'Low-water consuming crops key to solve Teesta dispute'

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The key to resolving the Teesta river dispute between India and Bangladesh lies in encouraging farmers to switch over to low water-consuming crops along the river basin area during the dry season, say experts.

Citing the example of 'boro' a variety of paddy they said disincentivising its cultivation by offering an attractive minimum support price (MSP) for relatively drier cereals would help farmers diversify to less water-consuming crops and, thereby, reduce demand for the crucial resource.

"The increasing acreage of irrigated paddy in the region (Teesta basin) during the lean season has enhanced water demand manifold, leading to conflict over water sharing amid a gradual decline in flow," Observer Research Foundation (Kolkata) Director Nilanjan Ghosh said.

The 'boro' paddy has a water requirement of about 1,800-2,800 mm, nearly 10 times than that of drier cereals like sorghum or ragi, he said, adding, around 83 per cent of the total river basin area of 12,540 sq km lies on the Indian side.

Echoing Ghosh, former IIM-Calcutta professor Jayanta Bandyopadhyay said if farmers keep on expanding high water- demanding crop without understanding the resource base, it will lead to disputes like the case of the Cauvery river or the Teesta.

Farmers prefer paddy cultivation as they get higher support price, and do not want to reduce the use of water from the ecological viewpoint, Bandyopadhyay, also a river expert, said.

"Perhaps, vote bank politics played a dominant role, as neither the Centre nor West Bengal has disincentivised farmers from cultivating 'boro' and urged them towards diversification by offering higher MSP for drier crops," Ghosh told PTI.

Bangladesh's outgoing High Commissioner to India Syed Muazzem Ali had recently said in New Delhi that the two countries share 54 common rivers, and the subject of water sharing during the lean season has been an "important issue".

The Teesta pact was set to be signed during the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singhs visit to Bangladesh in September 2011 but was postponed at the last minute due to objections raised by West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.

Banerjee opposed the pact maintaining that people in her region would "not get a single drop".

Teesta waters are crucial for Bangladesh, especially in the leanest period from December to March when the water flow often temporarily comes down to less than 1,000 cusecs from 5,000 cusecs.

Ali said the two countries are now working towards an interim water-sharing agreement on Teesta river.

Ghosh said that in 1983, there was a two-year temporary agreement between the two neighbouring countries over water sharing, with 39 per cent allocation to India and 36 per cent to Bangladesh, and the rest for free flow.

The situation, however, became complicated with the declining flow and subsequently, the Joint Rivers' Commission recommended allotting 42.5 per cent to India and 37.5 per cent to Bangladesh, he said.

The water sharing issue should not be a case of "robbing Peter to pay Paul", feels Bandyopadhyay.

The whole process should be based on a new paradigm of understanding of rivers, which is providing "sustainable solutions" in many parts of the world for water sharing of transboundary rivers, he said.

"Not only the volume of water, other aspects such as sediment flow, but energy and biodiversity also need to be integrated into such an agreement," Bandyopadhyay said.

Speculation was rife over a possible discussion between Mamata Banerjee and Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on the Teesta issue when the two leaders recently met in Kolkata during a cricket match.

"The West Bengal government had opposed to a possible agreement in 2011 and may continue to object unless the water demand issue is addressed," Ghosh said.

The state government's claim of not having enough water to share during the dry season has "a basis as the flow of Teesta gets fragmented with a series of hydropower projects on its upstream", he said.

Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty, former high commissioner of India to Bangladesh, told PTI that the Teesta river issue has been "politicised and seems to have fallen victim to domestic Indian politics".

Ali, the neighbouring country's outgoing high commissioner to India, however, expressed hope that an agreement over the Teesta river will soon be materialised.

"Amid all these (bilateral) development and progress, there remains some dissatisfaction also. And that you can guess is the Teesta water-sharing deal... We have been reassured by Prime Minister (Narendra) Modi that this will be signed and we are looking forward to that," Ali had said.

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