TEEPAIMUKH BARRAGE: INDIA’S UNLIMITED THIRST FOR WATER
Abdur Rahman Chowdhury
All the major rivers in the subcontinent including the Ganges, the Jamuna, the Brahmaputra have their origins at the foot of the Himalaya and then flow through different states of India before entering into the Bangladesh territory and merging into the sea. Since these rivers flow through the territories of more than one country, as per international law, the concerned countries have also got inalienable right on the use of the waters of the rivers. The countries where the rivers have their origins do not have the absolute right to divert, preserve and withdraw water without the concurrence of the lower riparian country. The Danube in Europe, the Mississippi in the North America, the Amur in central Asia, the Mekong in the Far East and the Nile in Africa have flown through the territories of several countries and all the countries of the delta enjoy equal rights on the waters of these rivers. In case of Indian sub continent there has been an exception. Since many of the major rivers have originated from the hills and mountains in India, India felt it has absolute right on the waters of the rivers. India, in flagrant violation of international law, began diverting the water from the Ganges to Hugli and Bhagirathi rivers in order to ensure all weather navigation of the Calcutta port. It began constructing a barrage at Farakka in 1961 in order to preserve and then divert water before it could flow into the territory of Bangladesh. Pakistan Government objected to this water diversion plan but India argued that the Ganges has mostly flown through its own territory and therefore it has got all the rights to build any project on the river. India at the end agreed to discuss with the then Pakistan government on the sharing of water. Meanwhile it continued the construction and in 1974 the Farakka barrage was completed. In April 1975 India secured the consent of the then Bangladesh Government to have a test run of the project for six weeks but the project continued even after the six weeks period came to an end. Following the change of political scenario in Bangladesh India began massive withdrawal of water at Farakka since mid 1975 causing colossal damage to agriculture, navigation and ecology of the districts under Khulna and Rajshahi divisions.
Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani, the veteran leader lodged a strong protest to India against its unilateral decision to divert the Ganges water. He sent a personal letter to the then Indian Prime Minister asking her to take steps to immediately decommission the project. The Maulana also decided to lead a long-march to the project which people from all walks of life whole heartedly supported. He addressed a huge public meeting at Chapai Nawabganj, close to Bangladesh- India border on 16 May 1976 and asked the Indian Government to let Bangladesh have its rightful share of the water. He also advised the Bangladesh Government to seek a solution of the problem through diplomatic means. The Maulana had thus united the entire nation on this national issue. Later on at the relentless efforts of Mr. B.M. Abbas the distinguished water resource specialist, India and Bangladesh concluded Ganges water sharing agreement in 1977 for five years. This agreement was at later stage extended through modifications and amendments but specialists claim that Bangladesh continues to be deprived of its due share of water.
On the sharing of water from the river Tista India dragged its feet for decades. Pakistan Government took up the issue with New Delhi as early as in 1955 but India always sought more and more data on the flow of water. Later on Bangladesh Government sought a water sharing agreement but India remained non committal. At the same time India began diverting water from the Tisa to the river Mahananda at the point north of Bangladesh territory. An interim water sharing agreement was reached in 1983 under which Bangladesh was allocated 36% of the available water while India got 39% and remaining 25% kept as reserve which was ultimately squandered by India. Bangladesh lobbied for a long term agreement but India showed little interest. Following protracted negotiation India agreed to sign the Tista water sharing agreement during the Indian Prime Minister’s visit to Bangladesh in September but at the last moment India backed out. Bangladesh Finance Minister claimed that within the next three months the Tista agreement would be concluded. Since then three and a half months have passed, no progress has been made. Indian Prime Minister has reportedly said recently that it would take some more time to conclude Tista water sharing agreement. Meanwhile the flow of water at the site of Tista project in Rangpur has continued to decline and should the situation remain unchanged there would be severe adverse effect on the agriculture, navigation and ecology in greater Rangpur, Bogra and Pabna districts.
It was in mid 2009, the Indian High Commissioner in Dhaka announced his government’s decision to go ahead with the Teepaimukh project located hundred kilometers north east of Bangladesh-India border. People from all walks of life reacted strongly. They believe that the Teepaimukh project would bring about a colossal damage to the north eastern region of the country of the scale equal to that of the Farakkha. People advised the government to take a firm position and dissuade the Indian Government from implementing the project. Bangladesh Government sent a delegation to India to discuss with Indian officials and visit the project. The delegation comprised of the members of the Parliament but none of them were either engineers or water resource experts. They went to India but could not visit the site of the project due to inclement weather. Upon return they submitted the report but nobody knew their findings as it was never made public. Couple of delegates reportedly dismissed any fear of damage on Bangladesh due to the construction of the project. Indian High Commissioner further clarified that the proposed project would be different from the Farakkha as it would not divert water from the river Barak. It would instead, arrange storage of water to generate electricity. Our leaders and officials felt a sigh of relief.
The Government of India decided to build the Teepaimukh project as early as in 2003. The 390 meters long and 163 meters high dam, once completed, would likely to generate 1500 megawatt of electricity but experts claim the electricity generated would not be more than 400 megawatt. The reservoir would store 15.5 billion cubic feet of water equivalent to the annual rainfall of the entire Barak delta. By retaining such a huge quantum of rain water at the reservoir the project would dangerously disrupt the flow of water to the rivers Shurma, Kushiara and the Meghna and their tributaries. The water levels in the low lying areas of Shunamganj, Habiganj, Keshorganj and Netrokuna would also decline. The flow of water on the twelve rivers in the region connected to Shurma and Kushiara would reduce causing severe damage to navigation, irrigation and ecology in the area.
The Government of India has recently signed contracts with three local firms for the construction of the Teepaimukh barrage. Once this was highlighted by the media in Dhaka people rose in strong protest. They dismissed the recent assurance of the Indian Prime Minister that India would not do anything at the Teepaimukh that would be harmful to Bangladesh. Sensing the anger of the people the Bangladesh Prime Minister sent two of her advisors to New Delhi to convey the deep concerns of the people of Bangladesh. Upon return they dismissed the concerns of the people and one of them even suggested that Bangladesh would gain if it invested in the project. Earlier the Foreign Secretary mentioned at the press briefing that he felt assured at the assurance of New Delhi. The Foreign Minister echoed similar feelings. The irony is that none of these officials, advisors and Minister is expert on water resources but feels confident on the assurance of the Indians that the project would cause no harm to Bangladesh. This raised questions on their wisdom and competence.
Is there any scope to trust the Indian leaders and officials? They commissioned the Farakkha barrage only for six weeks in April 1975 but the project continued to withhold and divert water for years. The massive withdrawal of the Ganges water has brought about colossal damage to the agriculture, navigation and on all aspects of the rural economy in the north western region of Bangladesh worth billions of dollars. Bangladesh and India signed Long term Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation in 1973 but soon after the political change in Bangladesh, India began training and arming the dissidents. Under the cover of the Indian security force the dissidents armed with weapons supplied by India carried out subversive activities inside Bangladesh. This was a wanton disregard of the Treaty.
India began building fences along the Bangladesh-India boarder. Indian infiltrators with the support of the BSF move deep inside Bangladesh territory to take the harvest and steal the livestock. People passing around the fences are shot and killed by the BSF. According to the Human Rights Watch 74 Bangladeshi nationals were killed, 72 were wounded and 43 were abducted by the BSF in the year 2010 alone. Only a few months ago a young girl was killed by the BSF and her dead body was kept hanging on the fences for several hours before it was handed over to the Bangladesh authority. Assurances from different levels of Indian authority have not changed the situation much. Around 52 rivers have originated from the hills and mountains in India and flew over Bangladesh territory before being exhausted into the sea. India has built dams almost on all these rivers and continued to withdraw water at its own requirement. During the lean season Bangladesh does not get required quantum of water while in rainy season huge amount of water is released to cause flooding in the area. India ignores the concerns made through the Joint River Commission and at other forums. These are flagrant violations of the long term Treaty.
In the past forty years successive governments in Bangladesh have extended their hands of friendship and cooperation to India but India behaved in its own way. India took whatever she needed and in return let loose terrorism at the border, resorted to water theft and undue interference in the internal affairs of Bangladesh. In disguise of secularism India has emerged as one of the most vicious communal countries in the world. Muslims, Christians and low caste Hindus in India live as secondary citizen in their own homeland. Even after sixty years of independence the minority communities undergo untold sufferings at the hands of the radical elements of Hindu Mahashaba and Jana Sangha. The historical Babri Mosque was demolished by these communal forces in connivance with the central government in New Delhi. Arunditi Ray has brilliantly articulated the sufferings of the minority communities in India. This is why she earned the wrath of the communal forces and became person non-grata back at home. India has shown very little respect to human rights in suppressing the freedom movement in Jammu and Kashmir. Kashmiri-Canadian Council, a human rights watchdog reported that 47,455 people have been killed in Kashmir since October 1989. The Independent Peoples Tribunal led by Justice H. Sharma, a retired Judge of the Bombay High Court confirmed that “in quite a number of cases where the victim had been killed, the courts have not even awarded any compensation to the next of kin. We have also some cases where the complainants have been made to go from one court to the other for nearly two decades, with no relief whatsoever.” India is brutally silencing the activists demanding greater autonomy for their regions in Assam, Nagaland, Mizoram and the Tribal areas in Madhya Pradesh.
Bangladesh is not the only victim of India’s hegemony. India trained and armed the Tamil militants who unsuccessfully fought to partition Sri Lanka. The civil war lasted for more than twenty five years, killed over sixty thousand people and made millions homeless. India suspended the transit facility to landlocked Nepal in 1991 which was fully dependent on Calcutta port for its external trade. The transit facility was restored only after the international community mounted pressure on India. Her attitude towards the arch rival Pakistan is well known. India is quick to blame Pakistan for all outlawed activities happening in the country. Sikkim was annexed to the Indian union through coercion. Kuldhip Nayar tries to remind Indian leaders and policy makers that the fair play would bring more dividend than the benefits extracted from neighbors through coercion and manipulation. But his advice falls on deaf ears.
Given India’s records of broken trusts the Government and political leadership in Bangladesh will be well advised not to fall prey to India’s false assurances. Instead, effective political steps should be taken to safeguard national interests. An all party resolution asking the Government of India to refrain from constructing Teepaimukh project should be immediately tabled in the parliament. This will be a significant step in building national unity. India is taking advantage of our lack of unity and striking hard on our national interests. A nation of 160 million people, once united, cannot be bullied or harassed. In this critical juncture our hope rests with the youth. They will have the courage, determination and patriotism to challenge the enemies of national unity and sovereignty.
· The author is a former official of the United Nations.