The current trend of the Bangladesh-India bilateral relationships is more or less bittersweet, especially on the premise of the Teesta Water Sharing Agreement as of 2021. Despite the strengthening of India’s trade, economic, cultural, and political relations with Bangladesh following Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit in the centenary of Bangabandhu in March, the Teesta water-sharing agreement was not even brought in the agenda of bilateral talks. Therefore, India’s commitment to the Teesta water-sharing agreement with Bangladesh has become very critical especially after Bangladesh receiving support from China to develop a USD 1 billion engineering scheme on the Teesta.
Teesta is undoubtedly an International river. It is one of the 54 rivers that have entered Bangladesh as a tributary from India. It originated from Solomo Lake in the ‘Chicken-Neck Corridor” of India and flowing through Sikkim and West Bengal states in India, it enters Bangladesh through the Lalmonirhat district. It later merged with the Jamuna river near Chilmari.
The Teesta Water Sharing Agreement was signed in 2011 during the visit of the then Prime Minister of India Manmohan Singh to Dhaka. But it didn’t go anywhere as West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee refused to acknowledge it.
In the year of 2014, BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) won a landslide victory in the General Election of 2014 which saw the end of a decade-long Congress Party rule in India. Immediately after assuming the mantle of leadership, Prime Minister Narendra Modi intended to further improve the Indo-Bangladesh relations. In his historical three-day state visit to Bangladesh in 2015, he ended the four decades-long enclave issue with Bangladesh by handing over 71 enclaves to Bangladesh immediately after ratification in Lokshova as a show of goodwill. He also assured in his visit that an agreement would be reached on the sharing of Teesta water.
However, in the span of the next four years, the Teesta ‘problem’ still has not been resolved. During the last visit of the Prime Minister of Bangladesh Sheikh Hasina to India in 2019, there was a possibility of reaching an agreement, but it did not materialize due to the Chief Minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee getting cold feet and backing out as a result.
This frustration of Bangladesh over the lack of Teesta water sharing agreement and India’s false promises has only exacerbated Bangladesh’s reliance on China more than ever before. To make matters worse, Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress won 213 out of the 294 seats from the Rajyashova Election of 2021 in West Bengal to form a majority government for the third consecutive time. For her own political ambitions, she will never agree to the Teesta Water Sharing Agreement, which further puts the Teesta Water Sharing Agreement in the backburner of India’s geopolitical agenda in Bangladesh.
Teesta has always been a curse for the people of Northern Bangladesh for the past three or four decades. Teesta water carries a huge amount of silt from the Himalayas every year. Since its speed is being reduced as a result of hydroelectric power generators, this silt is gradually accumulated in the river beds, slowly reducing the water level and causing draught as a result. Moreover, during the monsoon, floods occur frequently as the accumulation of excess silt simply causes the water to overflow. This has caused thousands of people to lose their lands, houses, livestock, and most importantly, livelihoods. As a result, the government of Bangladesh has incurred a huge loss of capital and infrastructural development owing to this human-induced natural disaster.
This now brings us to China’s involvement in the “Teesta debacle” between India and Bangladesh. As evident, China with its strong economic backbone and rising military power now holds a strong position in all of Asian politics. The Sino-Indian “Cold War” is taking a new turn in South Asian politics due to disputes with China over various perennial issues, especially after the Ladakh border skirmishes of June 2020. China now wants Bangladesh to deviate from its “one-sided” commitments with India and acknowledge the power of China’s economic and military leverage over India. Bangladesh is now a very important player in South Asia in terms of its geographical location, emerging economy, and geopolitics, causing a tug-of-war between who gets to influence Bangladesh more between China and India. With deep pockets, China has already increased its investment by more than nine per cent in Bangladesh. For geostrategic reasons, China extended a proposition to Bangladesh in 2020 through a project called “Teesta River Comprehensive Management and Restoration”. In the proposed Teesta project, 115 km of the Teesta River within the borders of Bangladesh will be extensively excavated, the depth in the middle of the river will be increased to 10 m and the width of the river will be greatly reduced. At the same time, opportunities for cultivation will be created by rescuing land through river management. A 115 km long four-lane road will be constructed along the two banks of the river. An irrigation system will be developed in the dry season on the cultivable lands on both the banks of the river by constructing several barrages-cum-roads at suitable places to ensure communication between the two banks of the river as well as by conserving the huge surplus water of the river flowing during monsoon. In addition, extensive industrialization and urbanization facilities will be built along the roads on both the banks of the river. Even though India and China have maintained their trade relations, there has been little response to China’s recent Teesta treaty. Many believe that some of India’s diplomatic issues are involved.
At present, the situation in India is more fragile due to the deterioration of the Corona epidemic. The new “Indian Strand” as pointed out by the scientists is ten times more deadly than the previously discovered strand and is only worsening due to the virus mutating to something more deadly by every passing day. In the span of just two months from March to April, as many as three million people have perished as a result. Realistically speaking, Bangladesh could effectively sideline India and enter into a mutually beneficial treaty with China on the question of the Teesta river.
Now the million-dollar question is if Bangladesh really does pen a deal with China on the Teesta project, what would be the benefit of Bangladesh in the long run? Since the Teesta River is involved in the livelihood and economy of the people of North Bengal, this project will lead to the economic development of the people of the region, improving the quality of life. As a result of the irrigation project, the dynamism of agricultural work will increase and the people of North Bengal will be relieved from drought and manga. In the dry season, agricultural work will be conducted through water retained by the dam. During the monsoon season, the flood damage in Teesta water will be less in Bangladesh. In that case, the farmer will be able to protect his cultivable land and crops from the Coralgrass floods. As a result of China’s Teesta project, the normal flow of water will be maintained in the Bangladesh part of Teesta. Since China will build roads with dams around the river Teesta, there will be the development of the tourism industry to enjoy the beauty of the riverbank which will take the tourism industry of Bangladesh forward and increase the amount of GDP. Infrastructural development will increase in some districts of North Bengal as a result of which the people there.