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Pouring cold water on neighbourly ties

West Bengal’s mishandled the issue of sharing waters with Bangladesh. This has hurt India’s image in this region. Joyeeta Bhattacharjee writes

india Updated: Feb 23, 2012 23:45 IST
Joyeeta Bhattacharjee
Joyeeta Bhattacharjee
Hindustan Times
Farakka barrage,Mamata Banerjee,teesta

Mamata Banerjee’s recent stand on the sharing of the waters of the Ganga at Farakka has substantially dented India’s image among its neighbours. The West Bengal chief minister’s stand on the sharing of waters with Bangladesh of the two common rivers passing through both countries, the Teesta and the Ganga, was governed by an extremely narrow objective that put at stake the overall national interest.

Under the Indian Constitution, water is a state subject. This makes the states through which the river passes important stakeholders in resolving disputes over sharing common rivers even at the international level. Taking benefit of this provision, Banerjee has been targeting the issue of water-sharing with Bangladesh to extract special privileges for West Bengal. Banerjee first targeted the Teesta water-sharing agreement by expressing her opposition to the draft of the agreement at the last moment ahead of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Bangladesh in September 2011. The non-signing of the Teesta agreement has substantially hampered ties between the two countries.

More recently, Banerjee targeted the India-Bangladesh Ganges Water Treaty of 1996. In a letter to the prime minister, she has alleged that the Indian government had kept the fact regarding two damaged sluice gates of the Farakka Barrage a secret. This resulted in Bangladesh getting 82,801 cusecs of water, as against the 35,000 cusecs it was supposed to get during the dry season under the 1996 treaty.

These claims made by Banerjee only help strengthen the anti-India rhetoric in Bangladesh where the issue of water-sharing has been regularly highlighted. There are 54 common rivers between India and Bangladesh. Bangladesh being a lower riparian State, it is natural that it watches all the changes that take place upstream. There is a sizeable population in Bangladesh that is sceptical about India’s intentions, especially after the construction of the Farakka Barrage. Bangladesh claims that the barrage has greatly affected the country environmentally.

The Farakka Barrage, the construction of which began in 1961 and which was inaugurated in 1975, was constructed to divert water to maintain the navigability of the Calcutta Port. Relations between the two countries remained tense over the issue for a long time. The signing of the agreement in 1996 ended the dispute. Now the treaty has become a benchmark of cooperation between the two countries. Although there have been demands for reviewing the treaty in Bangladesh, no government in Dhaka has tried to tamper with the treaty. The move by Banerjee has put a question mark on India’s trustworthiness in respecting an international treaty.

With the increase in population on both sides of the border, there is a constraint over the availability of natural resources like water. So countries that have a stake in such resources would like to have greater control over them. This prioritises the need for friendly relations with neighbours. Otherwise the competition for natural resources may generate avoidable tensions.

At a time when India is struggling to establish itself as a global power, it is necessary to have friendly relationships with its neighbours. Unfortunately, India’s equations with its neighbours have not been very comfortable. Of late, Bangladesh, however, has shown an interest in improving the relationship. But such attitudes on the part of state governments will only ruin the present atmosphere of warmth.

Joyeeta Bhattacharjee is an associate fellow, Observer Research Foundation

The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Feb 23, 2012 23:41 IST