Teesta Dispute and India-Bangladesh Relations

  • Category
    International Relations
  • Published
    7th Jun, 2021

Recently, PM Modi’s visited to Bangladesh where the TeestaDispute was discussed during the talks between the leaders and he reiterated India’s sincere and continued efforts to conclude this agreement in consultation with relevant stakeholders.

Context

Recently, PM Modi’s visited to Bangladesh where the TeestaDispute was discussed during the talks between the leaders and he reiterated India’s sincere and continued efforts to conclude this agreement in consultation with relevant stakeholders.

But still, no agreement has reached yet and it looks gloomy provided the political tension between Centre and the State.

Background

  • India-Bangladesh ties have improved tremendously over the last decade from signing the landmark Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) in 2015and peacefully managing the maritime boundary issue following a judgement from an international tribunal to the security cooperation between the two states.
  • Bangladesh has been an important partner for India in fighting militancy in its northeast region.
  • On the economic front, the two countries have signed several MoUs over the years covering various projects including cross-border railways to improve connectivity between India and Bangladesh as well as the northeast region, energy, defence, ports and inland waterways use.
  • However, the bilateral ties are far from perfect. TheTeesta water disputeis such contentious issue.

Analysis

What is the dispute?

At the core of the dispute is the shortage of water in the dry season as a result of retreating Teesta glaciers as a result of climate change.

  • Demarcation (1947): The root of the disputes over the river can be found in the report of the Boundary Commission (BC), set up in 1947 under Sir Cyril Radcliffe, to demarcate the boundary line between West Bengal and East Bengal.
    • All India Muslim League demanded the Darjeeling and Jalpaiguri districts on the grounds that they are the catchment areas of Teesta River system. Members of the Indian National Congress and the Hindu Mahasabha opposed this.
    • In the final declaration the BC gave a major part of the Teesta’s catchment area to India as both were non-Muslim-majority areas.
  • 1970s: Before 1971, no serious dialogue took place on water issues between India and East Pakistan, but after the 1971, India and Bangladesh began discussing their transboundary water issues.
  • 1972: In 1972, the India-Bangladesh Joint Rivers Commission was established.
    • In its initial years, the most important concerns of both countries were the status of river Ganges, construction of the Farakka barrage and sharing of water from the rivers Meghna and Brahmaputra.
  • 1983: In 1983, an ad hoc arrangement on sharing of waters from the Teesta was made, according to which Bangladesh got 36% and India 39% of the waters, while the remaining 25% remained unallocated.
  • 1996: Although the issues related to the distribution of waters from the Teesta were discussed between India and Bangladesh, the river gained prominence only after the two countries signed the Ganga Water Treaty in 1996.
  • 2011: The two countries almost concluded a water-sharing treaty in 2011 under which India would get 42.5 per cent and Bangladesh around 37.5 per cent of the water during the dry season,but it was vetoed by the West Bengal Chief Minister, as water supply is a state subject in India.

Teesta River

  • The Teesta River, the fourth largest transboundary river between the two countries.
  • It is a tributary of the Jamuna (the largest distributary of Brahmaputra) which flows through the Indian state of Sikkim and West Bengal to enter Bangladesh.
  • It originates from the Pahunri (or Teesta Kangse) glacier, flows through Darjeeling district and the cities of Rangpo, Jalpaiguri and Mekhliganj. It joins the Jamuna River at Fulchhari in Bangladesh.

Why Teesta matters to both countries?

  • Bangladesh: For Bangladesh, it covers about 14 per cent of the total cropped area and about 7.3 per cent of its population relies on the river for direct livelihood.
  • India (West Bengal): For West Bengal, the river is important to sustain its five northern districts of Darjeeling, North and South Dinajpur, Cooch Behar and Jalpaiguri, which is some of the poorest farming districts in West Bengal.
    • There is another matter of the Kolkata port drying up due to silting which requires more water, especially during the lean season.

Implications for India-Bangladesh Relations

  • Indian foreign policy in the region has had limited success in securing bipartisan support for deeper cooperation with India.
  • India’s relations with most of its immediate neighbours have been party or individual-oriented. Once the power is reversed in many of the neighbouring countries, there are noticeable changes in India’s relations with these countries subsequently.
  • While Teesta itself is not a highly political issue in India barring northern West Bengal, it is a highly politically charged topic in Bangladesh which is often an election issue raised by both the main national parties.
  • For the 2018 Bangladesh general elections, the Awami League stressed on cooperating with India for sharing the waters in the Teesta in its election manifesto.
  • When the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) government was in power in Bangladesh from 2001 to 2006, India witnessed an increase in the insurgency in the northeast, whose security condition is already at stake due to India’s poor connectivity.
  • It was only brought under control due to consistent support and cooperation from the Awami League (Sheikh Hasina) government post-2009.
  • BNP has consistently had a pro-Pakistan and Pro-China stance – a policy continued from General Ziaur Rahman’s time and used anti-India rhetoric as a major part of its election campaigns over the years.
  • Bangladesh remains a key swing state in South Asia as far as the Chinese involvement in the region is concerned. Visiting of Xi Jinping in 2016 and the two countries and signingmultiple agreements is already a concern for India.
  • China has also been the major supplier of military equipment to Bangladesh, selling equipment between 2000 and 2020, which accounts for 65 per cent of total defence imports. 
  • Bangladesh has been engaging China in terms of various projects under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
  • Teesta, therefore, is not merely a transboundary water dispute but an important tenet of Bangladesh’s domestic politics and the developing geopolitics in the region.

Conclusion

This situation is only going to worsen with time and the inter-linking of rivers can only be a stop-gap measure as these rivers, Ganga, Brahmaputra and their tributaries are themselves witnessing reduced base flow. Given commonalities on both sides in terms of a largely agrarian economy along the Teesta basin, there are some common solutions that both countries could explore to deal with an evolving reality of a water-stressed future.

At present, an agreement to the dispute is certainly required in a timely manner to retain the progress made in the bilateral relations whether it’s the security cooperation, improving trade or India’s connectivity initiatives towards the east, including its own northeast and to prevent Bangladesh from being completely subsumed in the Chinese sphere of influence.

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