History within history: 25 years of the Ganga Treaty

Updated on Dec 11, 2021 05:50 PM IST

The treaty’s evolution goes back to the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971. Born through the ravages of war, independent Bangladesh needed to be resurrected, and as a mud flat downstream nation, India’s role as an upstream one would be critical

While India made its calculations to sign the treaty based on fair play and no-harm, it would be fair to say that Bangladesh equally convinced India to do so (Shutterstock) PREMIUM
While India made its calculations to sign the treaty based on fair play and no-harm, it would be fair to say that Bangladesh equally convinced India to do so (Shutterstock)
ByUttam Sinha

Twenty-five years ago, in New Delhi, Prime Ministers (PMs) HD Deve Gowda and Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh signed a treaty on the sharing of the Ganga waters at Farraka. The governments viewed the treaty, valid for 30 years, as an outcome that would bolster future cooperation. The treaty had its fair share of criticism, on both sides, with the opposition, Bangladesh Nationalist Party, accusing Hasina’s Awami League government of “kowtowing” before India and “selling” the country’s sovereignty.

Several Indian parliamentarians were cautiously optimistic over PM Gowda’s statement in the Lok Sabha on the Ganga treaty as an end to “what has been a constant irritant”. Uma Bharati of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), unamused, retorted “more water is given...” while Atal Bihari Vajpayee called for a wider discussion.

Congressman PR Dasmunshi, while hailing the treaty as a “milestone”, cautioned the government that West Bengal’s water utilisation was in the “hands of UP and Bihar” and that for the treaty to be effective the “role of the governments of UP and Bihar are equally important as that of the government of Bengal.” It was a striking observation as India’s bilateral water relations are challenged by domestic upstream-downstream dynamics.

The treaty’s evolution goes back to the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971. Before that, several inconclusive water dialogues were held with India. The last such meeting in 1970, however, established Farakka as the point of delivery of water into East Pakistan with the amount of water-sharing to be agreed upon later.

Born through the ravages of war, independent Bangladesh needed to be resurrected and as a mud flat downstream nation, India’s role as an upstream one would be critical.

Indira Gandhi and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the PM of the newly sovereign Bangladesh, met in Calcutta in February 1972 and opened talks. The following month, Indira Gandhi went to Dacca (now, Dhaka), and signed the Treaty of Friendship, Co-operation and Peace. Article 6 refers to joint studies in “flood control, river basin development and the development of hydro-electric power and irrigation.”

The permanent Joint Rivers Commission that was established carried hydrographic surveys (1973-74) and estimated that during the dry season, the average minimum discharge below the Farakka was 55,000 cubic feet per second (cusecs). Who would get how much was not established. With the Farakka Barrage construction, the first signs of bilateral strains emerged. Mujib visited India in May, 1974, and the joint declaration recognised the insufficient availability of Ganga waters to meet requirements, and the possibilities of augmentation in the dry season.

The Indian “hydrocracy” would not compromise on the Farakka Barrage designed to flush the Hooghly free of silt and keep the port in Calcutta open. The political leadership, however, wanted to consider Bangladeshi sensitivity over the matter. As the Farakka Barrage was ready for commission in May 1975, Jagjivan Ram, the defence minister during the war of liberation who had said “we do not have hegemonistic designs”, rushed to Dacca in April 1975 as agriculture and irrigation minister. Little headway was made with his counterpart Abdur Ran Serniabat. Mujib proposed an “interim agreement”, signed in April 1975, that allowed India to commission the Barrage and give Bangladesh 75.6 to 80% of water during the lean period (April 21 to May 31, 1975).

With the assassination of Mujib on August 15, 1975, the dynamics of water relations changed. Successive regimes in Dhaka tried to internationalise the Farakka issue and destroy the fabric of bilateralism. No long-term agreement on the sharing of the Ganga waters was achieved.

This turned around with Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League winning the parliamentary elections in June 1996. The daughter of Mujibur Rahman committed her government to improving bilateral relations.

The United Front coalition government was keen to improve relations in the neighbourhood. Hasina desisted from internationalising the water issues. But what brought about the breakthrough was the involvement of West Bengal in the negotiating process. West Bengal chief minister, Jyoti Basu travelled to Dhaka to discuss the terms of the pact.

While India made its calculations to sign the treaty based on fair play and no-harm, it would be fair to say that Bangladesh equally convinced India to do so.

Uttam Sinha works at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses

The views expressed are personal

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