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Jyotibabu’s Bangla Coup

The Ganga water agreement will improve India’s diplomatic image and Indo-Bangladesh ties

Jyotibabu’s Bangla Coup
outlookindia.com
-0001-11-30T00:00:00+0553

FINALLY, India and Bangladesh are on the verge of signing an agreement on the Ganga waters. This is a dispute that has come to define bilateral ties in recent years—so much so that Dhaka has gone to the UN, complaining about India’s ‘negative’ attitude. There have been, over the years, protracted talks: but an accord on the amount of water India would release from the Farakka barrage remained elusive.

The turnaround can entirely be credited to West Bengal Chief Minister Jyoti Basu, who recently spent six days in Dhaka on an invitation from Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed. The primary aim: to discuss the water problem. In fact, it was a clever move on the part of External Affairs Minister Inder Kumar Gujral to involve Basu directly in the negotiations. He is believed to have told Basu that he will sign on anything the latter agrees to in Dhaka. Officials in the Water Resources and External Affairs Ministries don’t want to discuss, until the pact is signed, the exact quantum of water to be given to Bangladesh. But it’s believed that Bangladesh can be assured 34,500 cusecs (cubic feet per second) or so, for 10/15 days during the crucial period in April, when the dry season is at a peak. Gujral had initially offered 27,000 to 30,000 cusecs. In agreeing to the additional amount, Basu is taking a calculated risk. This explains why he agreed to make this concession only on an "experimental basis", not to exceed two or three years. A permanent solution is a long way off.

Of course, even this wasn’t easy. When the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) of Khaleda Zia was in power, the water dispute had soured relations between the two countries. It didn’t help that she was seen as aiding Pakistan’s subversive designs in the North-east of India. The turning point came with the change of government in New Delhi and Dhaka this year. With the India-friendly Awami League coming in, and a new regime taking over in New Delhi with the avowed aim of improving ties with neighbours, it became possible to think seriously about finding a solution. It helped that the CPI(M), ruling in West Bengal, was supporting the United Front Government. It was an issue crying for a political solution, and not just a technical one.

True, without Basu’s decision to allow Bangladesh some additional water over a limited period, no agreement could have been signed. To that extent, the faith reposed by Gujral in Basu has worked, despite pressure from hawks in India and emotional pleadings from Bangladesh. That he was able to arrive at a compromise that will give a breathing space to all parties is a triumph of diplomacy in extremely trying circumstances.

West Bengal’s gesture flies in the face of existing official findings about the flow of water from Farakka and fears expressed by Calcutta port authorities. The port, which is staging a financial recovery of sorts after some years, needs around 42,500 cusecs during the dry season. Technically, this lasts from January to May, but the pinch comes during February to April. Occasional rains at this time can make a difference.

State irrigation department sources in Calcutta point out that during the crisis period in April, the overall flow of water down the Ganga at Farakka has dropped to 50-55,000 cusecs. This is largely owing to the ever-increasing demands made on Ganga waters by cultivators in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. "Neither West Bengal nor Bangladesh is really responsible for the crisis, if you examine the issue squarely. The only solution is to regulate the large drawals in the upper reaches, in the northern states," says a department official.

The port authorities have scaled down their minimum demand to around 40,000 cusecs in a bid to accommodate Bangladesh’s requirements. "As things stand, there is simply no way to balance the minimum demands of both the port and Bangladesh. In case 34,500 cusecs is given, the port is bound to suffer," say port authorities. It’s not as though Basu has neglected the port entirely. His attempt was only to ensure that the two-decade stalemate was broken. In any case, he has kept his escape route open. It has been suggested that the port take care of the problem of silting, which is bound to worsen if less water flows, through dredging. But then, this cannot be a permanent remedy. In case the port’s traffic slumps, the state government can always point this out to Bangladesh and press for a new agreement.

The dispute is a complex one. It involves the agricultural economies of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, the Calcutta port’s interests, the industrial prospects of West Bengal, and the agricultural economy and environmental well-being of a part of Bangladesh.

While the credit for the prospective settlement goes to Prime Minister Deve Gowda and Gujral, who had allowed a carte blanche to Basu in his talks in Dhaka, it has raised some important questions. Using a chief minister to help reach a bilateral agreement—does it represent an abdication on the part of the Centre? Can foreign policy initiatives be left to state chief ministers? Will the Government allow M. Karunanidhi to dictate relations with Sri Lanka? The long-term implications of this move should not be ignored.

Basu made it clear repeatedly that he did not represent New Delhi, nor would he be a signatory to the pact. He would only apprise Gowda of his talks in Dhaka. "My stand is, let’s see what happens if we give Bangladesh some more water, for 10\15 days, on an experimental basis," he told newsmen before leaving for Dhaka. After his meeting with Sheikh Hasina in Dhaka, an upbeat Basu said: "Everything will be finalised in New Delhi". The treatment he received in Dhaka would have done a foreign minister proud. In October, Bangladesh Foreign Minister Abdul Samad Azad had visited Calcutta for talks with Basu.

CLEARLY, if India can sign a pact for two years, then why not for five years, as Bangladesh wanted? Ideally, Bangladesh would want a permanent solution. New Delhi has failed to explain another point: if it now agrees to give 34,500 cusecs, why couldn’t this be done in the past? The pact strengthens Dhaka’s case for a permanent solution.

The critics of the accord in Bangladesh have a theory on why the Hasina regime has been able to swing it. They point to the League’s traditional ties with India. In fact, Hasina is accused of being soft on India. If New Delhi had agreed to a five-year pact, they say it would have confirmed that the concession wasn’t really for Bangladesh but for the League, which has a five-year tenure. Besides, they trace India’s desire to build bridges with the Bangladeshi population to the insurgency in the North-east.

Hasina’s critics say she had painted herself into a corner by announcing unilaterally, without talking to New Delhi, that the dispute would end before the next dry season. As a friend of the League, India found itself rushing towards a pact. It was imperative for Hasina to secure more water from Farakka, not only as a face-saving device but as her very raison d’etre, say observers. In fact, if the schedule being discussed sticks, her visit will coincide with that of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev.

The proposed agreement may also refer to procuring water for the Ganga from the Sankosh river in Bhutan. By establishing a link through difficult terrain, at an estimated Rs 5,000 crore, it’s hoped that an additional 12-15,000 cusecs will come to India during the dry season. But this involves Bhutan, so little can be said on it now. Also proposed is a small dam on the Ganga in Bangladesh.

Experts have divided the lean period, January to May, into 15 phases, during which the flow of water from Farakka point would be closely monitored and adjusted according to each nation’s needs.

The five year agreement in 1977 assured Bangladesh 35,000 cusecs of water. From 1982 to 1987, there was an MOU governing water-sharing. Experts in Calcutta say water availability at Farakka started to diminish during this period, thanks to limitless drawals in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. After 1988, no formal agreement could be drawn up and India controlled releases, though it never completely blocked water. That’s when Dhaka started accusing India of trying to destroy the economy and environment around the Ganga. 

Of course, the projected agreement does not solve all bilateral problems. It breaks one major deadlock. Tariff barriers, the wrangle over transit facilities, the illegal migrants issue and boundary disputes remain. India wants a transit route through Bangladesh to the North-east; Dhaka has asked for transit facilities to Nepal and Bhutan—both have fallen flat on security grounds. Also, the growing Islami-sation of the Bangladesh society and the marginalisation of Hindus troubles India.

The agreement will certainly be a foreign policy achievement of the United Front Government. Gujral had promised to be as flexible as possible with the neighbours. It should also help India’s credibility. So what if a chief minister has managed it! 

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