Sinking a deal

Print edition : October 07, 2011

Mamata Banerjee's refusal to go to Bangladesh over the Teesta water-sharing agreement may affect ties between Bangladesh and West Bengal.

in Kolkata

Mamata Banerjee. Political compulsions may have prompted her to withdraw from the trip to Bangladesh.-SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

WEST Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee's refusal to accompany Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on his visit to Bangladesh caused considerable discomfort and embarrassment to the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government at the Centre, of which her Trinamool Congress is a key constituent. Her last-minute withdrawal from the trip, ostensibly on the grounds that the proposed Teesta water-sharing agreement would go against the interests of the people of northern Bengal, may well have also been prompted by immediate political compulsions.

The Teesta pact would have assured Bangladesh 48 per cent of the river waters and India, 52 per cent after keeping aside a certain amount at the Teesta Barrage. Mamata Banerjee's contention is that such a deal would be harmful to the agrarian economy of northern Bengal.

But political sources say her decision may also have been prompted by a feeling of resentment over not being consulted enough by the Centre on the issue of sharing the waters. The Centre, however, maintained that not only was she consulted, but the State government had also earlier assented to a water-sharing agreement with Bangladesh.

That it was Mamata Banerjee's decision was clear from the fact that just a week ahead of the scheduled date of departure she held talks with National Security Adviser Shiv Shankar Menon over various details relating to the visit. Three days later, on September 4, she dropped a bombshell by announcing her withdrawal from the tour.

Officially, the State Congress unit, weighed down by coalition compulsions, has been noncommittal about the whole issue. National interest of India must be inclusive of the interest of the constituent units of the federation. The subject matter of Teesta water-sharing with Bangladesh is a technical one and should be based upon the opinions of experts and should be deliberated vigorously between the Centre and the State, Pradesh Congress general secretary and party spokesperson Om Prakash Mishra told Frontline.

However, a large section of the Congress in the State blames Shiv Shankar Menon and the mismanagement at the Central level for the fiasco. We are extremely unhappy with the way the Central Ministries and S.S. Menon handled the situation. They perhaps took Mamata for granted and thus practically played into her hands. Now even the opposition cannot fault her, said a senior Congress leader in the State.

A VIEW OF the Teesta river pictured at Sevok, 20 kilometres from Siliguri in West Bengal.-DIPTENDU DUTTA/AFP

Though the Left parties disapproved of the manner in which Mamata Banerjee reacted to the issue, they could not deny that her consent to the water-sharing agreement would have adversely affected agriculture in northern Bengal. The Leader of the Opposition, Surya Kanta Mishra of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), acknowledged that a 52:48 sharing ratio was not desirable for northern Bengal but felt that there was no reason for Mamata Banerjee not holding a discussion on it. I was shocked when she announced her decision to not go to Bangladesh. She is the biggest partner of the Congress at the Centre and there was enough time for her to clear the issue. This was a complete failure on her part. Such a casual approach to a matter of such grave importance is not a sign of statesmanship, Mishra told Frontline.

When the CPI(M)-led Left Front was in power in the State, the unofficial agreement between Bangladesh and West Bengal provided the former only 25 per cent of the Teesta waters. We were never rigid about the arrangement and were always open to discussion with Bangladesh, said Mishra.

The Left also feels that Mamata Banerjee's decision has not only had a negative impact on the friendly ties between West Bengal and Bangladesh but also on certain key issues such as the transit issue and trade and export, which have now been put on the back burner. Teesta water-sharing was not the only issue on the agenda. There are so many other key issues that she could have gone and discussed, said Mishra.

UNVIABLE DEAL

Experts in river science have vindicated Mamata's stand on the water-sharing agreement. They point out that the proposal is not viable and would most certainly go against the interests of northern Bengal. According to the eminent river scientist Kalyan Rudra, glacial water in the Teesta is insignificant compared with the 12.26 billion cubic metres of rainwater that the river carries in its catchment area in India. In his research, Rudra has established that the Teesta's average peak discharge is around 70,000 cusecs in the months of July, August and September. Around 90 per cent of the waters that the river carries flows in this period.

However, in the lean months from December to April it comes down to 3,000-4,000 cusecs, and sometimes even down to 400 cusecs in April. The problem here is that when the supply of water is the highest, the demand is the least because there is rain, but when it is the lowest, the demand is the highest, Rudra told Frontline. According to him, even now, when Bangladesh gets around 25 per cent of the waters, the Teesta hardly has the capacity to fulfil the need of its catchment area in northern Bengal, which is around 3,294 sq km in size.

Moreover, the increasing dependence on groundwater in the region has resulted in further reduction of the base-flow of the river in the lean season.

Given the scenario, a 52:48 water-sharing arrangement would just not be possible. It would never have been possible earlier either. In the lean months, during the period of Boro cultivation, when irrigation is most required, the volume of water would be very inadequate, said Rudra.

According to senior sources in the State government, inflated data and backdated knowledge is what caused the fiasco. It is clear that the Centre had no clear idea about the situation when it went ahead and formulated the water-sharing agreement. If there was a little more consultation, this embarrassment could have been avoided, a source told Frontline.

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