Shillong was the venue of the first River Festival-Nadi 2016. Organised by the Shillong-based Asian Confluence, a think-tank, and the East Asian Institute in association with the Meghalaya government and the Kolkata-based Maulana Azad Institute of Asian Studies, the participation of Myanmar, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh turned it into a South Asian platform for an exchange of ideas on river systems and integrated basin development.

The unusually large Bangladesh delegation comprised 149 members, including foreign minister S Alam and tourism minister Rashid K Menon. On the Indian side, Meghalaya chief minister Mukul Sangma played the lead role along with the Indian envoy in Dhaka. The presentations of the delegates from Myanmar, Bhutan and Nepal made the deliberations somewhat like an eastern South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation summit on integrated Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna-Irrawady basin development.

Though exhibitions, a crafts bazar and performing arts were a part of the festival, the real agenda was to hold a policy dialogue to conceptualise a common sub-regional approach to sustainable development of the GBMI basin, because,  implicit in the participation of Myanmar, is the acceptance of the Irrawady basin of lower Myanmar in the extended definition of the GBMI basin. This, by itself, is a bold geo-political step that departs from the narrow, unscientific nation-centric view of South Asian river systems.

Mukul Sangma set the tone by reminding the delegates that today the rivers had become  not just sources of cooperation, which they should ideally be, but that of conflict. Sangma wants this changed to preserve the hydrology of the river systems because the lack of a common approach based on geo-morphology and hydrology can cause irretrievable damage to the riverine eco-system.

The agreement reached on the assimilative role of the rivers was reflected in suggestions like the extension of waterways, opening of additional border checkposts and  starting direct flights between Dhaka and Guwahati, Shillong and Agartala. India&’s decision to set up 24 more border haats  was well-received. The point made by the Indian High Commissioner in Dhaka  that there should be a joint river management plan to harness hydro-power in the Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal region may be seen as the beginning of a regional approach to river systems.

However, to realise it, all five BBIN nations may first note seriously what Van Schendel made in his seminal work titled The Bengal Borderland that “the Partition of 1947 was like a political assassination of a vibrant regional economy” that encompassed East and North-east India, Bangladesh and Myanmar was a “geopolitical disaster”.

Now the task before the sub-regions is to restore the old links which is possibly the only way to get out of the continuing economic slowdown since 1947; and one must take note that in Bengal, the delta is the largest one in the world that was divided, though from a geophysical angle a delta does not lend itself to a viable partition. Radcliffe, a lawyer, ignored this scientific aspect while dividing India and thus left a legacy of 50-odd rivers, the waters of which have to be shared between India and Bangladesh, laying thereby a basis of unending disputes.

It would require much effort and political will to create institutions and an enabling environment for rejuvenation of rivers as unifying forces; and the first step is to conduct a critical scientific appreciation of the current situation of the rivers in the eco-systems; first, rivers are not to be seen as economic resources for exploiting bio-resources and water just an input for irrigation or for generating power.

Quite rightly, the Bangladesh foreign nminister reminded the delegates that the rivers had been harmed due to construction of dams. A major cause of this is the neglect of river research, a multi-disciplinary activity that has not been given its due importance; and the impact of largescale mining, reckless deforestation and use of agro-chemicals and pesticides, unscientific construction of dams on rivers are yet to be researched to generate policy inputs. There is,  in fact,  a strong vested interest in obstructing river research. The poor state of the Regional River Research Institute bears testimony to this reality.

Let&’s be honest, without a strong multi-disciplinary river research capability and the commitment of participating countries to integrated basin development it would not be possible to work out a coherent synergy in the land and water use systems in the sub-region, and hence this should be the first step to achieve the objectives of integrated development of the GBMI basin. Nadi 2016 would be purposeful if it created such a will in the region or elseit would go down as merely another cultural event.

The writer, a former IAS officer of the Assam-Meghalaya cadre, was a scientific consultant in the office of the Principal Scientific Advisor to the Government of India.