India joins race to develop river basin project in Bangladesh

China's interest in a river basin management project in Bangladesh close to a strategically important Indian corridor seems to have raised security concerns in India.

China’s interest in a river basin management project in Bangladesh close to a strategically important Indian corridor seems to have raised security concerns in India, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently announcing that his country would shortly send a team to Dhaka to study the feasibility of New Delhi’s involvement in the US$1 billion proposal, which Dhaka deems crucial to address the dual crises of water scarcity and frequent flooding in the waterway.

India’s offer to take up the Teesta River Comprehensive Management and Restoration Project was floated both during the visit to Dhaka by New Delhi’s Foreign Secretary Vinay Mohan Kwatra in May and Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s meeting with his Indian counterpart Modi in New Delhi late last month.

Originated in the northeastern Indian province of Sikkim, the Teesta also flows through another Indian state, West Bengal, before entering Bangladesh, where it is the fourth largest river and the lifeline for the northern regions. The river is crucial to Bangladesh mainly for its agricultural requirements, supporting more than 10 million people and about 14 per cent of the country’s total crop production. According to the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, the Teesta basin supports approximately 30 million residents, with 71 per cent in northwest Bangladesh.

Even though the two South Asian neighbours have historically enjoyed cordial bilateral ties since New Delhi’s military assistance to the Bangladesh Liberation War which helped the emergence of the youngest nation in the region, separating it from India’s arch-rival Pakistan, there has been a long-standing dispute between India and Bangladesh over the sharing of transboundary river waters.

India and Bangladesh share 54 common rivers, but the distribution of the Teesta’s waters has perhaps been the thorniest issue of all between the two countries for decades, with a breakthrough looking seemingly elusive despite repeated attempts.

Bangladeshi experts say the dams that India has constructed on its side of the river constrain the flow of water upstream, affecting its discharge into the neighbouring country and impairing the irrigation of over 100,000 hectares of land. India, which agreed as early as 1983 that Bangladesh should get 36 per cent of the Teesta’s waters, failed to deliver on its promises mainly owing to domestic political compulsions.

The two countries tried to reach another agreement in 2011 giving Bangladesh 37.5 per cent of the river’s waters, but the deal had to be called off at the last minute following objections raised by the chief minister of the Indian state of West Bengal, where the Teesta is the second largest river. Bangladesh has since been pushing for a speedy resolution of the impasse, but in India, the issue got embroiled in centre-state politics especially since rivers fall under the state’s purview according to the Indian constitution, while foreign affairs lie with the central government.

Unable to implement the water-sharing agreement with India, the Bangladeshi government in 2019 sought Chinese help with the river basin project, which involves Dhaka’s plan to dredge and develop its section of the river to meet its water conservation requirements especially in the lower riparian regions of northern Bangladesh. A plan submitted by the Chinese state-owned Power Construction Corporation of China to develop the basin was approved in 2019 and work was scheduled to be completed by 2025. Beijing also offered to finance up to 85 per cent of the US$1 billion project as a loan given to Bangladesh.

But the project soon became a point of contention for India which is wary of the rising influence of Beijing in its own backyard. With the prospect of a Chinese state-owned firm executing the project, New Delhi is apparently worried about, among other things, the possible leakage of water flow data to China.

India is also particularly concerned about Chinese presence less than 100 kilometres from its borders and close to the Siliguri Corridor, the so-called “Chicken’s Neck”, a sliver of land which connects mainland India to its seven northeastern states and which security analysts in New Delhi consider is vulnerable to Beijing’s machinations.

A report by New Delhi-based think tank Observer Research Foundation said work on the project was stopped in 2022 after India raised security concerns.

But China, which is steadily expanding its footprint in the Indian Ocean region through its flagship Belt and Road Initiative and other investment programmes, has been optimistic about the progress of the project. Chinese ambassador to Dhaka Yao Wen expressed hopes in December last year that work on the project would resume after the election in Bangladesh, which took place the following month.

In an apparent attempt to strike a balance in her ties with traditional ally India and largest trading partner China and concerned of New Delhi’s sensitivities to the rising Chinese presence in the subcontinent, Bangladeshi prime minister Hasina paid a visit to New Delhi late last month, just before her scheduled state visit to Beijing this week (July 8-10).

Following India’s expression of interest in the Teesta basin project during her meeting with Modi on June 22, Hasina said Bangladesh would gauge proposals from both India and China and accept the one which suits her country the most.

“We undertook the Teesta projects. China has proposed, and so has India. We will evaluate both proposals and accept the one that is most beneficial and acceptable in terms of the interests of our people,” the Bangladeshi leader said.

Hasina also said it might serve the interests of her country better if India executed the project. She said: “Bangladesh has a longstanding issue over Teesta river water sharing with India.”

“So, it will be easy for Bangladesh if India does the Teesta project. In that case, we won’t need to talk about the Teesta water sharing always.”

Asked by reporters how she planned to strike a balance in her ties with India and China, Hasina said there was nothing to balance as her government was following a foreign policy principle of  “friendship to all, malice towards none”.

But India’s expression of interest in financing the project is also seen in some quarters in Bangladesh as less of a true commitment and more of a move to check China’s influence in its neighbourhood. While some analysts in Dhaka said India’s proposal of sending a technical team for the project “lacks specifics”, others expressed doubts over New Delhi’s capacity to finance the project and also questioned the timing of the announcement.

“The timing … juxtaposed with China’s already ongoing involvement, suggests a reactive rather than proactive stance,” Md Jahid-Al-Mamun, a lecturer in law at the University of Dhaka, wrote in Asia Times.

New Age, a Bangladeshi newspaper, said in an editorial that India’s announcement to send a technical team to Bangladesh to discuss the conservation and management of the river “appears farcical” and that India should instead “sign the Teesta water-sharing agreement”.

Meanwhile, Wen, the Chinese envoy to Dhaka, laid emphasis on Bangladesh’s strategic autonomy while also saying Beijing was open to working jointly with India on the project.

“The Teesta river is within the territory of Bangladesh. So, it is your river. Any project regarding the Teesta river is for Bangladesh to decide upon,” Wen said in reply to a question in Dhaka last week.

Tathagata Ray Chowdhury
Tathagata Ray Chowdhury
Tathagata Ray Chowdhury is an independent journalist based in India.