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The many imponderables in sharing the Teesta waters

Gautam Sen is a retired IDAS officer who has served in senior positions at the Centre and in a north-east State Government.
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  • April 18, 2017

    The Teesta River water sharing issue has loomed large over India-Bangladesh relations for over a decade. It was a key issue in the recent deliberations during Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit to India. However, the issue did not excite public opinion at the grass-root level in the north Bengal districts through which the river flows before entering Bangladesh. Political parties in Bengal, with a presence in the affected districts of Darjeeling, Siliguri, Jalpaiguri, Cooch Behar, North and South Dinajpur and Malda, have not taken a strident posture in the matter. The views of the ruling party, Trinamul Congress (TMC), have, however, been articulated by the chief minister who wants issues impinging on the agricultural interests of these districts to be carefully considered before finalizing a water sharing deal.

    As against the above-stated position, public opinion in the Teesta water-flow affected districts of Rangpur, Nilphamari, Lalmonirhat, Kurigram, Gaibandha, Dinajpur and Bogra in Bangladesh have been articulated at various platforms. And their opinion favours a fair sharing of the Teesta waters between the two countries. Notwithstanding the above, there is a view in some official circles in Bangladesh for some time now that Teesta waters are now only a supplementary source of irrigation. With the cultivation cycle changing (more crops being cultivated in other than the lean season), the impact of water scarcity on the country`s agriculture would be relatively less in the future. While failure to conclude the Teesta deal has disheartened the ruling Awami League and its allied circles, the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, as expected, has used the failure to criticise the Sheikh Hasina government.

    It is necessary to highlight the fact that Sikkim where Teesta originates (from Teesta Kangse glacier), and flows through for a major part of its 459 kilometre long journey (151 kms within Sikkim, and 142 kms along the Sikkim-Bengal border), has not made much of an issue or taken a decisive stand on what should be done to protect its interests in the water sharing bargain. There are six hydel projects (four already operationalised) in Sikkim along the river, which require a suitable southward water draft to generate electricity apropos the developmental needs of the state and the requirements of the Indian electricity grid. India`s Ministry of Water Resources, in concert with sister line ministries, will obviously have to take care of this requirement. But there has not been much of a public discourse on, or indication at the official level of, factoring this aspect in the prospective water sharing process. The Sikkim government seems to be presently dealing with the matter at a low key, for tactical reasons. It does not want any restriction on its Teesta-related power potential, though it would be accommodative to any hydrological measure which controls landslides and concomitant siltation in the river.

    There are many imponderables in sharing the Teesta waters on a basis that is satisfactory to both Bangladesh and India. An easy resolution may not be feasible under the hydrological conditions prevailing at present. The dams upstream on the Teesta and its tributaries in Sikkim are creating a substantial reduction in water flow downstream, owing to periodic landslides, siltation, etc., notwithstanding the fact that these dams do not provide for water storage. Unless an integrated view of Teesta basin management is adopted, the water and power needs of Sikkim and Bengal cannot be attended to in juxtaposition to the needs of Bangladesh in the Rangpur command area.

    Furthermore, the Teesta Barrage Project (TBP) at Gajoldoba in Jalpaiguri district of Bengal constructed at a cost of more than Rs. 1300 crore may be deemed as another de facto bottleneck in the resolution of the water sharing process. The TBP was conceived as a multi-purpose project in the aftermath of the massive floods in Jalpaiguri in 1968. This was done in an over-ambitious manner for flood control, power generation and irrigation of more than nine lakh hectares of command area in north Bengal. While TBP has contributed to flood control to an extent, particularly downstream of Sevoke (near Siliguri) where the river descends to the flood plains, there has been much less success towards increasing the areas under irrigation in the lower command area, apart from reducing the down-stream flows to Bangladesh. The operation of TBP and water diversion through the Teesta-Mahananda irrigation canal has changed the hydrological character of Teesta river south of Gajoldoba. These developments have contributed to a decline in the area occupied by the active river by more than 50 per cent during the 1991-2014 period. All these developments have had their consequences on the water flow to Bangladesh. Unless these are mitigated, an agreement on Teesta river water sharing between the two countries cannot be realistically expected.

    An agreement on Teesta water sharing will have to encompass much more than ensuring a minimum down-stream flow to Bangladesh during the lean season. A comprehensive river basin management approach is a sine qua non for optimum gains, not only for both India and Bangladesh, but also for the riparian regions and states along the Teesta. Viewed in this perspective, an appraisal of Bangladesh`s Teesta Barrage (TB) already operational at Dhoani in Lalmonirhat district will also be necessary. The TB, initiated in 1979 and the first phase completed in 1998, had envisaged an ambitious target of developing an irrigated area of 750,000 hectares of irrigated area. In the existing context of reduced discharge owing to the above-mentioned developments, the irrigation potential of TB is unlikely to be achieved. A via media solution will have to be evolved, factoring in the hydrological conditions presently prevailing and likely in the near future. Till such an appraisal is undertaken, India would be the target of criticism resulting from less than an optimum operational outcome of the TB.

    Both in India and Bangladesh, a broad consensus involving the political parties and other stake-holders in the catchment and command areas of Teesta river and its tributaries will be necessary. Attempts for a solution should be initiated seriously at the technical level without delay, involving hydrological and agro-climatic experts of both countries with a proper mandate entrusted to them. A final agreement may be based on the recommendations of experts, followed by a political compromise. Even then, an appropriate outcome may elude us if the experience with the Kalyan Rudra Report on Teesta water management is any indication. The report commissioned by the first TMC government was neither disclosed nor officially accepted by the latter because of its reported recommendation favouring Bangladesh`s position. Notwithstanding this backdrop, there is a need to persevere with efforts to reach an equitable solution on the Teesta water sharing issue so that capital investment towards re-engineering river-basin structures, river training, etc., which may be inevitable in future, can be carried out optimally with avoidable escalation in costs.

    The scenario envisaged can only be realised, however, with adequate will of all concerned, particularly at the political and administrative levels. If the situation does not evolve as above, the Teesta river basin may eventually encounter the fate of the Aral Sea and the Irtysh-Karaganda Canal in Central Asia whose hydrology have been substantially impaired owing to injudicious human intervention.

    The author is a retired IDAS officer who has served in senior positions in the Government of India and a State Government.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.