Water is an emotive issue in south Asia and the politics governing water-sharing formulae has dogged the region since Independence, often going beyond the merits of a treaty, especially between India and Pakistan.
“What India did with India’s waters was India’s affair,” was the curt reply from India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru to a taunt from Pakistan’s founder Mohammed Ali Jinnah that he would rather have “deserts in Pakistan than fertile fields watered by the courtesy of Hindus”.
That is how the two countries reacted to a suggestion on joint river management from Cyril Radcliffe, who was chairing the Punjab Boundary commission tasked to divide the Punjab territory and water assets between the two south Asian neighbours.
More than half a century later as Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits Dhaka on June 6 and 7, India and Bangladesh’s failure to pull off a water-sharing pact on the Teesta after 18 years of negotiations shows how complex and politically dictated such agreements remain.
Water-sharing accords are tough to arrive at. India is a part of three of the seven water-sharing pacts between countries in the region — the Ganges treaty with Bangladesh that took 20 years to hammer out, the Indus water treaty with Pakistan and the Gandak treaty with Nepal.
Sealing the Teesta pact may be primarily an issue of the Centre convincing West Bengal, due for polls next year, but one of the most liberal treaties — the Indus water treaty of 1960 between India and Pakistan — didn’t stop Islamabad from raking up water issues.
The Indus agreement deals with six rivers, the three eastern rivers of Ravi, Beas, Sutlej and their tributaries and the three western rivers of Indus, Jhelum, Chenab and their tributaries.
Under the treaty, the waters of the eastern rivers are allocated to India and New Delhi is under obligation to let the waters of the western rivers flow, except for the certain consumptive use, with Pakistan, a lower riparian state, getting about 80% of the water.
On the other hand, the 2011 Teesta agreement envisages a 50:50 water-sharing formula for the water of the river that is crucial to both north Bengal and the northwestern districts of Bangladesh.