Sheikh Hasina’s Change of Stance is an Opportunity for India

Teesta River is located on the trans-regional economic and trade route under the ‘Act East’ policy of India | Photo Credit: Jayanta Basu

Bangladesh has decided to not pursue the Teesta treaty for now. While the recent change in its stance means that India can heave a sigh of relief, it also means that the issue is not resolved. The article elaborates on why India should invest this time in getting Mamata Banerjee’s support, and improve the contents of the treaty. – Gauri Noolkar-Oak*


The latest statement of Mr Imam, political advisor to Sheikh Hasina, PM of Bangladesh that the Teesta treaty is “no longer an issue” between India and Bangladesh anymore is a clear indicator that Bangladesh, for now, has pushed the Teesta issue to the backburner. It seems to have resigned to the fact that the Teesta treaty won’t be signed anytime soon, and not, especially, before the national elections which are to be held at the end of this year.

The Indian government, which, in principle, has been willing to sign the treaty, can nevertheless heave a sigh of relief. The change in Bangladeshi stance over the Teesta has bought them, first and foremost, time to negotiate with West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee who has been opposing the current nature of the draft Teesta treaty since 2011 and win her support. It would be prudent on the central government’s part to not waste the opportunity and leverage this development as speedily and ardently as possible.

In 2011, when the then PM Manmohan Singh was slated to visit Bangladesh and sign the Teesta Treaty with Sheikh Hasina, Banerjee pulled out of the delegation last minute and the treaty could not be signed. At that time, Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) was the single largest ally of the UPA-led coalition government at the centre, and hence, the central government had to accept her decision. The NDA government led by PM Narendra Modi which came into power in 2014 is not dependent on allies and indeed the TMC to retain power, but getting the Teesta deal signed is still complicated. This is despite the fact that entries 10 and 14 in the Union List place powers regarding foreign affairs and signing of international treaties exclusively with the central government. Hence constitutionally, the central government does not need the consent of a state government while signing an international agreement over a transboundary water body.

However, geopolitical and domestic realities dictate otherwise. West Bengal is a border state, and its northern districts are located in the Siliguri Corridor or more popularly, ‘Chicken’s Neck’, a narrow strip of land which connects the north-eastern states of India with the rest of the country, and shares international borders with three countries, namely Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan, with China in proximity. In terms of economy, West Bengal contributes 40% of the GDP of East and North-East India, and 79% and 82% of the national production of jute and tea respectively. Strategically, it is located on the trans-regional economic and trade route under the ‘Act East’ policy of India. West Bengal’s geopolitical, economic and strategic importance is too eminent to be ignored and bypassed by the central government in matters, domestic or international, that affect the state directly.

The Teesta issue notwithstanding, there is significant political and ideological friction between the current central government and the West Bengal on many important issues within the country, including demonetisation of Rs. 500 and Rs. 1000 notes in November 2016 and the Goods & Services Tax implemented in July 2017. BJP, the biggest political party in the NDA, has historically had a weak presence in West Bengal and has recently started making rapid inroads into the state and is thus wary of taking unpopular decisions (like giving a bigger share of the Teesta to Bangladesh) that could possibly cause a dent in its progress.

As the larger, more powerful and most importantly, the upstream country, India could be inclined to not take up this opportunity with urgency; after all, despite the failure of Teesta negotiations in 2011, bilateral relations between India and Bangladesh have been largely smooth. The Land Boundary Agreement and various agreements in defence, transport, electricity, education, maritime safety etc. were signed by the two neighbours over the next few years, making India’s failure to sign the Teesta agreement look like a speed-bump in the otherwise smooth journey of India-Bangladesh ties. However, India should not take the Teesta matter lightly.

The Gajaldoba barrage in West Bengal. Photo credit: Jayanta Basu

As the downstream and non-hegemonic riparian of the Teesta, Bangladesh clearly has higher stakes in signing the Teesta Treaty, however, India’s long-term geopolitical interests too are tied with the Teesta Treaty. It is vital to secure the friendship of Bangladesh which, due to the virtue of its geographic location, is an important connector between India and its north-eastern states. Its ports, to which India has been granted access, are the North-East’s best access points to sea routes and marine trade. Bangladesh is also a strategic partner for India’s ‘East’ policy. Under Sheikh Hasina, it has also has supported India’s stand on terrorism and cooperated regularly in capturing and handing over a number of terrorists who have been destabilising India’s North East and contributing to the spread of Islamist terror across both countries. A Hasina-led Bangladesh is secular, supports India in the diplomatic cornering of Pakistan and views India as a ‘development partner’ and not an oppressor, which makes it a steadfast and valuable partner to India in an otherwise volatile and deeply distrusting South Asian neighbourhood. Not to mention, Bangladesh’s friendship is vital if India has to check China’s influence and strategic incursion in South Asia. In the view of these compelling factors, India cannot afford to postpone or worse, not sign the Teesta Treaty – the one treaty that Bangladesh has been insisting upon.

This is also a time to revise the terms of the treaty. The Teesta agreement in its current form is but a narrow, reductionist and state-centric approach towards sharing the Teesta’s waters. There are no provisions for disaster management; climate change; groundwater management; maximising environmental flows; river conservation; efficiency in water use; cultural heritage (and consequently tourism) management; protection of the basin’s ecosystems; and overall development of the basin. Taking advantage of the lull in Teesta negotiations, experts, policymakers and civil society on both sides of the border should take a long, hard look at the current draft and invest time and efforts in making it holistic and truly representative of the interests of the river and her stakeholders.

Ideally, the geopolitical consequences of the delay should push both riparians to rework the Teesta agreement speedily and strategically and give it more vision and comprehensiveness. India is less affected in the short term, hence Bangladesh needs to initiate and propel the process. However, India should also participate with equal vigour and accomplish an arrangement that is at once acceptable to domestic and Bangladeshi stakeholders, beneficial to the river, her people and her ecosystems on both sides of the border, and aligned with India’s geopolitical intentions and ambitions.




*Gauri Noolkar-Oak is a transboundary water conflicts researcher who has researched river basins in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and South Asia

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team.

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