economic ties. Moreover, there were several agreements to boost connectivity and trade in the region.

The two prime ministers promised to work together on security issues, pledging “zero tolerance” for any form of terrorism and extremism. They agreed to start negotiations on a Multi Modal Transport Agreement and to constitute a joint task force for this.

The issue of regional connectivity has gained momentum. It seems the agreement signed on regional connectivity has already started working, at least on the Bangladesh side. Just a day after Modi returned home on June 7, the Bangladesh cabinet approved a proposal on regional connectivity.

Using trans-boundary rivers to connect the region

A standard operating procedure (SOP) was drafted under the Extension of Protocol on Inland Water Transit and Trade (PIWTT) signed during Modi’s visit. The SOP contains details of the transit routes, ports of call and other related issues.

Dhaka, however, will have to sign a separate deal with New Delhi for using India’s river routes to move goods to Nepal and Bhutan.

Twelve ports, six each in Bangladesh and India, have been proposed as ports of call where ships would load or unload cargos and undergo repairs.

Shipping ministry officials said the river transit routes proposed would require around 5.2 million cubic metres of dredging for smooth vessel operation.

Planning Minister A.H.M. Mustafa Kamal told journalists that they would conduct a study to determine in a month the method of dredging and the amount of money required for it. The two countries would dredge the river routes separately.