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Why India has not been able to resolve the Teesta stalemate

ince the news of the Bangladesh PM's visit to Kolkata for the India-Bangladesh day-night Test match became known, there had been widespread speculation on whether the issue of Teesta water sharing between the two countries would be taken up. PM Hasina categorically stated that cricket and Teesta need to be 'decoupled'.

Dhaka is evasive

Bangladesh's expectations on the Teesta deal go up almost everytime its PM visits India. In view of the longstanding controversy over the Teesta waters, there is a perception among many in Bangladesh and India that the stalemate on water sharing may have a domino effect on diplomatic relations between the two nations.

A recent memorandum of understanding signed by Bangladesh allows India to withdraw 1.82 cusecs (cubic feet per second) of water from the Feni river to meet the drinking water needs of Sabroom town in Tripura. This has created more pressure on PM Haseena to negotiate and close the Teesta deal.

A tributary of the Brahmaputra river (known as Jamuna in Bangladesh), the Teesta river, with its origin at the Teesta Kangse glacier above 7,068 m, flows southward through the states of Sikkim and West Bengal in India, and crosses over to Bangladesh.

Around 83 per cent of the basin area of 12,540 sq km lies in India. Historically, it has been an issue of contention between Bangladesh and India over sharing of dry season flow (December-May), when the irrigated boro rice is grown in both countries. In 1983, an adhoc agreement allocated 39 per cent to India and 36 per cent to Bangladesh, leaving the remaining unallocated.

This agreement lapsed within two years. In 1984, the Joint Rivers' Commission recommended allotting 42.5 per cent to India and 37.5 per cent to Bangladesh. A 2011 attempt to ink an agreement on the basis of the 1984 recommendations could not be implemented due to objections from West Bengal. Lately, Bangladesh has been complaining how the low flow from upstream has affected the standing paddy crops and fisheries, impairing critical livelihoods. Meanwhile, the West Bengal CM has taken the stance that Teesta's overall flow in the state has declined. The water flow is "one-sixteenth of total water requirement in [the] two countries," according to an excerpt from a recent internal report on the Teesta prepared by an Expert Committee of West Bengal Government, published on

Earlier in my articles, I have raised questions against these estimates. Yet, there is no doubt that flow has diminished downstream. The Teesta Barrage Project (TBP) at Gajoldoba in the Jalpaiguri district of West Bengal can provide partial answer to the disappearing waters. There is water diversion from Gajaladoba through the Teesta-Mahananda irrigation canal to meet the urban water needs of the growing urban centres of Siliguri and Jalpaiguri. What may not be known is the prevalence and dominance of irrigated paddy fields thriving with this diverted water adjacent to the link canal in West Bengal!

Turbines play spoiler

Again, neither West Bengal, nor Bangladesh has an idea that the mystery of disappearing water in the summer months needs to be traced back to the inorganic process of killing the river by as many as 30 hydropower projects (most of which are in Sikkim) in the stretch of the Teesta (operating and planned). Though hydropower is claimed to be 'non-consumptive' use of water being operational as 'run-ofriver', during the phases of low flows the water needs to be stored in the 'pondages' upstream of these projects. My own field observations reveal that due to the low flow at least 12-15 hours of storage daily is required, before the turbines could function.

Successive projects at very a short distance from each other substantially fragment the river, dry up the downstream, and prove detrimental for biodiversity and critical ecosystem services like water provisioning and fisheries. This is a classic example of how myopic economics dominates over long-run sustainability concerns!

Crops are a cropper

There is no deying that the water conflict between the two nations centres around irrigated boro paddy, which has a crop-water requirement of around 1,800-2,800 mm, ie, 10 times those of drier cereals like sorghum, or ragi. It is common sense that in a water-scarce region, demand management is the key. However, vote-bank politics and appeasement prevail. This is visible from the governments' indifferences to motivate farmers to diversify to other less water-consuming crops through counselling, price signals, or procurement mechanism! Bangladesh's unbridled penchant for dry season paddy cultivation has been further facilitated by development of irrigation facilities through hydrological interventions, and there seems to be no intention of reversing this trend.

Seen from an institutional perspective, the Teesta stalemate is largely created due to water being a state subject in the Indian Constitution. The federal structure of our governance has created an institutional void at the basin level, by bridling the Centre from taking an integrated approach to water governance that can lead to a cooperative outcome. In the process, the divergent views of the Centre and the state of West Bengal have led to the Teesta river being subjected to 'conflictual federalism'.

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