Teesta River Dispute
Between Bangladesh and India
All you need to know about
The 414-km-long river, which flows 151 km in Sikkim, 142 km along the Sikkim-West Bengal border and in Bengal, and 121 km in Bangladesh, is a vital source of income for fishermen and farmers in both Bangladesh and India. India claims a share of 55 percent of the river’s water. Bangladesh wants a higher share than it gets now mainly because the livelihoods, agriculture, fisheries, food system and source of freshwater of its Rangpur region are directly interconnected with the Teesta river basin.
The Statute of the Indo-Bangladesh Joint Rivers Commission (JRC) was set up in 1972, with the mandate of reaching a fruitful solution in terms of river-water sharing. The negotiations on how to share the Teesta water have been going on since 1983 when both countries, with an ad-hoc agreement, almost reached a solution but ended up with nothing but an empty promise. However, after the Ganges Treaty in 1996, the issue of distribution of water of the river Teesta became the most important topic of discussion.
In September 2011, the then Prime Minister of India, Manmohan Singh, visited Dhaka. At that time, Teesta water-sharing agreement was to be signed. The term of the interim agreement was 15 years. According to the agreement, India’s right to 42.5 percent of the Teesta’s water and Bangladesh’s 37.5 percent were to be established. But the deal was not finalised due to opposition from West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.
Later, in 2014, Bangladeshi Premier Sheikh Hasina visited India where she met CM Mamata Banerjee who again opposed this treaty on the plea that she could not give water to Bangladesh by depriving the people of North Bengal. Even in 2015, CM Banerjee visited Dhaka with Narendra Modi. Although positive statements were made about the Teesta treaty, no tangible results were obtained. The position of the West Bengal government has been often clarified by questioning the availability of water in the Teesta river basin.
Why Bangladesh is concerned
In Bangladesh, Teesta is a major supplier of water resources in Rangpur, Lalmonirhat, Rajshahi, Nilphamari, Dinajpur, and Kurigram districts of the North-western region. It is also considered a prominent tributary and water supplier of the Bhramaputra-Jamuna river system. Twenty-one million people of 5,427 villages and 12 upazilas are completely dependent on the Teesta for their livelihood and economic activities. But, the country experiences severe water crisis in the dry and lean season in most of the shared river basins, including the Teesta basin, due to upstream intervention by India, which impedes the livelihood options of the river-dependent communities of the country. Over the last four decades, the political, economic, trade and cultural relations of the two neighbours have endured. But the deadlock in transboundary water sharing is considered an impediment to the cordial bilateral relations between these two nations.
At its highest levels, the Indian government recognises the role of an operational water-sharing agreement over the Teesta in maintaining the strength and success of Indo-Bangladeshi relations. However, whether it recognises the potential role of the agreement in furthering its larger “Act East” policy remains to be seen.
From a legal lens
The Teesta river water has drastically decreased in lower riparian region (Bangladesh) when the Gajaldoba barrage started working fully, along with a canal by channelling a large amount of water flow towards Mahananda. Building several river dams and restraining natural water flow in the summer season is one of the biggest reasons for the scarcity of water in the Teesta river basin in the northern part of Bangladesh. Bangladesh asserts that this diversion of water resources is not supported by the 1958 Law on Transboundary Water Uses or Inter-state Water Uses of India as well. The country’s government says that it also violates the notion of absolute territorial sovereignty as the concept could not be justified in the eyes of the law while more than one territory is attached to the disputed water resource. It is evident that the same restrictive approach has been adopted by the State government of West Bengal.
The theory depending on the existing international law developed on transboundary water-sharing is also known as ‘absolute territorial integrity’ which permits the upper riparian countries to use and exploit the shared water in accordance with their wish, as long as the lower riparian countries experience natural water flow from the concerned river basin. But, like most upper riparian countries worldwide, India has always been reluctant to share water and it often tried to justify its exploitation of water resources, claiming ‘territorial sovereignty’ which has always been criticised based on fair, just and equitable grounds of water distribution.
Another dominant doctrine called ‘limited territorial sovereignty’ was also adopted based on the Latin maxim ‘sic utere tuo ut alienum non laedus’ which means one State’s sovereign right to use its territory is circumscribed by an obligation not to cause injury to, or within, another State’s territory. So, in the similar vein, the states must respect the rights of other states sharing the same watercourses as they all have equality of rights’. At last, the most progressive characteristic has been observed in terms of the doctrine rooted in Roman law referring to ‘the community of interest.’ It states that ‘a water resource cannot be subject to private appropriation or free disposition.’ According to this principle, ‘each of the countries relating to the basin has right of action against another country, and under any situation, no country can affect the water resources without the permission, cooperation of its neighbours’. The Permanent Court of International Justice recognised this principle and directed to follow up the ‘effective reasonable utilisation’ of the transboundary water resources, which was also accredited in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses, 1997. According to article 5 of this Convention, the rights of the concerned countries have been protected under international law, which stresses ‘the effective reasonable utilisation of the water course, and parties shall participate in the use, development and utilisation of an international water course in equitable and reasonable manners’.
The indecent restraining and withdrawal of water unilaterally in the Teesta river basin has overlooked the environmental aspects in the lower riparian Bangladesh. According to article 7 of the 1997 UN Watercourses Convention, the countries are required to utilise international water course by taking all appropriate measures to prevent harm to the concerning countries. Article 6 further requires the countries to consider the facts of population, socio-economic needs, ecological and hydrological characteristics ‘in course of development and utilisation of combined water course’.
It is evident that in terms of water distribution, regulation and maintenance of the Teesta water basin under the provisions of the 1997 UN Convention has been violated repeatedly by the State government of West Bengal, and in turn, by India. A former judge C.G.Weeramantry stated in the case of Gabcikovo v Nagymaros that, “[t]he Court must hold the balance even between environmental considerations and the developmental considerations raised by the respective Parties.” Similarly, in the case of Suez and Vivendi Universal S.A. v The Argentine Republic, it was noted that “Argentina was subject to both human rights and investment treaty obligation and must have to respect both of them equally.” The international legal position regarding dispute resolution of transboundary water-sharing has always underscored the significance of combined efforts of the basin states to accommodate a win-win situation. However, the exploitation of the Teesta river basin by the State government of West Bengal on a lower riparian neighbour Bangladesh and the subsequent impact has never been a subject of consideration. The unilateral water withholds and withdrawals without any cooperation with the lower riparian state are not supported by the international law, and not even under the Indian law.
The writer is a member of staff.