Now the signing of a treaty on sharing water in Teesta river has been a critical issue between Bangladesh and Indian government. Prime minister Sheikh Hasina has been wholeheartedly trying to receive a proper share of the water from the Teesta river, as the river belongs to the international river between India and Bangladesh.
In the case of the international river, water distribution law asserts that “the rights of all bordering nations to an equitable share in the water resources, with reasonable consideration of such factors as past customary usages of the resource and balancing variant needs and demands of the bordering nations. It also mandates bordering nations. It also mandates protection of the resource by bordering nations with respect to water pollution” [Chapter 3, Articles IX to XI, Helsinki Rules].
This law is endorsed by the United Nations, which signifies that all the member states of the United Nations are obliged to follow the rules and distribute the water from the international river. If we closely analyse the basic principles of the clauses, it is revealed that bordering states (all the states through which the river is flowing over) are the legitimate owner of the water of an international river. According to this clause, Bangladesh is the legitimate and legal owner of receiving water from the river of the Tista.
Another important aspect of this law is the ‘equitable share’ which does not mean the equal sharing of the river water between or among the states who share the river. Here, equitable means the population depends on the water resources and its impacts on the social and economic context of the respective countries. In this sense, the rule will count the population of Bangladesh and population of the West Bengal India who are depended on the water of the Teesta river. The clause also signifies that the social and economic cost of the respective country due to the water of the river will be taken into consideration. Under this clause, the socio-economic condition of the Bangladesh and West-Bengal will be counted to distribute the water. Another most interesting point is the ‘past customary uses’ of the river water.
According to this principle, states having the common river will consider the past flow and utilisation of the waters of the basin, including in particular existing utilisation. According to these three fundamental principles of the international water law, Bangladesh is the legitimate owner of the getting water from the Teesta river. As the river is flowing over both the countries and the socio-economic condition of Bangladesh is highly influenced by the river water, and the past history of water sharing also signifies that Bangladesh is the legal and legitimate authority to use the Teesta river water.
However, Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of the West-Bengal, has declared that “Bangladesh will not receive water from the Teesta river”. This is a bold and arrogant statement from a chief mMinister of a state of India. My question, is she the legal authority to control the water of an international river? And, is she merely playing a game with the central government of India? For the first question, the explanation is that she is the legal authority to decide the water sharing of her state (West-Bengal), which are national in character and flowing within Indian states, not the international river like Tista. She cannot unitarily take decision who will enjoy the water from an international river or not. In this regard, the Interstate River Water Dispute Acts, 1956 of India denotes that ‘each state will control and decide how the water and natural resources of the particular state will be used. However, if any dispute is arisen for sharing water between and among the states with India, the central government will interfere and resolve the dispute’. This principle is entirely applicable within India. This is a note that there are hundreds of water sharing disputes undergoing within India. The country is also suffering from serious water scarcity during the dry season. The central government in this context plays a decisive role in resolving the disputes and sharing water among the states. From the Indian Water law point of view, Mamata is not the decider who will get water from the Tista river or who will not.
I doubt that Mamata has forgotten that Tista is an international river and Bangladesh has the legal and legitimate authority over the water of the Tista river. As per the water sharing of Tista river, both the Indian and Bangladesh government are the solely responsible authority for signing the agreement and deciding through the negotiation of how much water each state will share considering the population and socio-economic perspective. In regard to the second question, Mamata is playing the political game with the central government of India. Tista river water is equally important to the people of the West-Bengal. This is a note that 142 kms flow among 414km is flowing over the West-Bengali states and a large portion of the West-Bengal is depended on the Teesta river water. Mamata has grasped this point, and now arguing with the central government that Tista issue is her own issue and she is the sole authority to decide the fate of the water. The Chief Minister has the past record to organise people against the decision of the state government. This is also an effective technique of motivating people in favour of her political party. In fact, the central government is seriously considering this issue, I guise.
Whatever be the inside politics of India, the river Testa is an international river and 121 km among 414km is running over Bangladesh border. Bangladesh is the legal authority to receive the share of the Testa river. Mamata as a chief minister of a state of India cannot say and behave like this. The total length of the Tista river is 414km originating from the Sikkim of India. Out of 414 km, Sikkim holds 151km, West-Bengal 142km and Bangladesh 121km of water flow. Out of this proportion, Mamata is ignoring the existence of the river and its close connection with the land and people of Bangladesh. In fact, five northern districts, -- Gaibandha, Kurigram, Lalmonirhat, Nilphamari and Rangpur entirely depends on the water of Testa river. The Asia Foundation published in 2013 that Tista river in the Bangladeshi side covers 14 per cent of the total cropland of the country and 7.3 per cent of the population’s livelihood is directly depended on the Testa river water. The most important irrigation project of the country totally depends on the water of the Testa river.
Now, come to the major point what should Bangladesh do for receiving the proper share of the water from the Testa river basin. This is a million-dollar question indeed. A country situated in the close proximity of a giant country has many disadvantages and advantages. The big country always tries to establish its hegemony over the small countries. I will not say here that India has established hegemony over Bangladesh. But the behaviour of a chief minister regarding a legitimate cause is very frustrating for the people of Bangladesh. This is a true fact that both Bangladesh and West-Bengal has historical legacy and connection to the cause of culture, economy and way of life. There is a close relationship in a number of contexts between the people of Bangladesh and West-Bengal. Under this ground, the behaviour of a Chief Minister is not only frustrating the people of Bangladesh but also violating the internationally accepted principles of water sharing in the common rivers. I believe that Bangladesh government has taken the right option to stick with the issues of Testa river water sharing. The issue must be resolved either by the central government of the India and Bangladesh, or Bangladesh should think of raising the issue in the International forum.
The writer is a PhD candidate at Flinders University, Australia. He also teaches at the Department of Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Dhaka, Bangladesh.