Dynamics Demystified: India-Bangladesh Relations


According to Thomas Homer-Dixon, water will be the major source of conflict in the upcoming time. The contemporary scenario represents somewhat the same picture. Present era is marked with various kinds of conflicts where resource sharing between the nations is a big issue of contemplation, which further leads to disagreement. The conflict often arises due to unequal distribution of resources or from a dependency-led need for more resources often at the expense of neighboring states.

India being one of the most powerful nations in the South Asian subcontinent has assumed the role of Big Brother, but at the same time, has to face disagreements and clashes with her neighboring countries. Water dispute is one of the major concerns for India and its neighboring nations especially with Bangladesh and Pakistan.

The major contention between India and Bangladesh has been the construction and operation of the Farraka Barrage by India to increase water supply in the river Hoogly. Bangladesh insists that it does not receive fair share of the Ganges waters during the drier seasons, and gets flooded during the monsoons when India releases excess waters. The complexity of the subject increases because of political issues that make smallest problems between the countries intractable.

In March 2010, India- Bangladesh 37th ministerial level Joint River Commission meeting was held. During the meeting, a major breakthrough was achieved and it was decided to sign an agreement within a year on the Teesta River water sharing, which will provide key support to agricultural production in the northwest region of Bangladesh. India and Bangladesh during the meeting exchanged draft accords on Teesta water sharing however, no information was disclosed on the percentage of the river water to be shared likely between the countries.

The Teesta River enters Bangladesh near Nilphamari district and courses 45 kilometres through the rice predominant districts of Rangpur, Lalmonirhat and Gaibandha before meeting the Brahmaputra River in Kurigram. The Teesta River Floodplain (TRF), which includes the extreme northwest region of the country, accounted for 14 percent of the total cropped area in 2001. In addition, it supported around 8.5 percent of the total population in the country. Around 63 percent of the total cropped area in the region is irrigated, indicating a direct association between irrigation water availability and agricultural land use. At present, the TRF along with the region left of the Ganges River is considered to be a ‘dry zone’. The TRF is largely dependent on transboundary river inflow for the supply and management of its water resources and agricultural production. The Teesta River barrage at Gozaldoba in India controls the amount of water flow downstream to Bangladesh. In order to increase the irrigation potential of the northwest region, Bangladesh constructed the Dalia barrage on the Teesta River in Lalmonirhat district to provide irrigation water from the river through a canal network. In the dry season, the exclusive control of the river water at Gazoldoba renders the Dalia Barrage almost useless for diversion of water due to low flows. Moreover, sudden release of excessive water through the Gazoldoba Barrage during the rainy season causes floods, bank erosion and damages huge amounts of crops downstream. Steps therefore, need to be been taken to examine the water flow at both Gozaldoba and Dalia points in order to manage high and low season water flows and minimize the economic losses.

Bangladesh proposes water sharing on a 50-50 basis at Gazoldoba however, water falls under the state subject in India. A final decision therefore, can be reached only after consultations with the state government of West Bengal in India. As future water demand is expected to increase significantly in both countries, water sharing will play a crucial role in water resources management. Any unilateral basin transfer of the river water in the future will affect Bangladesh in terms of lower availability of water downstream. This is likely to have an impact not just on food security but also hamper any future planning of irrigated agriculture in Bangladesh. In the future, water-related disputes are likely to surface frequently unless steps are taken to prevent such water-related issues. Any form of conflict over water resources will only lead to waste of time and resources further exacerbating socio-economic problems in both the countries.

Almost more than a year later, on Nov 16th, 2011 there seemed to be some change over in the scene. Mamta Banerjee , CM of West Bengal announced that an Experts Committee would be formed on Teesta with Bangladesh Foreign Minister Dipu Moni standing beside her. She further added that some people were trying to create a confusion and controversy regarding the sharing of water of Teesta River and the problem is that due to expansion to Teesta Barrage and four-five thermal plants there is a water problem. She also commented that she isn’t an expert and doesn’t know how much water is there and how much water could be given to Bangladesh. It would be the work of the committee and give a report.

Regardless of External Minister SM Krishna seeing the agreement just “round the corner”, some recent developments shows and indicates that the two countries will not be able to make the agreement as soon as it was expected in some quarters. Pragmatically, even though the “corner” may seen near, the road itself is circuitous and meandering with several stakesholders at stake. As far as pretentiousness goes, all seems well and everyone on both side of the fence seems to be inclined to share the waters of Teesta and arrive at an agreement much like the one signed for Ganga decades ago. But ground veracity are making the last mile seem longer than required.

A bilateral cooperation on water sharing alone is not possible to provide resolution to the existing water problems. India and Bangladesh must undertake suitable joint inventiveness to build reservoirs upstream of the Teesta River in India and within Bangladesh to store the excessive water during the rainy season for utilization during the dry season. In addition, an integrated flood management program has to be planned and implemented during the rainy season and summer months when there is a higher frequency of normal and flash floods. A positive step in this direction has been taken with India agreeing to share flood projection data on a continuous basis and extend the lead time for flood warning to more than 57 hours. This needs to be extended to include the Teesta River exclusively in order to prevent economic damage of crops and livelihoods.

Any future agreement signed must be consistent with the principle of justice to get an equitable share of water during the dry season based on past, present and future water utilizations. However, it is important to note that the agricultural production in Bangladesh has been severely hampered by the diversion of Ganges River water at the Farraka barrage in India though; there exists a water sharing agreement between India and Bangladesh. Therefore, the effectiveness of the water sharing agreement must be fully evident through strict adherence of the incorporated principles else water-related issues will undoubtedly become an irritant leading to future conflicts between India and Bangladesh.

Author Note
The author is a researcher at the Society for the Study of Peace and Conflict, New Delhi.