Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s continued intransigence over sharing waters of the Teesta river with Bangladesh has pushed India’s friendly neighbour into China’s embrace.
Bangladesh is a US $983 million loan from China for a mega project to ensure adequate flow of water through the river and other related development projects.
Dhaka had, for a long time, been requesting India for its fair share of waters of the Teesta as a lower riparian state.
The Teesta originates in Sikkim and flows through North Bengal before entering Bangladesh. Of its total length of 315 kilometers, 113 kilometers is in Bangladesh, where its floodplains span 2,750 square kilometers.
More than 2 crore people in Bangladesh are directly or indirectly dependent on the river for their livelihood. But the river runs nearly dry in Bangladesh during the winter months, thus affecting lakhs of farmers, fishermen and others.
Talks for an equitable sharing of the waters of the river started way back in 1951, but has dragged on for nearly seven decades now.
The construction of the to irrigate farmlands and generate power on the river in the late 1970s had drastically reduced the flow of water into Bangladesh.
Dhaka has been asking for enhancing the flow of water during the dry season. But Bengal diverts water from the river during the dry season to irrigate farmlands in North Bengal.
And during the monsoons, when the river swells, Bengal releases huge volumes of water from the Teesta barrage. This causes largescale floods and erosion of river banks in Bangladesh.
Negotiations on a water-sharing deal gained momentum when Sheikh Hasina came to power in 2009. The two countries ultimately worked out a water-sharing formula under which India would get to use 42.5 per cent of the river’s water while Bangladesh’s share would be 37.5 per cent.
The remaining 20 per cent would be allowed to flow freely to maintain the river’s health.
This water sharing deal was to have been signed during the visit of the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Dhaka in September 2011.
But Banerjee put her foot down and said that farmlands in North Bengal would be adversely affected if Bangladesh is given its share of water under the deal.
The agreement had to be put in cold storage due to Banerjee’s objections.
Under the Indian Constitution, the Union Government cannot take any decision on rivers and water resources without the consent of the state that would be affected by such a decision.
Thus, the consent of the Bengal government to a water sharing deal with Bangladesh is necessary.
The Union Government, especially under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has nudged Mamata Banerjee many times and has even tried to sweeten the deal by offering many sops.
But Banerjee has remained recalcitrant. Even Dhaka’s overtures to Banerjee have not borne any fruit.
Exasperated by Banerjee’s intransigence, Bangladesh reached out to China for finance for a mega project to enhance the flow of the river and provide succour to its impoverished millions who have been adversely affected by the diversion of Teesta waters by Bengal.
The Chinese-funded project:
The project — Teesta River Comprehensive Management and Restoration Project — envisages construction of huge water reservoirs to store water to maintain the river’s flow during the dry winter season, construction of embankments to prevent floods, anti-erosion measures, reclaiming land from the river and other development projects.
Bangladesh officials say that the depth of the river would be enhanced to 10 metres through intensive dredging.
That will enhance the river’s capacity and will enable navigation of river vessels throughout the year.
The width of the river, which now varies from 700 metres to 5.5 kilometers, will be reduced and maintained at one kilometer for its entire 113 km stretch in Bangladesh by constructing embankments.
The reduction of the width of the river will result in reclamation of vast stretches of land from the Teesta and this land will be used for farming and other commercial purposes.
The value of the land reclaimed from the river is projected to be US $ 1,570 million.
The prevention of loss of properties and land (due to floods and erosion) that the project will result in is projected to be $ 1,346 million, while the total benefits accruing from the project is estimated to be $2.9 billion a year.
China has suggested setting up of townships and economic zones in the reclaimed land and has shown interest in developing these facilities.
The suggested economic zones and townships would be close to the border with India and right next to the strategic chicken’s neck corridor in North Bengal that is a vulnerable link between Northeast India and the rest of the country.
The proposed economic zone will have garment factories, textile mills, fertilizer factories, agricultural products processing plants, feed factories and warehouses.
The project proposal also includes construction of a satellite town within Rangpur division that is adjacent to Cooch Behar in North Bengal.
Power Construction Corporation of China has already completed a feasibility study and prepared a master plan for the project.
The cost of the proposed project is about $983.27 million. Of the amount, China will provide $853.05 million as a loan.
Bangladesh premier Sheikh Hasina requested China’s financial help for the mega project during her visit to Beijing in July last year.
Chinese president Xi Jingping had then assured her that China would be happy to extend a loan to finance the project.
Bangladesh plans to start work on the project very soon and complete it by the end of 2024.
Officials of Bangladesh’s Water Development Board which is handling the project now say apart from preventing huge loss of properties and land, enabling farming during the winter months and boosting economic activities, the project will also generate a lot of electricity.
Senior Bangladeshi officials say that had India agreed to release an equitable share of waters to Bangladesh and ensured adequate flow of the river during the dry season, such a mega project would not have been required.
And China, then, would not have been able to enlarge its footprint in Bangladesh.
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