Media reports from Bangladesh indicate the concern with which it views India’s river-linking project. A Padma-Jamuna-Meghna Bachao Andolon has surfaced for lower riparian Bangladesh, where flooding during the monsoon, drought in lean seasons and increased salinity are feared, threatening for example, the Sunderbans. The 35th joint river commission meeting between the two countries has just begun in New Delhi and on the occasion, India’s water resources minister has tried to allay these fears. More accurately, the fears are not exaggerated, but premature. Mr Suresh Prabhu’s task force on inter-linking has not even established the feasibility of the project, apart from the considerable opposition (often on the part of the states) within India. These need resolution if the project is going to fly, a possibility very few people in India believe in. Pending this, discussions with affected neighbours are indeed premature. Having said this, Bangladesh’s distrust is reflective of worsening relations between the two countries, especially with the National Democratic Alliance government. The mandate of the south Asian association for regional cooperation does not include water negotiations. These, therefore, have to be resolved bilaterally. The Indus waters treaty, signed between India and Pakistan in 1960, is a bad example, because the World Bank brokered it. Of more relevance is the building of the Farakka barrage in the Sixties, a unilateral decision, ignoring the interests of what was then East Pakistan.
The 30-year India-Bangladesh water-sharing agreement could not be signed until 1996. If the signing has a moral, it is that political rhetoric does not get very far. Signing a “fair” agreement that optimally protects the interests of upstream and downstream users requires the involvement of civil society and nongovernmental organizations. Even then, as the Mahakali river treaty (with Nepal in 1997) shows, allegations of unfairness are difficult to live down. Potentially, yet another controversy is brewing over the Brahmaputra between China, India and Bangladesh. The answer does not lie in Bangladesh’s rhetoric alleging that India’s river-linking project violates international water-laws and conventions, a proposition of doubtful legal validity. Despite controversies and disputes, more than one recent south Asian inter-country water-sharing agreement illustrate that overcoming disputes and rhetoric is possible, since water-sharing is of mutual benefit.
Other than overcoming flood problems in states like Bihar, Orissa and Uttar Pradesh (often contributing to poverty and deprivation), there is the untapped potential of water navigation, which can open up connectivity in Bangladesh and in relatively backward Indian regions in the Northeast. But the answer does not lie in India’s ignoring Bangladesh either. While discussion of the water-sharing plan may be premature, there is no denying that India’s attempt to cultivate improved relations with its immediate neighbours has been less than optimal.