“Oh, Teesta!” ran a front-page headline in one of Bangladesh’s leading newspapers Daily Star on Saturday. The accompanying smaller headline, the ‘strap’ in journalistic lingo, was equally stark –“Thin river to continue reminding Bangladesh about prolonged sufferings inflicted by India”.
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrived in Dhaka for what is being described as a “historic” visit, the spotlight invariably is on the Teesta waters, one of the most emotional issues for Bangladesh in its relations with India.
While the two countries are all set to settle a 41-year-old border dispute through the exchange of 161 enclaves, a consensus on Teesta water-sharing remains elusive despite several rounds of talks between the two countries.
Bangladesh and India share 54 rivers but none evokes as much passion in Bangladesh as Teesta.
“For India, the visit (of PM Modi) will be a crowning success. But for Bangladesh, the visit without a Teesta deal will be a deep disappointment and a defeat of
our diplomacy,” wrote Abdul Hannan, a former diplomat and columnist.
But water being a state subject, the Centre cannot hope to conclude a deal on sharing Teesta water without getting West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee on board. Negotiations on Teesta are on for the past 18 years.
But with West Bengal headed for polls in 2016, Mamata Banerjee would find it difficult to move on the demand.
As per an agreement of 2011, which was not signed due to opposition from Banerjee, the two sides had agreed to share the river’s water 50:50, the same as the 1996 Ganges water-sharing pact between the neighbours.
Of late, Dhaka is complaining that the flow of Teesta is thinning alarmingly.
Dhaka says that the average flow of Teesta in the last ten days of March, considered a lean season, was 315 cusecs in 2015 compared to 550 cusecs during same period in 2014.
There being not enough water is a complain that even West Bengal raises, while objecting to the water sharing pact.
“No important water-sharing treaty has been signed in the world in this century, indicating how increasing water stress is making sharing and cooperation more difficult,” said strategic affairs expert Brahma Chellaney, author of the book, ‘Water: Asia’s New Battleground’.
He also reminded, “With states in India asserting their rights, it is no longer possible to do what Nehru did -- ride roughshod over the interests of local Indian states, especially Jammu and Kashmir, by signing the Indus Waters Treaty with Pakistan.”
The Teesta deal was set to be inked during the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visit to Bangladesh in September 2011 but was postponed at the last minute due to objections by Banerjee, who had also dropped out of the Prime Ministerial delegation.
And though Mamata Banerjee has joined Modi on the Dhaka visit, they won’t be quenching Bangladesh’s thirst for Teesta waters.