India-Bangladesh Relations: Significance of the Teesta Water-Sharing Agreement

23 Apr, 2014    ·   4403

Roomana Hukil looks at why it is crucial for both countries to sign the agreement

Roomana Hukil
Roomana Hukil
Research Officer

During the recent meeting between an Indian delegation and Bangladeshi Foreign Secretary Shahidul Haque in Delhi, the entire gamut of bilateral relations and Mamata Banerjee’s scepticism towards the Teesta agreement were discussed.

Will the New Government sign the Teesta Agreement?
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh expressed hope for the early conclusion of the Teesta water agreement at the BIMSTEC Summit in March 2014. While the Bangladeshi government has flagged its concern over the sharp decline of the waters in recent months, the government of West Bengal has expressed grave displeasure in having to share the already reduced flow which would further inhibit the prevailing hydro deficit situation of its northern region.

In an election rally held in north Bengal, the Chief Minister stated that the “Teesta has dried up and there is an acute drinking water problem. Yet, the central government was giving away the Teesta waters.” She also urged the people to teach the central government a lesson 'through ballots' as the centre was releasing the Teesta waters to Bangladesh and thereby depriving the people of north Bengal of their own natural resource. The state government has constantly been in opposition tothe centre's desire to sign a water sharing treaty with Bangladesh.

Will the new government be able to improve domestic affairs with West Bengal and thereby improve relations with Bangladesh? The chances are dim because the new government will not rush into an agreement with Bangladesh without the consent of the state government as it will not want to spoil its home affairs for the sake of transnational ties irrespective of what they may be. This policy was adopted by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) and is most likely to continue. The new administration will continue negotiations with the state and provide concessions in order to seek its compliance. It is unlikely that Mamata Banerjee will budge from her stance, and hope for change is still pinned on the establishment of the new government in West Bengal.

Recommendations to the New Government
Indo-Bangladesh relations are at a juncture where India needs to consider and put into action some of its transnational issues with Bangladesh with immediate effect. Ever since the talks were stalled in 2011, there has been no significant call for the materialising of the Teesta river treaty by New Delhi.  Despite this, Indo-Bangladesh relations have been peaceful and cooperative in the anticipation that a positive resolution for the multiple issues between both countries will be reached. However, the Teesta water-sharing agreement cannot be left on the backburner any longer. Should this persist, the bilateral relations may turn sour, with dire consequences for future correspondence. Enlisted below are three factors that make Bangladesh vital to India and why the long impending water accord must be signed.

First, irrespective of the exchange of visits and high panel discussions for bilateral growth and cooperation, India has failed to give Bangladesh its due credit. India’s Northeast is a strategic corridor that makes Bangladesh vital for India. The security of the Northeastern states of India is widely affected by Bangladesh's policies and actions. If cooperation between Dhaka and New Delhi hits a rough patch, economic access will become difficult in terms of integrating the states with the Indian mainland. More so, it will be difficult for India to combat insurgent groups that may find refuge in Bangladesh.

Second, the Joint River Commission (JRC) in Dhaka exhibited concerns over receiving only 6.5 per cent of the water which it said was the ‘lowest ever’. This stark decline in the basin has resulted in large-scale protests staged both in Dhaka and West Bengal. Bangladesh alleges that India is drawing water from the river unilaterally that has resulted in a grave deficit of the water levels and led to the drying up of the northern districts. On the other hand, Mamata Banerjee out rightly accused the Central government of 'clandestinely' releasing the river water to Bangladesh without seeking their consent. In the absence of an official agreement, technical issues regarding the quantity, division and share of the waters are bound to take centre-stage. 

Third, the formation of the new government is a strategic vantage point that will predict the future of Indo-Bangladesh ties. Despite insubstantial progress, both the Awami League and the UPA governments have maintained peaceful cooperative relations in the past. With the new administration likely to take office next month, signing of the Teesta water deal must remain the central priority considering the significant reduction of water levels in the basin and the subsequent exacerbated demand for water in the northern regions of both West Bengal and Bangladesh. India’s Look East Policy (LEP) and the Bangladesh China India Myanmar Regional Forum (BCIM), provide immense opportunities and lessons for India to live interdependently with Bangladesh.