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TRIAL BY WATER

The sharing of river waters between countries is often the stuff of both local and global politics. Domestic politics in Bangladesh has long been stirred by controversies over the sharing of waters from the Ganga. India’s domestic politics, on the other hand, stalled the signing of a treaty between the two countries last year over the sharing of waters from the Teesta river. Manmohan Singh failed to keep his commitment to the signing of the treaty during his visit to Dhaka because of Mamata Banerjee’s last-minute objections to it. West Bengal’s chief minister feared that the treaty would harm agriculture in North Bengal, which largely depends on the Teesta waters. She also complained that New Delhi had not consulted her on the details of the treaty. Her objections had much to do with political tensions between her and the Congress leadership in New Delhi. But she succeeded in making an important point — New Delhi had to take into account the views of the states through which international rivers flow before signing such treaties. The principle of federalism demands that New Delhi involves states on issues that matter to them.

However, the compulsions of domestic politics are no reason why a country should dishonour its international commitments. There are international laws binding countries to the sharing of river waters. It is for New Delhi to sort out the issues that Ms Banerjee has raised. During his visit to Dhaka earlier this week, Salman Khurshid, the external affairs minister, hinted that the two countries could finally sign the agreement later this year. He should know the importance of the treaty in bilateral relations between the two countries. Another failure to get the agreement in place this time would be a major embarrassment for New Delhi. But it could cause a huge political problem for Sheikh Hasina Wajed in Bangladesh’s national elections due in December. Much of the recent gains in bilateral relations could be undone if the signing of the Teesta treaty is stalled again. Better bilateral relations with Dhaka are a major factor in New Delhi’s security strategy as well as in its battle against terrorism. An early agreement on the Teesta is, therefore, in the mutual interest of both the countries. As a border state, Bengal has a huge stake in improved India-Bangladesh relations. Ms Banerjee should realize that Bengal too has much to gain from a fair deal to Bangladesh.