BEN unhappy at recent Dhaka-Delhi accords on rivers

Bangladesh Environment Network (BEN), the global network for the protection of the environment, in a Statement on Monday expressed its dissatisfaction at the reported outcome of the recent (October 4, 2019) meeting between the Prime Minister of Bangladesh Sheikh Hasina and the Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi regarding shared rivers. According to press reports, the meeting reached the agreement to “operationalize the Dhulian-Gadagari-Rajshahi-Daulatdia-Aricha Route (to and fro) and include Daudkandi-Sonamura Route (to and fro) under Protocol on Inland Water Transit and Trade.” It agreed to “exchange updated data and information and prepare the draft framework on Interim Sharing Agreements for the six rivers, namely Manu, Muhuri, Khowai, Gumti, Dharla, and Dudkumar, and to firm up the draft framework of interim sharing agreement of Feni River.” At the meeting, the Indian Prime Minister assured Bangladesh Prime Minister that “his government is working with all stakeholders in India for conclusion of the Agreement (on sharing of Teesta River) soonest possible.” Finally, Bangladesh agreed at the meeting to allow India to withdraw 1.82 cusec water from the Feni River, the statement said.
Clearly, most of these agreements cater to India’s interests without paying adequate attention to Bangladesh’s interests. This is disappointing when many parts of the country’s west are experiencing an unprecedented flood, the root cause of which is the Farakka Barrage. India closes the gates of this Barrage in winter to divert water, resulting in siltation, encroachment, shallowing, and other morphological changes, which reduce the carrying capacity of the Padma River. As a result, when India opens the flood gates in summer and autumn, there is more bank erosion and flood. The same is the situation with Teesta and many other shared rivers on which India has built water impounding and diversionary structures, BEN said.
Both India and Bangladesh should realize that unless this basic problem of diversion of flow and destabilization of Bangladesh’s rivers is addressed, it will be difficult to meet India’s need for water routes through Bangladesh to its seven northeastern states. Maintaining the proposed river routes will require enormous perpetual dredging, which at some point will become simply untenable. The problem will get aggravated once India proceeds with its plan to divert Brahmaputra water, under its River Linking Project, it said.
Without this basic realization, efforts to reach agreements regarding the sharing of rivers will not be fruitful. The unpleasant fact is that the 1996 Ganges sharing treaty has not been of much use for Bangladesh, because it has not increased the winter flow of the Padma River and has not stopped the process of destabilization of this river. Similarly, assurances of a Teesta sharing agreement is of not much value, because Bangladesh has been getting such assurances for many years now and more importantly because, by the time any such agreement may be reached, there will be hardly any winter flow left of the Teesta River beyond the Gajoldoba Barrage. In the above backdrop, it is ironic that the only concrete river-related outcome during the Oct 4 meeting was Bangladesh’s agreement to allow India to withdraw part of the Feni River flow. The quantity is small, but the symbolism is large. It shows that, so far as shared rivers are concerned, India gets what is wants while Bangladesh keeps on pleading, the statement said.
It is indeed unfortunate that Bangladesh fails to raise the demand for removal of diversionary structures built by India when there is a strong and growing demand inside India for the demolition of the Farakka Barrage because of the upstream flooding that it is causing in Bihar. It is well-known that important figures of the Indian polity, such as Nitish Kumar, the ex-Chief Minister of Bihar, have been urging for the demolition of Farakka for quite some time now. There is a saying that “One has to cry his or her own cry!” It is not surprising that Bangladesh is not getting the necessary hearing from India when it hesitates even to cry, Ben said.
It is therefore high time for Bangladesh to insist on its rights on the shared rivers. It should sign the 1997 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses, and use its Articles 7, 20, 21, and 23 to ask India not to cause “significant harm” to Bangladesh through its impounding and diversionary structures, and to “protect and preserve (Bangladesh’s) ecosystem” and its “marine environment,” including the Sundarbans, by restoring the full natural flow of the shared rivers. Given the experience of Farakka, the idea of constructing a Ganges-Padma Barrage inside Bangladesh with India’s help does not make much sense. Such a barrage will only provide legitimacy to the Farakka Barrage and cause similar downstream and upstream harms as Farakka has already caused, it said.
The governments of both Bangladesh and India therefore should consider seriously the “Transit in exchange for Rivers” formula that Bangladesh Environment Network (BEN) put forward in 2011. Under this formula, India will restore the full natural flows of Bangladesh’s rivers by removing impounding and diversionary structures, while Bangladesh will provide India transit and transhipment facilities to its northeastern states, subject to common international practices. Unfortunately, Bangladesh governments so far have been meeting India’s demands regarding transit and transhipment without getting back much regarding rivers. Such an unequal exchange cannot be sustainable in the long-run. BEN hopes that the leaders of both Bangladesh and India will see the merit of the “Transit in exchange for Rivers” formula as a win-win solution for both. The goodwill that such a solution will create can then spill over to other areas of cooperation between the two countries, the statement added.