Teesta: India’s bid, Chinese plan, and media concerns in Bangladesh

After his meeting with Hasina, PM Modi had hinted at India’s interest in taking up the conservation of the river – a $1-billion project being eyed by China.

WrittenBy:NL Team
Sheikh Hasina and Narendra Modi shaking hands

The Teesta water dispute has returned to the headlines after Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bangladesh counterpart Sheikh Hasina inked 10 defence, trade and connectivity pacts and smiled for the press in Lutyens Delhi last week.

While Indian media paid attention to the announcement about an expert panel from the country which will help Bangladesh manage and conserve Teesta water, sections of the Bangladeshi media featured apprehensions about Delhi’s failure to resolve the long-pending river dispute.

After his meeting with Hasina, PM Modi had on Saturday last week hinted at India’s interest in taking up the conservation of the Teesta river in Bangladesh – a $1-billion project being eyed by China. Hasina on Tuesday told the media that she will accept the “most beneficial” of the two proposals. “We’ll go for the one which is the most acceptable.”

Challenges remain to the possibility of any agreement on water-sharing between India and Bangladesh even as the proposed project gets attention.

West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee, who has stalled any progress on water pacts citing the possibility of adverse consequences on agrarian communities in the state governed by her, has objected to the Centre’s remarks. “We cannot compromise on such a sensitive issue which has severe and adverse implication on the people. People of West Bengal will be the worst sufferers due to the impact of such agreements.”

What the dispute is about

Teesta, a tributary of the Brahmaputra, is among the 54 transboundary rivers between the two countries. It flows southwards from Sikkim and northern Bengal before entering Bangladesh and becoming the primary river for its northern areas, accounting for about 14 percent of the country’s crop production.

However, dams constructed by India are said to have limited the flow of water.

Years after an ad-hoc water sharing arrangement had fizzled out in the 1980s, a water-sharing agreement was finalised under the Manmohan Singh government. But the Mamata Banerjee government in West Bengal has refused to grant approval since 2011. Banerjee is set to remain in power at least until 2026 and has repeatedly pointed out that there isn’t enough water to share with the neighbouring country.

Low availability of water in the Teesta in the lean months reportedly impacts agricultural communities in north Bangladesh too.

Amid the impasse with India, Hasina sought Chinese assistance during her visit to Beijing in 2019. The Chinese government offered a proposal in 2020, as part of which the Bangladesh government will bear 15 percent of the cost of the $1 billion project with the rest as Chinese loan. The Power Construction Corporation of China, or Power China, came up with a masterplan and feasibility study to stabilise the flow of the river through dredging, deepening and other measures, and to enhance water availability by building a network of ponds and canals. The average width of the river was estimated to reduce.

The plan hasn’t received much headway in Bangladesh but pressure has mounted on Hasina to act. A report by the Observer Research Foundation said work on the project came to a halt in 2022 after India raised security concerns about China’s presence less than 100 km from its borders and so close to the Siliguri Corridor.

According to Bangladeshi outlet bdnews24, after the project work was stalled, the Chinese Ambassador Yao Wen said in December last year that he hoped the project would start after the election. And asked about the Chinese envoy’s remarks and the issue of India's objections to the project, Bangladesh ministry of foreign affairs spokesperson Seheli Sabrin had said that “it’s not easy to answer such speculative questions. If there is any such proposal, we will have to proceed considering geopolitical factors.”

But now, with Hasina set to visit China after the India visit and Modi’s remarks, all eyes are on whether and how Beijing will respond to Delhi’s manoeuvre. And while a section of the media thinks Hasina is in a tight spot, it may turn out to be her fine balancing act this year to placate both China and India without any real outcomes for both the countries.

Meanwhile, in India, with the Mamata Banerjee government opposed to the project, there’s little chance that the Modi government will be able to convince Bangladesh of a radical change on the issue despite the technical team’s visit. River is a state subject in India.

The delay in signing the agreement can not be pinned completely on the West Bengal government, water economist Gourisankar Ghosh earlier told Down To Earth. “Neither India nor Bangladesh is in a position to exactly quantify how much water Teesta river carries, particularly in lean periods,” he reportedly said, adding that it would be a blunder if the countries jumped to a conclusion while lacking technical data on river volume. 

The last agreement on water sharing between the two countries was in 1996, when the Ganga River Treaty was signed.

Bangladesh media’s apprehensions

Apprehensions linked to the long-pending river impasse have repeatedly found their way to Bangladeshi media coverage. In 2015, after Modi’s maiden visit to Bangladesh as the prime minister, PTI reported that the Daily Star had hailed the “dawn of a new era” but noted the lag on the Teesta project. In an editorial titled, “No breakthrough on Teesta”, the newspaper said, “we did not expect the (Teesta) deal to come through on this visit but had certainly hoped for some definite progress in the regard”.

A piece in The Diplomat noted that Bangladeshi media had asked Hasina repeated questions about Teesta before her visit to India in 2022.  

“‘It depends on India,’ she said before leaving. In Delhi, she only expressed her hope that the Teesta issue would be resolved soon. After her return, leading Bengali and English language media houses in Bangladesh published innumerable reports on the Teesta water-sharing problem, mostly criticising India for its role. Some have described it as a diplomatic failure by Hasina.”

Such concerns have found their way back to print space again.

A cartoon published by Bangladeshi paper New Age showed PM Modi and Chinese president Xi Jinping knee-deep in Teesta waters and in an argument, with Bangladesh PM Hasina standing as mute spectator. 

An editorial in the paper noted that India’s announcement to send a technical team to Bangladesh to discuss the conservation and management of the River Teesta “appears farcical” and that India should “rather sign the Teesta water sharing agreement”. 

“India, which has since 2010 put on hold the signing of an agreement on the sharing of the water of the cross-border Teesta, has expressed its willingness to support a large-scale development plan on the management of the river in Bangladesh’s north. This is not the first time…New Delhi in the first week of May also offered to finance the project for a comprehensive management and the restoration of the river after China had showed interest in it and carried out a survey. What is farcical about this is that the absence of an agreement on the Teesta water sharing with India leaves five districts in Bangladesh — Gaibandha, Kurigram, Lalmonirhat, Nilphamari and Rangpur through which the river flows — dry in the lean season, adding to the risk of desertification, because of the unilateral withdrawal of water upstream. The situation also leaves the region frequently inundated in the monsoon season as India opens all floodgates, often without any intimation. India, which is at the heart of the problem, should, therefore, have no role to play in it.”

In an opinion piece published by the Bangladesh paper Prothom Alo, Dr Nazrul Islam, a visiting professor at the Asian Growth Research Institute, noted that there were “two” ways out for Bangladesh. 

“One is, ensuring that India gives Bangladesh its due rights to Teesta river. If India genuinely wants good for Bangladesh regarding Teesta, then it must stop withdrawing water from Teesta in the dry season by means of the Gajoldoba barrage. India's central government claims it can do nothing as West Bengal is not acquiescing.”

“The other way out is, to go ahead for the restoration of the Teesta basin in a manner best suited for the country's conditions, with local expertise and people's participation, instead of running after foreign funding, consultation, so-called expertise, etc.”

Bangladesh daily Ittefaq, apart from several others, put up a report on West Bengal’s opposition to the project. “West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is angry that Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's recent visit to India left her out of the discussion regarding important decisions between the two countries. Many issues were discussed in the bilateral talks, which will deeply affect West Bengal. And Mamata is upset because the opinion of the West Bengal government has not been taken on these issues.”

Meanwhile, a report in The Telegraph pointed to the domestic politics surrounding the issue in Bangladesh. It noted that a lobby within Hasina’s Awami League is keen on the Chinese proposal and some negotiations have taken place. 

“But Hasina, known for her pro-India positions on many issues, has averred in public that she is hopeful about New Delhi finding a solution to the Teesta water-sharing impasse. However, in an indication that she may be running out of patience, she told the Bangladesh parliament last week that the economic relations division committee, responsible for mobilising foreign funds, would talk to Chinese authorities to fund the project on easier terms,” it stated. It quoted an unidentified source who said the Indian proposal lacks specifics and “I think this is a hurried response to our Prime Minister’s comments on exploring the Chinese option, which has been with us for the last few years”.

Last month, a piece in the Frontline noted that “India’s failure to resolve the Teesta River waters issue for years was frequently used by the opposition in Bangladesh against Hasina. If she decides to bring in India in place of China, she could find it difficult to convince her detractors that choosing India rather than China would benefit Bangladesh more.”

Meanwhile, an editorial in the Hindustan Times noted that “the most important development was India’s decision to formally signal its interest in the $1-billion project to restore and develop the Teesta basin in Bangladesh”. “China has had its eye on this mammoth project for years and the Indian initiative will allow Hasina to deflect the pressure she is likely to face from Beijing when she visits China in the near future.”

The Indian Express was more circumspect. “While some issues like river water management remain to be sorted out, the shared vision for the future articulated by Hasina and Modi raises hopes for realising the full potential of the bilateral relationship.”

“The productive consequences of the two leaders’ commitment to overhaul ties have been hailed as marking a ‘golden chapter’ (‘sonali adhyay’) in the history of bilateral relations. The ‘vision for a shared future’ unveiled by the two leaders on Saturday promises to build on these advances and turn the ‘extraordinary relationship’ of the last decade into a ‘transformational partnership’.”

There are ecological concerns, meanwhile, around the Teesta project.

The floods in Sikkim last year, for example, are a reminder of what unbridled projects on Teesta can do.

An opinion piece in Daily Star had pointed out that the Chinese plan may be ineffective and Bangladesh must come up with an indigenous alternative. Itnoted that the Gajoldoba Barrage, together with dams in the upper Teesta, has become a double jeopardy for Bangladesh”. “While they deprive Bangladesh from water flow during the dry season, they cause repeated flooding during the wet months. Flooding now occurs in Bangladesh any time the Indian operators of Gajoldoba Barrage decide to open the gates and release inordinate amounts of water. Before this, flooding was usually a once-in-a-year event for Bangladesh.”

With authorities in three countries trying to work their way around Teesta water management and conservation, the media’s role would remain crucial in underlining the ecological and climate impact of any engineering effort.

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