India-Bangladesh ties have improved tremendously over the last decade with the ascent of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to power in 2009. Successes range from a wide number of issues and deepening cooperation in several areas. The two countries signed a Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) in 2015[i] and peacefully managed the maritime boundary issue following a judgement from an international tribunal on the matter.
One of the biggest positives has been the security cooperation between the two states. Bangladesh has been an important partner for India in fighting militancy in its northeast region. Over the past few years, there has been a prisoner swap of top militants between India and Bangladesh. This includes United Liberation Front of Ason leaders like Anup Chetia and Arobinda Rajkhowa while India has handed over several terrorists/suspects belonging to organisations like the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JuMB) and Islamic State Bangladesh.[ii] On the economic front, the two countries have signed several MoUs over the years with India extending three Line of Credits since 2010 totalling worth USD 8 billion 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.[iii]
However, the bilateral ties are far from perfect. The biggest contentious issue remains the Teesta water dispute. The Teesta River, the fourth largest transboundary river between the two countries, is actually a tributary of the Brahmaputra which flows through the Indian state of Sikkim and West Bengal to enter Bangladesh. The dispute assumed importance following the finalisation of the Ganga Water Treaty in 1996. 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,[iv] but the proposed treaty was vetoed by the West Bengal Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee as water supply remains a state list subject in India. The core of the issue lies in the water flow during the lean season. According to Strategic Foresight Group, the average annual flow of the river is about 60 billion cubic metres (BCM), around 50 BCM of which flows during the monsoon (May/June-September) while maintaining an average of 500 million cubic metres per month during the lean season (October-Apr/May). The report attributes reduced lean season flow from past years to the retreating Teesta glaciers.[v]
Why Teesta Matters to Both Countries
An Asian Foundation report in 2013 highlighted the importance of Teesta for Bangladesh where it covers about 14 per cent of the total cropped area and about 7.3 per cent of the Bangladesh population relies on the river for direct livelihood.[vi] For West Bengal, the river is important to sustain its five northern districts of Darjeeling, North and South Dinajpur, Cooch Behar and Jalpaiguri, which happen to be some of the poorest farming districts in West Bengal representing an approximate 12.77 per cent of the total state population. There is another matter of the Kolkata port drying up due to silting which requires more water, especially during the lean season. While she did veto the proposed water treaty in 2011, in recent times, the West Bengal Chief Minister has stated how her state is ready to share water given suitable alternatives, like interlinking of rivers using canals, are explored along with the central government.[vii]
There have been conflicting views on possible solutions from experts on both sides. According to the Bangladesh hydrologist, Ainun Nishat, the solution to the matter lies in constructing reservoirs on the Indian side, in northern West Bengal, to enable water storage during monsoon and use during the lean season.[viii] Kalyan Rudra, the Indian hydrologist who led the study on the matter for the West Bengal government, highlights major issues of siltation and evaporation from the reservoirs to argue against this method to resolve the issue.[ix] 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.
Implications for India-Bangladesh Relations
The problem is a complicated one, given the involvement of an Indian state in the matter. But for India’s own interests, it must be resolved as soon as possible. There are reasons for this. First, 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. In the case of Bangladesh, 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.[x] It was only brought under control due to consistent support and cooperation from the Awami League 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.[xi] As such, an impending issue that directly affects a significant portion of a neighbouring country’s population, can be used against India should the balance of power shift in Bangladesh. This can have an adverse impact on northeast India’s security situation. What is also at stake is India’s connectivity initiatives not just with Bangladesh but with its own northeast and Southeast Asia. Such initiatives could be held hostage to the Teesta dispute.
Bangladesh also remains a key swing state in South Asia as far as the Chinese involvement in the region is concerned. Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Bangladesh in 2016 and the two countries signed 27 agreements covering various infrastructure projects worth around USD 24 billion. China has also been the major supplier of military equipment to Bangladesh, selling equipment worth USD 2,886 million between 2000 and 2020, which accounts for 65 per cent of total defence imports.[xii] While Bangladesh has been engaging China in terms of various projects under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), it has still been balanced in its approach for key development projects like the cancellation of the Sanodia port and following a multi-party approach involving India, China and Belgium for the Payra port. This could change should the BNP led opposition is able to put enough pressure on the Bangladesh government in the future and rally anti-India sentiments, using the Teesta dispute among other things, to secure power, thereby putting at risk the progress made in India-Bangladesh relations so far. 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.
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. 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. Even though it is evident from continued statements from both the countries that there is a desire for cooperation and sharing water, the reduced water level itself is a complicated problem to overcome even with friendly ties and real intent.
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. The major crop produced in the Teesta basin on both sides is rice, a highly water-intensive crop. Both governments should encourage and incentivise practices like shifting to less water-intensive crops by way of subsidies as well as using modern irrigation techniques like drip irrigation to reduce water dependence. In the long run, the two sides will have to look at the economic restructuring of the regions around Teesta to shift some of the population engaged in agriculture activities towards service and manufacturing sectors.
Following the conclusion of LBA and settlement of the maritime boundary, the Teesta dispute remains the biggest unresolved dispute between the two partner countries. Out of the box or not, 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. India is an upper, middle and lower riparian state which poses several complications for the country in terms of managing transboundary river disputes. In the backdrop of climate change and retreating glaciers, transboundary rivers can either lead to cooperation or conflict and timely action is need to ensure any such dispute remains a source of the former instead of the latter. For this, a more proactive approach is required from all parties involved with decisions guided by science and not politics.
[i] Serajul Quadir, “India Bangladesh sign historic land boundary agreement”, Reuters, 06 June 2015, Available at https://www.reuters.com/article/bangladesh-india-land-treaty-idINKBN0OM0IV20150606 accessed on 26 May 2021
[ii] Haroon Habib and Vijaita Singh, “Dhaka hands over top ULFA leader to India”, The Hindu, 11 Nov 2015, Available at https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/ulfa-leader-anup-chetia-handed-over-to-india-by-bangladesh/article7865894.ece accessed on 26 May 2021
[iii] Asit Ranjan Mishra and Elizabeth Roche, “India extends $4.5 billion loan to Bangladesh”, Livemint, 05 October 2018, Available at https://www.livemint.com/Politics/PJNGy9mN1sOLFqVTKKdI5L/Bangladesh-signs-45-billion-loan-deal-with-India.html accessed on 26 May 2021
[iv] Savojit Bagchi, “What is the lowdown on sharing of Teesta waters”, The Hindu, 08 April 2017, Available at https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/the-hindu-explains-teesta-water-sharing/article17894299.ece accessed on 26 May 2021
[v] “Rivers of Peace: Restructuring India-Bangladesh Relations”, Strategic Foresight Group, 2013, Available at https://www.strategicforesight.com/publication_pdf/22345riversofpeace-website.pdf accessed on 28 May 2021
[vi] Sagar Prasai and Mandakini Devasher Surie, “Transboundary Water Cooperation Key to Easing South Asia’s Water Woes”, The Asia Foundation, 20 March 2013, Available at https://asiafoundation.org/2013/03/20/transboundary-water-cooperation-key-to-easing-south-asias-water-woes/ accessed on 26 May 2021
[vii] Akramoy Dutta Majumdar, “Why Mamata Banerjee is opposed to sharing Teesta Waters”, Livemint, 11 April 2017 Accessible at https://www.livemint.com/Politics/dtlGtxiSUVDJgo7eoBxxDL/Why-Mamata-Banerjee-is-opposed-to-sharing-Teesta-waters.html accessed on 28 May 2021
[viii] Savojit Bagchi, “What is the lowdown on sharing of Teesta waters”, The Hindu, 08 April 2017, Available at https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/the-hindu-explains-teesta-water-sharing/article17894299.ece accessed on 26 May 2021
[ix] Jayanta Basu, “Why does the Teesta river run dry in non-monsoon months? Because it has more dams than it needs”, Scroll, 20 June 2017 Available at https://scroll.in/article/841068/why-does-the-teesta-river-run-dry-in-non-monsoon-months-because-it-has-more-dams-than-it-needs accessed on 26 May 2021
[x] Savojit Bagchi, “What is the lowdown on sharing of Teesta waters”, The Hindu, 08 April 2017, Available at https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/the-hindu-explains-teesta-water-sharing/article17894299.ece accessed on 26 May 2021
[xi] Mohshin Habib,” Penumbra Dragon in Bangladesh’s sky”, National Herald India, 25 March 2021, Available at https://www.nationalheraldindia.com/opinion/penumbra-dragon-in-bangladeshs-sky accessed on 28 May 2021
[xii] “TIV of arms exports to Bangladesh, 2000-2020”, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Available at https://armstrade.sipri.org/armstrade/html/export_values.php accessed on 28 May 2021