Teesta River originates in the Himalayas and flows through the states of Sikkim and West Bengal to merge with Jamuna in Bangladesh (Brahmaputra in Assam). The river drains nearly 95 per cent of the state of Sikkim. It covers 3,225 square kilometres across the districts of Darjeeling and Jalpaiguri in West Bengal before entering into Bangladesh. It is the fourth longest transboundary river of Bangladesh that flows down from India.
In Bangladesh, Teesta River covers 9,667 square kilometres with an estimated population of 9.15 million as in 2011.1 According to the estimates provided by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics 2012, 21 million people are directly or indirectly dependent upon the river water for their livelihoods in Bangladesh. It covers nearly 14 per cent out of the total area under cultivation in Bangladesh.
This river has been a point of contention between India and Bangladesh since 1950s and 1960s when India and former East Pakistan began discussing proposed projects on the river. Immediately after the creation of Bangladesh in 1971, the Indo-Bangladesh Joint River Commission was set up to carry forward the talks over the sharing of river waters in 1972.
The Teesta barrage, hydropower projects and dam constructions over Teesta in India has led to a disturbance in the flow of river water downstream, i.e., in Bangladesh. Though the hydropower projects and dam constructions are also being carried by the Bangladesh government on its side of the river.
Bangladesh, that gets lesser share than that of India of the Teesta River water, claims for an equitable share which is unacceptable to the state of West Bengal. Negotiations over the same have been going on since 1983. The matter is still over the table with an unresolved dispute.
A significant amount of Teesta’s water flows only during wet season i.e., between June and September, leaving scant flow during the dry season i.e., October to April/May which paves way to the issue of equitable sharing during lean season. The 50-50 allocation of the river water could have been agreed to but it was opposed by the Chief Minister of West Bengal, Mamta Banerjee, who claims that it would be unfair to West Bengal since it would adversely impact the water-flow available in the state.
The stakeholders here are not just the Indian state and the Bangladesh government but since water is a state subject, the Indian state of West Bengal is a large party to the matter whereas Sikkim has highly been ignored (which is also a point of highlight for the critics).
Bangladesh claims that an equal water sharing is essential for them since their basin dependence is higher than that of India’s and also, that the downstream nature of Bangladesh makes them vulnerable since any construction by India affects the water flow available to them. Apart from the farmers getting adversely affected, the inadequate flow of water has also created siltation. Thus, these are reasons enough to get India’s attention towards this issue.
However, West Bengal’s concerns can also not be ignored which states that Teesta has dried up due to which an acute drinking water problem has been caused apart from another issue which states less availability of water for irrigation needs.
In 1983, an ad hoc arrangement was made between India and Bangladesh wherein both agreed to share 75 per cent of river water with India using 39 per cent and Bangladesh 36 per cent. The remaining 25 per cent was to be distributed after some further studies. In 1997, a Joint Committee of Experts was formed to examine the matter. It took until 2004 for a Joint Technical Group to be formed which drafted an interim agreement for the sharing of the river water during the lean season. However, in 2005, the JTG admitted its inability to come up with a solution.
In 2005 itself, the Joint River Commission stated that the river will not be able to meet the needs of both the countries during the lean seasons, hence, any agreement that is made will have to be based upon shared sacrifices. In 2010, the two countries agreed to resolve the matter expeditiously and drafted some principles for the sharing of river water during the lean season.
In 2011, the agreement was to be signed during the visit of the then Prime Minister of India, Dr. Manmohan Singh, to Dhaka, Bangladesh. However, it fell through when the Chief Minister of West Bengal, Mamta Banerjee protested against the proposed allocation of 50 per cent of the river’s water to Bangladesh.
Since then there have been bilateral discussions on the dispute between the two countries but they have been unable to reach upon a mutually agreed agreement. Something that has been continued to be a major sore point within the bilateral relations of India and Bangladesh!
Teesta barrage, whose construction started in the late 1970s, is the largest irrigation project of the entire eastern region. It aims at utilizing the potential of Teesta River in hydropower generation, irrigation, navigation, and flood moderation. India, being the upper riparian country, controls the flow of the river water into Bangladesh from the Teesta barrage. Even Bangladesh has constructed a barrage downstream that provides water for agriculture and irrigation to the drought prone areas of northern Bangladesh.
Bangladesh argues that the construction of Teesta barrage has drastically reduced the availability of water downstream, especially, in the dry season. On the other hand, it’s not just Bangladesh that is facing such issues, India is facing such issues as well. A reduced availability of groundwater due to underground tunnelling has been witnessed which has impacted agricultural productions and livelihoods in the region. The drying up of natural springs and local water resources, the matter which also needs to be addressed, has resulted in growing scarcity of drinking water. An increasing number of landslides have also been witnessed in the mountainous regions of Sikkim.
Development of hydropower projects and the construction of dams are majorly held responsible for all such issues. It has been a growing concern in India and something that the environmentalists, scientist, social activists have all cautioned against. Changes in the river, which have largely been due to the dams being constructed on the Teesta are being witnessed, including frequent changes in the course of the river, delta formation, high rates of siltation, increased erosion, and siltation of agricultural land in the areas surrounded by the river.
Availability of water for irrigation is a key issue, particularly for West Bengal, as highlighted by local communities. It is estimated that the availability of water for irrigation be reduced due to the series of proposed dams since every hydropower project is estimated to absorb at least 5 per cent of the river’s running water.
Similar is the situation with Bangladesh as well where farmers are being forced to rely on tube wells to pump underground water which has resulted in increased cost of production and also, reduced areas under cultivation. In many areas, increased siltation of riverbed has caused widening of the river which has resulted in bank erosion and flooding.
The Perspective Of Institutional Economics
The dispute is still hanging somewhere unable to find itself a reasonable solution. It is not just about the point of contention regarding the sharing of water, that how much water should India consume or how much of it should Bangladesh take away from the river, but it is also about the environmental concerns and the way it is impacting the humans. Maybe, if India takes up the discussions regarding sharing of some of the benefits that it would gain from its hydropower projects, it could happen that the dispute might be solved, but that would not solve the environmental concerns altogether.
Environmental economics, a strand of economics, offers one such solution which talks about using a price signal in waiving off a particular dispute. But in order to do that, you need to own that particular resource which is not possible in the case of a river. The market, thus, cannot allocate the resource using a price signal since there are no specified property rights, therefore, none of the state can boast of ownership. The lack of property rights disables either of the state to be able to sell it or rather, in this matter, be able to negotiate a settlement using a ‘price’ signal on the basis of cost-benefit analysis. Similarly, one state cannot also exclude the other state from using the river water since it’s a common environmental resource for both the states.
This indicates towards the presence of externalities that happens when there are lack of property rights and people utilize their utility not considering what additional/negative utility others may get from it. In such a problem, institutional economics, another branch of economics, has some solution to offer. Elinor Ostrom, an American political economist talks about common pool resources that people have managed successfully for generations. She says that these resources should be managed in communities where people can collectively come and decide and set up some rules that should match the local conditions since different regions have different ecosystems.
Here, in the context of the Teesta River dispute, the major thing that is missing is the ‘people’ and their participation in forming a consensus over the usage of river water. The local communities are the major stakeholders of the river water and it is them who are being majorly effected but they have been kept away and everything has just boiled down to politics and the bilateral equations between the two states. This leads us to understand the issue from the lenses of political ecology.
Political Ecology And Its Links With The Dispute
Political ecology is that branch of geography that emerges from ‘critical geography’ and makes this basic point that physical environment in which we live in is not just natural but is characterized by a constant human intervention making it a ‘built’ environment. And since we live in such environment which is partly and very deeply influenced by human beings themselves, social and human processes should be right at the centre of our analysis.
Political ecology fundamentally connects questions of environment with questions of political processes and political power, something that is clearly visible in the dispute in discussion. It also draws insights from political economy, particularly, Marxian political economy to draw this connection between environmental issues, political power, and political and social processes.
David Harvey, one of the renowned scholars of political ecology, talks about the phenomenon of ‘Accumulation by Dispossession.’ This phenomenon talks about the existing social relations between the capitalist class and the farmers/working class. This talks about how the farmers are being left with no other option than to lose their lands and become a victim at the hands of the industrial development.
Here, in the context of Teesta River dispute, something similar is happening. On one hand, while the government and a section of civil society is happy with the expected benefits of the hydropower project like employment, energy sufficiency, new revenues, on the other hand, local communities, environmentalists, scientists, and activists are concerned about social, cultural, and environmental aspects of these projects. More such projects are proposed, more the economic and industrial development but only at the cost of environmental development and also, at the cost of the livelihoods of the local communities!
The politics of the two countries, their asymmetric relations, and their urge to economic and industrial development has costed the local communities their livelihoods. For the authorities concerned, it’s about their political ego, their incapability of meeting the local needs through the existing water share, but holistically, this matter is not just about that. Undoubtedly, it continues to be dominated by political procedures but what matters the most are the local communities who are suffering on both the sides of the borders. It is these people who are losing their livelihoods, lands, and the allied opportunities but have been kept away from the major procedure of decision making. The sufferers are none but the environment itself whose course is being decided by the humans and also, the humans – but only the ones that are dependent upon the same environment for their livelihood opportunities. Rest that remains is the politics!