India & Bangladesh: A Breakthrough in Water Relations?

30 Nov, 2013    ·   4204

Roomana Hukil comments on the intractability of the issue

Roomana Hukil
Roomana Hukil
Research Officer

The forthcoming elections in Bangladesh and India raise uncertainty over the settlement of the land boundary, trade route and hydraulic issues between the two neighbours. Several strategic analysts have assessed the significance of signing the Teesta Water Agreement. This commentary explores the obstacles in the way of the deal vis-à-vis Centre-state relations. It also encapsulates the major the points of view of Dhaka as well as New Delhi. How will India deliver the Teesta water deal considering the rift between the state of West Bengal and the Centre on this issue? More so, how will Bangladesh respond to the water issue given India’s unpredictable stance? 
India will Sign the Treaty
The Teesta Water Agreement establishes that the two sides will share 80 per cent of the Teesta waters wherein India would get 42.5 per cent and Bangladesh would get 37.5 per cent. The remaining 20 per cent will contribute to the natural flow of the river. Talks regarding the Teesta water agreement have been pressing on for the past 18 years without an official stamp on paper, despite its finalisation in 2011. Irrespective of whether the deal materialises, the northern districts of West Bengal will face acute water shortage during the lean season (December to March). Thus, Mamta Banerjee’s hydro-strategic aspirations do not provide a raison d'être in terms of the state’s demands. The chief minister’s erratic outbursts about the Teesta watercourse during the lean season which could apparently further deteriorate the livelihood of over 200 million people of the northern districts of West Bengal is the only reason why the Teesta water treaty has been lingering on for almost two decades now. As a result, the political manoeuvring between New Delhi and West Bengal has led to intense deliberations on whether the new Indian government will be able to sign the historic agreement with Bangladesh post the elections.

India perceives the Teesta water issue as a bilateral concern. As India continues to have differences with China and Pakistan over the Brahmaputra and Indus rivers respectively, it is well aware that it cannot face another impasse with a co-riparian state. India and Bangladesh are lower riparian states to China and, thus, may require partnership at a time when China is likely to go overboard on its dam construction projects along the Brahmaputra River. India therefore comprehends that as a middle riparian state between China and Bangladesh; it must grant Bangladesh its hydraulic due by agreeing to the Teesta agreement and make its own assertions with China. India understands that it needs to do for Bangladesh what it wants done by China.

Notably, the ongoing tiff between West Bengal and New Delhi asserts that West Bengal is unlikely to give up on its position and comply with the Centre’s decision to sign an agreement with Dhaka at a time when elections are nearing. Mamata Banerjee’s fervour in protecting the geopolitical interests of the state merely seems like an attempt to safeguard her image against the opposition party. It seems to all boil down to a political gimmick. It is for this reason that West Bengal will not quit its stance on the Teesta water deal while the Centre is unlikely to reason with the state this time around. It is likely that the Centre will conclude the deal with Bangladesh without the consent of West Bengal. The Centre can assert this through article 73 of the Indian Constitution and Entry 10 and 14 of the Union List that allow the government of India to enter into a liaison with another country without the consent of the state government. India and Bangladesh will, thus, sign a water-sharing agreement over the Teesta watercourse.

Dhaka’s Unanswered Questions
Interestingly, records indicate that Bangladesh has never signed any water agreement either with the Congress or the BJP-led governments in New Delhi. The 1977 Ganges Water Agreement was concluded with the Janata government led by Morarji Desai, while the 1996 Ganges Water Treaty was signed with the United Front coalition government.

It also remains to be seen how Dhaka will deal with New Delhi’s position. Bangladesh has consistently proven to be an ally to India. In spite of India continually failing to prove its friendship towards Bangladesh, Bangladesh has repetitively maintained goodwill with India, be it on the front of terrorism or trade. Bangladesh’s questions will cease to exist and its trust be undeniably be amplified if India delivers on its promise this time around.