Dhaka's Chinese Chequers on Teesta put Delhi on back foot

Alarm bells are ringing in Delhi at Beijing’s potential involvement in the hydro-politics of India and Bangladesh. Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla’s sudden visit to Dhaka on August 18-19 is being seen in this light. China has offered a $987.27-million loan to Bangladesh for a comprehensive management and restoration project on the Teesta, a river Bangladesh shares with India. The loan agreement is to be signed by December this year.

 

The project will be implemented by Power Construction Corporation of China, or Power China, beginning 2021. Despite China’s collaboration with Bangladesh in the Brahmaputra basin since 2006, Chinese companies were not present on the ground till now. Although official statements say that Shringla’s meetings were confined to ongoing bilateral issues, it is unlikely that Chinese involvement in the Teesta basin was not discussed.

 

Chinese companies would be involved all along the 113-km route of the river in Bangladesh: managing flood control, ensuring dry season availability of water, dredging, land reclamation, riverine transport and shipping, mitigating social and environmental impact of the river flow and restoring the ecosystem. The width of the river at present varies between one and over two km. It is proposed to be reduced to one km along its course, ensuring a minimum depth of 10 metres. Several large industrial parks and unique modern, urban-industrial complexes (smart cities) are planned along the length of the river.

 

Teesta waters are used for irrigation in Northwestern Bangladesh. In the five districts falling in Rangpur Division – Nilphamari, Kurigram, Lalmonirhat, Gaibandha and Rangpur – nearly 63 per cent of the crop area is irrigation-dependent. Considered drought-prone till the construction of the Dalia Barrage in 1997-98, they now produce three crops a year.

 

Bangladesh blames reduced dry season flows from December to May, as well as flash floods in the monsoon, on India’s unilateral control of water flow at the Gazaldoba Barrage upstream in North Bengal. An agreement to minimise economic losses in Bangladesh by regulating seasonal water flows has been in negotiation for a long time.

 

In September 2011, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was ready to sign the Teesta water-sharing agreement during his visit to Dhaka. The formula was equal sharing of water during the lean season. India would have to retain 75 per cent of the water at Gazaldoba Barrage during the dry season, earmarking 25 per cent for Bangladesh. As it moves downstream, however, the river’s water component doubles through regeneration, and the 25 per cent swells to 50 per cent by the time the Teesta enters Bangladesh, making it an equitable settlement.

 

However, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee prevented the accord, hinting that irrigation in Bengal would be affected, even though it was clear that her state would not be able to use the 75 per cent water retained at Gazaldoba. To scuttle the agreement she also cited inadequate consultation by the Centre and talked up hurt regional pride.

 

Since then the accord has been in limbo despite a visit to Dhaka in June 2015 by Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Mamata Banerjee in tow. Notwithstanding his assurances of a “fair solution” to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, nothing has happened. No forward movement is likely before the West Bengal state elections next year.

 

Perhaps India did not foresee Chinese involvement in the Teesta as Bangladesh had also approached the World Bank and the Japan International Cooperation Agency for project finance. It was clear that Bangladesh needed to manage the Teesta basin better – with or without India’s help. Although Dhaka turned to Beijing only when other attempts failed, the timing has been unfortunate for India.

 

India-Bangladesh relations have been adversely impacted by the communal politics of the Modi government around citizenship laws. Those in government have offensively described Bangladeshi immigrants as ‘infiltrators’ and ‘termites’. More recently, the mistreatment of Tablighi Jamaat followers, during the Covid-19 pandemic affected many from Bangladesh. However, the Chinese development took place against the larger failure of India to seal the Teesta agreement. It was meant to be the template for water-sharing of 53 other big trans-boundary rivers shared by India and Bangladesh.

 

There will be several consequences of Chinese involvement in the Teesta Basin in Bangladesh. The narrative that China uses such loans to trap unsuspecting nations in debt is countered by Dhaka’s active seeking of such a large loan from Beijing. Nevertheless, Bangladesh is likely to get further enmeshed in Chinese geopolitical strategies. It is already a member of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

 

For India, any Teesta settlement as a bilateral issue would be shadowed by a third party which can influence Bangladesh’s approach to the negotiations. China would also gain access to hydrological data not normally available to it. New dams, irrigation systems, embankments, economic zones and smart cities along the Teesta will showcase China’s engineering and project implementation prowess in Bangladesh.

 

This is the first time that China is getting deeply involved in water-management politics from a lower riparian point of view. Itself an upper riparian for major Asian rivers originating in the Tibetan Plateau (Indus, Sutlej, Brahmaputra, Salween, Irrawady and Mekong), China has gone against international conventions asserting absolute right to use its rivers as it pleases. China has consistently refused to join the inter-governmental Mekong River Commission with lower riparian Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. It also does not cooperate with India on the Brahmaputra, keeping it in the dark on dam construction upstream and charging India for access to upstream water-flow data.

 

Security experts also worry that Chinese presence in Northwestern Bangladesh would give Beijing greater ‘visibility’ of Indian security establishments across the border. The strategic Chicken’s neck area (Siliguri Corridor) could be one such security concern.

 

If India does not expedite a fair and mutually acceptable sharing of the Teesta waters, Bangladesh cannot be blamed for finding alternative solutions to its water woes. India may not be in a position to offer a loan as attractive as China’s. But it can give Dhaka something Beijing cannot – extra water in the lean season. It can also offer joint basin management. India is not entirely without resources in negotiating a mutually beneficial deal with its lower riparian neighbour.


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