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Water talks stall on river-linking plan

New Delhi, Sept. 30: Talks between India and Bangladesh on water-sharing stalled today over the proposed inter-linking of the Ganga and the Brahmaputra.

Dhaka insisted that the issue be made part of a joint statement to register its concern over India’s attempt to inter-link the two major rivers. But Delhi refused to do so, saying its proposal to link the rivers was only at a “conceptual stage” and did not merit a mention.

Hard-nosed bargaining between officials of both countries and separate one-to-one meetings between water resources minister Arjun Charan Sethi and his Bangladeshi counterpart Hafizuddin Ahmed failed to fetch the desired results. The meeting remained inconclusive till late tonight as neither side wanted to give up their stated position on the issue, which is becoming a sticking point between the two countries.

Ahmed and his team are leaving for Calcutta tomorrow where they are scheduled to meet chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and other senior Bengal officials. The Bangladeshi minister is likely to visit the two observation sites at the Farakka barrage on the Ganga. Bhattacharjee is scheduled to visit the sites tomorrow.

The two-day talks on sharing of river water began yesterday. Ahmed and Sethi were scheduled to address the media this evening after issuing a joint statement. But as the joint news conference approached, it was clear that the talks had run into rough weather.

Officials from both sides — the Indian team includes senior officials of the foreign ministry —sought to suggest that a breakthrough was imminent, but that was not to be.

Although India and Bangladesh share 54 rivers, the focus of the Delhi talks was on sharing water from the Teesta and six other rivers, especially as senior officials of the Joint River Commission happened to be on the negotiating team.

But even before the team from Dhaka arrived here, it was obvious that India’s proposal to inter-link the Ganga and Brahmaputra was rankling the Bangladeshis and that Ahmed would raise the matter.

Yesterday, both sides had expressed confidence about reaching an agreement and said the talks had been cordial. One reason for this could have been Sethi’s decision to include the inter-linking issue as a miscellaneous item on the talks agenda.

The pre-lunch session today also went off smoothly. The relaxed atmosphere could be gauged by the way many members of the visiting team went shopping after lunch for saris and other items to take home.

Sources said the countries had been able to narrow differences on other important issues like sharing of Teesta water and construction of the barrage and hydro-electric project at Tipaimukh.

But trouble began to brew when the Bangladeshis asked for the inter-linking issue to be mentioned in the joint statement issued by the two sides.

Sethi said the proposal was still at a conceptual stage and had not yet been discussed formally within the country. As such, it should not figure in the official statement, he added. But Ahmed insisted that the matter had to be included since it had already been made part of the agenda.

Delhi has tried to allay Dhaka’s fears by making it clear that there are no plans of diverting water from the Ganga. It has argued that any diversion of water from the Brahmaputra’s northern tributaries will benefit both countries. But Bangladesh is sceptical. It feels India’s attempt to link the rivers is contrary to international laws and conventions.

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