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Tussle over the Teesta

Teesta, why are you a prisoner? When will you be free? Hussain Muhammad Ershad.


Sheikh Hasina’s recent visits to India brought the decades-old Teestarow between the two countries in the news again. Incidentally, ‘Teesta Parer Brittanto’ (Story of Teesta Bank) is a novel by Debesh Roy in the backdrop of the construction of the Teesta Barrage, which won the National Award for Literature in India in 1990.

Teesta is the fourth longest among the 54 trans-boundary rivers between India and Bangladesh. Originated from the Kangse glacier in Sikkim, Teesta is 151 km long in Sikkim, 123 km along the border of Sikkim and West Bengal and in West Bengal, and 121 km long in Bangladesh. She has a 12,540 sq km river basin of which 56.9 per cent is in Sikkim, 26.6 per cent in West Bengal, and 16.5 per cent in Bangladesh. The issue of Teesta water sharing is regarded as one of the key bilateral issues with possible impact on peace and prosperity in South Asian region. Teesta has an estimated average annual water flow of 60 billion cubic meters, with a lion’s share in the monsoon, during June to September. The amount of water flow in Teesta during the dry season is woefully low; during October to April-May this comes down to the average monthly amount of 500 million cubic-meters. Therefore, the water division between the two countries has become the subject of life and death of the concerned people.

By an ad hoc agreement of 1983, India and Bangladesh get 39 per cent and 36 per cent of Teesta water respectively with 25 per cent not specifically allocated to anybody. Later Bangladesh wanted 48 per cent of Teesta water. India agreed on this formula in 2011 and again in 2015, but West Bengal didn’t agree.

In 2011, the West Bengal government appointed a Commission under the hydrologist Dr. Kalyan Rudra for specific recommendations regarding Teesta. The report is not publicly available. However, from scattered articles by Dr. Rudra, it is clear that he opposed the Teesta Barrage project.

Teesta Barrage was planned in 1976 at Gajaldoba in Jalpaiguri, with an objective of irrigation of 9.22 million hectares of farmland in North Bengal, to generate 1,000 MW hydropower, and also for water-supply purposes. This Barrage, inaugurated in 1993, is referred to in Debesh Roy’s novel. Gajaldoba is 72 km upstream from Budigram on the India-Bangladesh border, where the Teesta enters Bangladesh. In 1990, Bangladesh also built a Teesta Barrage in Doyani near Dalia of Lalmonirhat district. Bangladesh is severely concerned about the scarcity of water in Doyani during the dry season if water is diverted by the canals to Gajaldoba. But even West Bengal is not happy with the amount of water the state receives. So, the question is how to solve the problem? Extracting underground water by modern technology or storing water in reservoirs are some of the options that are proposed.

It is noteworthy that the part of West Bengal on either side of the river from Gajaldoba to the Bangladesh border has also become a desert. In this part of the river basin, the width varies – ranging from three-and-half miles to ten miles. According to the 2011 census, nearly 91 per cent of the population of Teesta Basin in West Bengal live in Gajaldoba Barrage kiln, up to Budigram from the Barrage. The livelihoods of many people in the basin are drying up along with the river herself.

In reality, Gajaldoba Barrage is far behind the targeted irrigation and electricity supply. Most of the hopes raised by this barrage have proved to be illusory. The Teesta Barrage Project primarily aimed at kharif cultivation. However, on the whole, that has not been especially facilitated in the adjacent areas. Boro paddy cultivation was motivated by the agriculture department, which needs about three times the water needed for cultivating rabi crops.

The same happened for the Teesta Barrage Project in Bangladesh. In the dry season, only the ice-melted water from Sikkim flows through the river, which is certainly not enough for irrigation at will. This water can hardly keep the ecosystem of the basin intact. Both Teesta barrages had been created by spreading unrealistic hopes to a vast population in either country. Frustration is now widespread after disillusionment set in. And the water level in the basin between the two barrages in the two countries is decreasing gradually, which could lead to terrible consequences for the ecosystem. Certainly, water is a human problem, not a political one.

At the end of his book, Debesh Roy writes, “With the inauguration of the Barrage, the Teesta of the story became history. Teesta is no longer the old one.” Here begins the real story of the Teesta Bank, with the Barrage. Teesta is about to die today.

We quoted from a poem of former Bangladesh President Ershad, which he recited in the Bangladesh Parliament in 2016. In reality, the barrages at Gajaldoba and Doyani together have imprisoned the river Teesta and her natural dancing rhythm and tamed her flow of life. The dialogues about the water division of Teesta routinely discuss the annual flow of the river. It is necessary to discuss the nuances between the flows of the wet and the dry seasons. Both North Bengal and northern Bangladesh desperately need water in the dry season. Teesta is still the lifeline of North Bengal. The first goal should be to save her!

The writers are, respectively, Professor of Statistics at the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata and a researcher at the Imperial College, London, who worked on Teesta.