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Why Mamata Banerjee is opposed to sharing Teesta waters

LiveMint logoLiveMint 10-04-2017 Arkamoy Dutta Majumdar

Kolkata: In opposing the Teesta water sharing pact, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee may have turned a deaf ear to some of her own advisors who are of the view that, in line with international convention, the river cannot be blocked from flowing into Bangladesh.

It is an accepted principle that rivers should be allowed to flow freely across countries, said a water management expert close to Banerjee. “So, whatever the formula for sharing, it is inevitable that India has to share Teesta’s water with Bangladesh,” this person added, asking not to be identified.

But Banerjee is of the view that the volume of water in Teesta is decreasing and that it should be shored up by connecting it with other rivers. At least 54 rivers flow from India into Bangladesh, and Banerjee said in Delhi over the weekend that she wants some of them to be connected.

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With panchayat elections in West Bengal due next year, Banerjee could not possibly have agreed to share Teesta’s water with Bangladesh, said a political aide, who, too, asked not to be named.

The volume of water in Teesta is kept a secret by the state administration, but unofficial estimates put it at 18,000-24,000 cusec, depending on the season. It is widely accepted that sharing Teesta’s water with Bangladesh will have implications for irrigation in India.

Experts in Dhaka, however, see Banerjee’s stand on the issue as only a ploy to delay water sharing, and this has major implications for irrigation in Bangladesh.

Even after India built the Gajoldoba barrage on the Teesta in the late 1990s, Bangladesh used to receive around 2,000-3,000 cusec of water, said Ainul Nishat, professor emeritus of Dhaka’s Brac University and a leading expert on water resource management in Bangladesh.

Before the barrage was constructed to create irrigation facilities and generate power, Teesta used to carry 6,000-7,000 cusec of water into Bangladesh.

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However, after Banerjee took office as the chief minister of West Bengal in 2011, the Teesta completely dried up in Bangladesh because the natural flow of water was blocked artificially, said Nishat. And this happened even after the two countries had in 2011 reached an in-principle pact to share the river’s water, he said.

“This is unacceptable,” Nishat said, adding that the failure this time to implement the Teesta water sharing pact is a “major setback” for Bangladesh prime minister Sheikh Hasina in her own country. It will only strengthen the opposition in Bangladesh, and undermine bilateral relations between Delhi and Dhaka which are improving, said Nishat. The matter should have been resolved between Delhi and Dhaka without bringing Banerjee into the picture, he added.

Teesta is the only river in the region which is harnessed for irrigation in north Bengal, said Subir Sarkar, a professor of geography and applied geography at the North Bengal University.

“Sharing water with Bangladesh will undoubtedly have some implications for Indian farmers,” he said.

By suggesting that linking canals be dug up to connect rivers flowing into Bangladesh, Banerjee has revived a proposal from 20-25 years ago, according to Sarkar.

Asked if it was feasible, Sarkar said: “We do have the technology now to do such things, but unless we know what exactly she has in mind, you cannot say whether or not it will materialize.”

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