Few things strain relations between neighbouring countries as much as sharing natural resources, especially water. Bangladesh can, therefore, be legitimately worried over India’s ambitious scheme of connecting its major rivers into a vast watery grid. It is easy to understand Dhaka’s anxiety, particularly over the planned linking of the Ganga and the Brahmaputra, both of which flow down to Bangladesh. Even many Indian experts share some of the concerns that the country’s prime minister, Ms Khaleda Zia, expressed over potential threats to environment, agriculture, fisheries and also industry from the massive river-linking project. Obviously, Bangladesh is not convinced by Indian arguments that the project could benefit both countries, which suffer alternately from floods and drought, not only through better water management but also by generating more power and irrigating perennially parched lands. But there seems to be a political overtone in Dhaka’s complaint that the Indian scheme would be contrary to international laws and conventions. There are internationally accepted laws on river water sharing between the upper and the lower riparian countries and no sensible government would embark on a project which would violate these laws. Dhaka cannot be unaware that the Indian project would require the building of four large dams in Nepal and two in Bhutan, which is not possible without the concurrence of these two other neighbours.
This clearly is not a case for the kind of protracted political rhetoric that bedevilled the sharing of water from the Ganga between India and Bangladesh. A section of political opinion in Bangladesh had long complained that the construction of the dam at Farakka would lead to “desertification” of vast areas in that country. Much of the complaint had to do with the compulsions of Bangladesh’s domestic politics in which anti-India campaigns are a common ploy for a section of politicians. That the two countries still managed in 1996 to reach a 30-year agreement on the sharing of Ganga water was proof of hard realism finally winning over populist politics. Leaders of the two countries would do well to examine the river-linking project in that spirit. Ms Zia may not have helped the cause of mutual understanding and accommodation by voicing unfounded suspicions even before the two sides began any discussion on the subject. The Indian side may be right in arguing that the issue is not part of the agenda of the latest meeting of the joint river commission in New Delhi, which is scheduled to discuss the sharing of the Teesta water. Dhaka surely has a case for presenting its views on the new Indian project, but political insinuations will only complicate matters.