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Water woes in India’s ties with its neighbours

If Mamata Banerjee holds her ground, New Delhi may not be able to move ahead to renew the Ganges Water Treaty with Dhaka, not only causing embarrassment for Modi and Hasina but also leading to stress in bilateral relations.
Last Updated : 29 June 2024, 03:22 IST

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With the leaders of Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Mauritius, Bhutan, Seychelles, and the Maldives witnessing Prime Minister Narendra Modi taking oath at the Rashtrapati Bhavan on June 9, New Delhi signalled that ‘Neighbourhood First’ would continue to guide the foreign policy of his government in its third term.

One of the seven neighbourhood leaders, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh, came to New Delhi again less than a fortnight later – this time on a bilateral state visit. Among the significant takeaways of the Modi-Hasina meeting at Hyderabad House was the announcement that New Delhi and Dhaka had constituted a joint technical committee to start discussion for the renewal of the 1996 Ganges Water Treaty, which would expire in 2026.

But just hours after Sheikh Hasina returned to Dhaka, the ruling Trinamool Congress in West Bengal started alleging that the Centre had not consulted the state government led by Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee before moving ahead to start negotiations for the renewal of the treaty. Banerjee wrote to Modi the next day, stating that the Centre’s “unilateral” move “without consultation and the opinion of the state government” was “neither acceptable nor desirable”.

This is not the first time that the Chief Minister of West Bengal objected to a water-sharing deal between India and Bangladesh. She had in September 2011 opted out of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s entourage to Dhaka, protesting against New Delhi’s bid to strike a deal with Sheikh Hasina’s government for sharing of water of Teesta, another common river between India and Bangladesh. She had then argued that the farmers of West Bengal depend much on the water of Teesta and the deal would hit them hard. Her protest had stalled the signing of the agreement on Teesta.

She reiterated it in her letter to the Prime Minister on June 23. “I would like to bring to your notice that river morphology has changed in the eastern part of India and Bangladesh over many years which has deprived West Bengal and negatively impacted the water availability in the state,” she wrote to Modi.

If Banerjee holds her ground, New Delhi may not be able to move ahead to renew the Ganges Water Treaty with Dhaka too; not only causing embarrassment for Modi and Hasina but also leading to stress in bilateral relations.

New Delhi perhaps couldn’t have had a friendlier government in Dhaka than the one headed by Hasina, who early this year, led her Awami League, witnessed another cakewalk victory in the parliamentary elections in Bangladesh.

“She is being criticised by her political rivals for her government’s good ties with New Delhi,” Sreeradha Datta, a professor at O P Jindal Global University, said. “The agreements for the sharing of water of the common rivers like the Teesta and the Ganges are critical for her to counter some of that criticism and to convince people that a friendly relation with India is good for Bangladesh.”

<div class="paragraphs"><p>Credit: DH illustration</p></div>

Credit: DH illustration

Another significant takeaway of the Modi-Hasina meeting on June 22 was New Delhi’s commitment to provide financial support to Dhaka for implementing a project for the conservation and comprehensive management of Teesta in Bangladesh. The two prime ministers also agreed that India would send a technical team to discuss the project.

India’s move was intended to dissuade Bangladesh from accepting China’s offer of a $1 billion soft loan for implementing the project. But soon after the West Bengal Chief Minister objected to the move to renew the 1996 Ganges Water Treaty, Hasina told journalists in Dhaka that her government would evaluate the offers of both India and China. Her message to New Delhi is clear. Bangladesh can rely on China for the project for the conservation of Teesta if the renewal of the Ganges Water Treaty gets blocked due to the domestic politics of India.

If Beijing gets to play a role in a project in Bangladesh close to the border of India and the strategic ‘Chicken’s Neck’ corridor, the narrow stretch of land linking northeastern states with the rest of the country, it is undoubtedly a major security concern for India.

An advantage for Pakistan

Islamabad has already been accusing India of waging a 'water war' against Pakistan. If domestic politics now stops New Delhi from clinching water-sharing deals with a friendly neighbour like Bangladesh, Pakistan is likely to cite it as a vindication of its allegations against India. “It will certainly reinforce Pakistan’s propaganda against India,” Sharat Sabharwal, New Delhi’s former envoy to Islamabad, said.

The Indus Water Treaty (IWT), which India and Pakistan signed in 1960, survived many flashpoints in the perpetual conflict between the two neighbours, including the wars of 1965 and 1971 as well as the Kargil conflict of 1999.

The IWT granted India absolute control over the three 'eastern rivers' of the Indus River System – Beas, Ravi, and Sutlej – with an average annual flow of 33 million acre-feet (MAF). The control over the three 'western rivers' – Indus, Chenab, and Jhelum – with an average annual flow of 136 MAF was given to Pakistan.

The treaty, however, also allowed India to construct run-of-the-river hydroelectric projects on western rivers as well as to build a storage capacity of 3.6 MAF water – 1.25 for general storage, 1.6 MAF for generation of hydroelectricity and 0.75 MAF for flood control. India has not yet built any storage on the western rivers and at present irrigates only 0.792 million acres of land, although the IWT allowed it to do so over an area of 1.34 million acres with water from western rivers. India at present uses about 94-95 per cent of the water of the eastern rivers but the remaining 5-6 per cent of unused water flows down to Pakistan.

The treaty created a Permanent Indus Commission (PIC), comprising two commissioners – one each from India and Pakistan. The commission is mandated to oversee the implementation of the agreement. It laid out distinct procedures to deal with 'questions', 'differences' and 'disputes'. A 'questio' would be resolved by the commission itself, while a Neutral Expert was to be appointed to settle a 'difference'. A 'dispute' was to be referred to the 'Court of Arbitration' – an arbitral tribunal comprising seven members. The IWT assigns the World Bank, which is also a signatory of the treaty, the task of appointing a Neutral Expert or a Court of Arbitration when requested by either or both of the parties.

Islamabad in 2015 requested the World Bank to appoint a ‘Neutral Expert’ to examine its objections to the technical design features of two hydroelectric projects of India – the 330 MW Kishanganga Hydroelectric Project and 850 MW Ratle Hydro Electric Projects. The Kishanganga HEP on the Jhelum was inaugurated in 2018. The Ratle HEP on Chenab is still under construction.

Pakistan has unrestricted rights to use the water of both the western rivers, while India has limited rights. Islamabad, however, in 2016 unilaterally retracted the request and proposed that a Court of Arbitration should adjudicate its objections.

New Delhi on the other hand asked the World Bank to appoint a Neutral Expert to settle the differences. Since the IWT does not empower the World Bank to decide whether one procedure should take precedence over the other, it paused the process on December 12, 2016. But five-year-long efforts to work out a solution acceptable to both failed as Pakistan persistently refused to discuss its objections with India during regular meetings of the PIC. The World Bank finally acted on both the requests and in October 2022 appointed Michel Lino as the Neutral Expert and Sean Murphy as the Chairman of the Court of Arbitration.

New Delhi conveyed to Islamabad and the World Bank that the initiation of the two simultaneous processes on the same questions and the potential of their inconsistent or contradictory outcomes would create an unprecedented and legally untenable situation, which would risk endangering IWT itself. India is of the view that such parallel consideration of the same issues is not covered under any provision of IWT. This is why India in January 2023 issued notice to Pakistan, seeking modification of the IWT under Article XII (3) of the treaty itself – for the first time after it was signed in 1960.

“The problem is not so much the word of the treaty as the deep trust deficit between the two countries. A cooperative spirit and a more normal bilateral relationship would have resulted in much better use of the waters covered by the treaty, for example through joint hydroelectric projects on both sides,” said Sabharwal.

No water-sharing pact with China

India and China do not have a water-sharing agreement for the transboundary rivers. The bilateral MoUs for China to share hydrological data about Brahmaputra (Yaluzangbu or Tsangpo in China) and Sutlej (Lungqen Zangbo) with India have not been renewed since 2018 and 2023 respectively as the bilateral relations nosedived over the military stand-off along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in eastern Ladakh.

“The data provided by the Chinese side was useful for flood prevention and disaster mitigation downstream. It also provided information on historical flows upstream and supplemented satellite data on the buildup of glacier lakes or man-made diversions,” Sanjay Bhattacharyya, a former secretary at the Ministry of External Affairs, said.

China has so far been building only run-of-the-river hydroelectric projects on Yaluzangbu or Tsangpo without blocking water flow to India.

New Delhi, however, cannot rest assured.

“Bilateral agreements on sharing water, on established principles, of common rivers secure water rights of lower riparian states and promote good neighbourly relations. Development needs can be met through projects that provide benefits to both sides, sustainable river water flows, and respect the fragile geology and environment of the Himalayas,” said Bhattacharyya.

“India has an exemplary record of accommodating the interests of lower riparian states through water sharing agreements on the Indus (with Pakistan) and on the Ganges (with Bangladesh); even while water remains a deeply contested issue in other parts of Asia,” he added.

Unless the stand-off along the LAC in eastern Ladakh is resolved and the relations come back on track, even the renewal of the hydrological data-sharing deals looks unlikely, let alone talks about water-sharing agreements.

“As and when significant dialogue restarts, river water agreements could be low-hanging fruits but, at the moment, I don't see any great prospects,” Jabin T Jacob, associate professor of international relations at Shiv Nadar University, said.

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Published 29 June 2024, 03:22 IST

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