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AN UNQUIET FLOW
- Cooperating on the Teesta would benefit Mamata Banerjee

She may not realize it, but Mamata Banerjee has been presented with an opportunity to carve out a place for herself in history. Unlike M. Karunanidhi and other Tamil Nadu politicians who have given a jolt to India’s neighbourhood diplomacy, she can help a process of regional consolidation that will in turn further the Look East strategy that underlies New Delhi’s foreign policy. India can’t look very far east if the blank wall of a disgruntled Bangladesh blocks the view. Cooperation instead of competition over water resources would also bring handsome benefits to the 250 million people of West Bengal, Sikkim and Bangladesh.

Bangladeshi fears of being starved of water are possibly exaggerated. More efficient dredging in the Hooghly would probably have spared Calcutta port the silting that the chief minister now blames on the Centre’s generosity to Bangladesh. Bengalis and Bangladeshis can both complain that Sikkim’s dozens of hydro-electricity projects drain the Teesta before it enters West Bengal. Many Sikkimese, especially the Lepcha minority, mobilizing under the banner of Affected Citizens of Teesta, object that these projects are destroying the environment and causing calamitous floods and earthquakes. These points of view can’t be ignored. But genius lies in the management of differences so that they don’t cause irreparable damage. In this case, a reconciliation of Sikkimese, Bengali and Bangladeshi claims can revitalize the Indo-Bangladeshi partnership that had been “cemented...through blood and sacrifices” in Indira Gandhi’s memorable words.

The subcontinent suffers scarcity amidst plenty. It is as prone to floods as to drought. It was to correct this imbalance that experts going back to Arthur Cotton, the 19th-century irrigation engineer and army general, suggested a network of canals, reservoirs, dams and lift mechanisms linking the river system to store water during the wet months and release it when fields are parched. That remains the ultimate answer to the problems of a world in which nature recognizes no borders. Highly commendable in themselves, the Indus water treaty that India and Pakistan signed in 1960 and the Ganges water treaty of 1996 between India and Bangladesh were valuable mainly for identifying the problem and indicating the way forward. Such palliatives cannot be the final answer to a problem that can only be solved through a permanent means of redistribution and reconstruction. Mamata Banerjee and Sheikh Hasina Wajed would get the credit if that is now attempted in the east. Their initiative might even create a precedent for collaboration in the west.

India and Bangladesh share 54 rivers with an annual flow of 1,200 billion cubic metres of water. The Teesta accounts for only 60 bcm. Since 20 per cent of the water (12 bcm) must be guaranteed until the Teesta joins the Brahmaputra, we are left with 48 bcm to be divided between the two countries. The various formulae discussed by the Central Water Commission, probably on the basis of the report submitted by Kalyan Rudra, the river expert whom West Bengal appointed to investigate the matter, include sharing on a 65:35 or even 60:40 basis during the rains. The basis of division during the dry season from October to March, when north Bengal suffers as much as the north-western districts of Bangladesh, is 70:30. But it has been suggested that this could be 50:50 if at least 10 large reservoirs are constructed along the Teesta’s banks in a mini version of the Cotton plan that K.L. Rao and M.N. Dastur expanded in detail many decades later.

The dry season is politically dangerous for that is when Bangladesh Nationalist Party and Jamaat-e-Islami demagogues are most virulent in raising the tired spectre of Indian exploitation. With elections due in Bangladesh before the end of January 2014, we can expect propaganda to reach a hysterical crescendo. Mamata Banerjee will be at least partly responsible if that results in the Awami League’s defeat and if Bangladesh inches towards some form of Islamic rigidity. Turkey’s recent retreat on Kemal Ataturk’s legacy by permitting headscarves in most State institutions might well be the thin end of the wedge for most Muslim societies. The blame will be all the greater because many Bangladeshi diplomats and officials believe that the West Bengal chief minister had seen and approved the water-sharing formula that the abortive treaty would have formalized. They attribute her last-minute refusal to accompany Manmohan Singh to Dhaka in September 2011 — the first prime ministerial visit in 12 years — to her urge to cut a dramatic figure. According to this school of thought, she calculated she gained more personal mileage from being Banquo’s ghost in Dhaka than a constructive partner in signing several important agreements.

Whatever her compulsion, tens of thousands of “stateless border people” still remain stateless as a result. The Dhaka agreement to put in motion a deal that allows about 50 Bangladeshi enclaves inside India to be integrated with Bangladesh and about 100 Indian areas inside Bangladesh to become part of India has not been implemented. Indian hopes of gaining overland access through Bangladesh to the north-east, essential for strategic and economic reasons, were frustrated. The potential export of power was stalled. Plans to curb the contraband traffic in people and cattle were aborted. Above all, India’s failure to deliver on the promised Teesta agreement played into the hands of Sheikh Hasina’s enemies who accuse her of being too eager to accommodate Indian demands without adequate reciprocal concessions.

It bears stressing that Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League cannot always hold office in a democracy. Sooner or later the BNP is bound to return to power. Since India must do business with whoever governs in Dhaka, it cannot afford to be identified with only one party. It must also try to avoid the peril of becoming a factor in Bangladesh’s internal politics which has always threatened to overwhelm the bilateral relationship. Before paying his first official visit to New Delhi as head of state, Ziaur Rahman, who had become intimately acquainted with India and Indians during the liberation struggle, sought detailed and explicit assurances that he would be granted all the ceremonial honours that had been lavished on Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Nearly a decade later, Hussain Muhammad Ershad, entertaining my wife and me to tea in the cantonment bungalow where he felt safer than in the presidential palace, proudly declared he had been able to obtain from India what “even Mujib and Hasina” had failed to do: Rajiv Gandhi had promised to involve Nepal in riparian talks which would in future be trilateral and not bilateral. My friend, Salauddin Quader Chowdhury, a barrister and BNP member of parliament, now languishing under sentence of death for alleged war crimes, used to say it was easier to deal with Indians than the local “India lobby”. Mamata Banerjee’s volte-face on the Teesta agreement only keeps such wounds alive and bleeding.

It’s late in the day but some water-sharing formula must be formalized before new governments are elected in Bangladesh and India so that details of a long-term master plan to make optimum use of existing resources and to augment supplies can be worked out later. That was the promise of 1972 when Indira Gandhi promised Sheikh Mujib a new era of prosperity based on cooperation in water. Sundeep Waslekar heads the Strategic Foresight Group, which recently produced a report titled, Rivers of Peace: Restructuring India Bangladesh Relations, in which there is the lament that the Joint Rivers Commission set up then is now “neither joint nor a commission”. This, too, is something Mamata Banerjee can help to redress. She owes it to the state she rules, the country to which she belongs, the neighbour she professes to love and to her own reputation in times to come. She would earn posterity’s gratitude by helping to rekindle the cooperative spirit of 1972.