A Congress leader in West Bengal, in a private conversation, remarked that there was no one to actually explain things to the stateâ€™s chief minister Mamata Banerjee. Even the top bureaucrats hesitate to give her sound advice. No one has explained to her that according to international laws, downstream countries are entitled to waters of shared rivers. She simply canâ€™t outright refuse to give the water. Actually, Mamata pays no heed to diplomatic norms or international laws.
During the visit of Bangladeshâ€™s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to India, the river Teesta came into focus after the issue of the defence deals. Indiaâ€™s Prime Minister Narendra Modi in no uncertain terms committed to sharing Teesta waters and said the deal would be signed while he and Sheikh Hasina were still in their respective offices. Mamata was in Delhi at the time. During her dinner with Sheikh Hasina, she came up with an alternative proposal for sharing the waters of the Torsa and four other rivers. Her proposal took concerned quarters aback.
Chief minister Mamata Banerjee said she had made the alternative proposal during the bilateral discussions between the two prime ministers. However, no such proposal was mentioned in the joint statement issued that evening. The statement said that Bangladeshâ€™s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had requested Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to sign the Teesta agreement which had been drawn up in January 2011 based on a consensus between the two countries. It also said that the concerned officials had been instructed to sign water sharing agreements regarding seven common rivers including Feni, Monu and Dharla. Torsa was not mentioned.
Experts have firmly said that Torsa cannot be an alternative to Teesta. Teesta has water all year around, but Torsa only during the monsoons. The geography department of North Bengal University, in its research, has stated that there is a vast difference between the water flow of the two rivers. Teesta has a flow of 100 thousand cusecs of water annually, while Torsa has an average annual flow of only 11 thousand cusecs. The river flows from China through Bhutan to West Bengal, on to Bangladesh. Bhutan has a hydro-electricity project on the river. Most of the rivers which Mamata has named as alternatives are actually tributaries.Â North Bengal water expert Arup Guha has said that Torsa already flows unhindered into Bangladesh, so what is there to give anew?
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Former RSP lawmaker of West Bengal Nirmal Das has said that politics and geography are not one and the same thing. The chief minister is mixing things up and making herself a laughing stock.
Leaders of all political parties in West Bengal contend that Mamataâ€™s proposal is unreal and irrelevant. CPIM leader Ritabrata Banerjee has said, West Bengalâ€™s chief minister does not understand geography. If she did, she would not have proposed to give the waters of Torsa, Jaldhaka and other rivers as an alternative. These waters are naturally flowing down into Bangladesh. There is no logic in her words.Â West Bengal BJP leader Diptiman Sengupta has said revealed that the problem has been created by diverting Teestaâ€™s water though a water project canal.
Bangladesh is entitled to the waters of all the 54 rivers shared with India. Most of them flow through West Bengal into Bangladesh. According to a professor of political science, whether there is water or not, water must be given to the downstream country. It is illegal to block the water flow completely. A downstream country can go for arbitration at the international tribunal for its rightful share of water.
The counter-proposal offered by Sheikh Hasina to Mamataâ€™s proposal is also unrealistic. Upon her return home she said, I came up with an alternative proposal and told them to take all the water of the other rivers and give us Teesta.
A few years ago, a senior engineer involved in the Teesta project has said that if the project is to be made effective, the rivers Jaldhaka, Teesta, Mahandanda, Nagar, Tangon, and others will have to be linked through canals. The irrigation office realized that this would be a difficult infrastructural task.
Many experts see the Teesta project at Gajaldoba as a thorn in the flesh for both countries. Sheikh Hasina herself says it was a mistake to make the Teesta project. She has even demurred about the Ganges barrage project.
Politics has entered the issue of sharing Teesta waters. Bangladesh needs Teesta waters as much as does West Bengal. It is a humanitarian issue. Without Teesta water, large tracts of land in Bangladesh will face desertification. About 1.75 crore people of Bangladeshâ€™s northern region depend directly and indirectly on Teesta.
It is true that over the last decade, water has decreased in Teesta, but there is no accurate data to this end.
There are six hydroelectricity project in Sikkim for which large dams have been constructed. Two dams have been set up in Darjeeling. A large Teesta irrigation project was set up in Jalpaiguri in the seventies for agricultural purposes. All this has brought the water level of Teesta down. Bangladesh is bearing the brunt.
Political analysts see Mamataâ€™s opposition to the Teesta agreement not so much an opposition to Modi as a tool for her political equations. Mamata is worried at the sudden aggressive entrance of BJP in West Bengal. She has to keep an eye on the 2018 elections. She is not giving Teesta waters, keeping in mind the farmers of North Bengal. She is also paying attention to the 30 percent Muslim populace of her state. The Muslims of West Bengal are not fond of the Muslim of Bangladesh. They are also not pleased with the anti-terrorist operations launched by the Bangladesh government. Mamata does off and on spew out rhetoric of how much she loves Bangladesh and how Hasina is like an elder sister to her.
The bottom line is that the central government has the legal right to sign international agreements. The approval of a state government can be sought, but it is not essential. Modi has expressed highest regard for Hasina for the manner in which she has tackled terrorists. He would not want to lose the goodwill of such a neighbour. Political scientists feel he should thus extend all cooperation to the leadership in Bangladesh.
Under these circumstances, Modi feel it is important to give Bangladesh its fair share of Teesta. Perhaps he will try a few more times to make Mamata understand.
So, will the central government of India go ahead and sign the Teesta agreement with Bangladesh? Is Mamata actually pushing Modi in that direction? After all, she can use that as a tool against BJP in the coming election.