Relations between Bangladesh and India may be at an all-time high, but Teesta remains a bone of contention. Two prime ministers of India had promised Bangladesh its due share of the river’s waters, but West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee refuses. She contends that Teesta doesn’t have enough water to share.
Prothom Alo’s Kolkata correspondent Amar Saha, along with photojournalist Bhaskar Mukherjee, covered a stretch of 100 kilometres from Gazaldoba towards the source of Teesta on 19 and 20 April, to see first-hand whether Teesta had adequate water or not. Following is his write-up:
From its source till Gazaldoba in Jalpaiguri, Teesta has water even in this dry season, but then things change. On one side of the Gazaldoba dam, the river is brimming with water, but on the other side sandbars have emerged. After flowing hard and fast over all obstacles, Teesta loses its force at this point. This narrowed-down sluggish Teesta then enters Bangladesh.
How it flows
Teesta starts out from Himalaya’s Pahunari glacier, 23,000 feet in Sikkim above the sea level, flows down through northern Sikkim, into West Bengal’s Darjeeling, Jalpaiguri and Cooch Bihar, and then enters Bangladesh.
The river is 414 km long, with 151 km in Sikkim, 123 km in West Bengal and 121 km in Bangladesh. In Sundarganj upazila of Gaibandha, Bangladesh, it merges with the river Brahmaputra.
On 19 April we travelled from Shilliguri and reached Rangpo at 9:00 in the morning. Gazaldoba is 110 km from Rangpo. We travelled along the hilly terrain from Rangpo in Sikkim towards the Teesta Bazar bridge. First of all, the Tarakhola dam upon the river Teesta came into sight. It’s a small dam and Teesta continued to flow unhindered. Then there was the Teesta Bazar bridge. From there Teesta flows down through Sevoke in Darjeeling to the plains. It meanders down, twisting and turning through the hills for a few hundred feet.
The river was brimming with water, from Simthon to Sevoke. From Rangpo to Gazaldoba there were two more dams and a hydro-electricity project. At these projects, the river was full on one side, with less water on the other. The water is released from the dam at this point from time to time. But this is the scene in the dry season. In the monsoons, however, when the pressure is high, water is released regularly.
People are catching fish along the river, some with nets, some with rods. We climb down under the bridge. Even in April, the river water is icy cold. Bhim Bahadur, a young man, is catching fish there. Standing on a sandbar on the banks of Teesta, I ask him whether the char (sandbar) is there in the rainy season too. He says, “It is submerged during the rainy season. The river rises up to 20 feet then. Its current is so strong, you’d be scared. It’s calm now.” He says the river has never dried up completely, “the water just is blocked by the dams sometimes and then the water level falls. But it never dies up completely. It narrows down. The dams are opened if the water level falls too much. There’s water in the river all year round.”
We speak to taxi driver Samuel Biswas near the bridge. He says there has never been a single day where Teesta hasn’t had water, though in winter the water is less than in the rainy season. The tea stall owner near the bridge says the same.
Dams along the river
We notice at least three dams or hydro-electric projects on our way from Rangpo to Gazaldoba. These are small in size. First there is the Rambhi dam along the way from Teesta Bazar to Gazaldoba. It is controlled by the National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC). It is termed as a low dam. Next there is the Kalijhora dam. It has seven sluice gates.
Debesh Roy, author of Teestaparer Bittanto (Stories from the banks of Teesta), on 19 March 2013 wrote in Anandabazar Patrika, “There are proposals for 21 hydroelectricity plants from Langchu in northern Sikkim to Rangpo in southern Sikkim, and despite objections from the central environment ministry, at least six to eight hydroelectric plants have been set up. Sikkim has six (of the proposed 21) hydroelectricity plants near Sevoke and West Bengal has two. A dam over 15 metres is being constructed. So water is being withdrawn before the river reaches Gazaldoba. So how much of Teesta’s water is being decreased?”
The biggest dam on Teesta is at Gazaldoba, Jalpaiguri. It is almost one km long. The main dam has 45 sluice gates. And there are respectively 13 and four sluice gates on the dams along the two adjacent canals. On one side of the dam is Gazaldoba and on the other is Milanpalli. One of the canals at Gazaldoba diverts the water for irrigation to the river Mahananda. There is another dam at Mahananda.
Teesta is in full strength as it enters Gazaldoba. It is brimming full on one side. On the other side there is hardly any water. Sandbars have arisen in many places. There’s a trickle of water through the sandbars here and there during the dry season. A narrow flow goes down through Mekhliganj to the Bangladesh border.
A river expert of Jalpaiguri tells Prothom Alo, “It is now the dry season. There is hardly any water in Teesta from Gazaldoba to Bangladesh. Sandbars have arisen. Yet in the rainy season, this river swells extraordinarily.”
There’s another Teesta bridge towards the end of Gazaldoba. It is known as the Teesta bridge of Jalpaiguri.
The people upstream at Gazaldoba get Teesta’s water, but at the lower end up till the Bangladesh border, the people are deprived. The people of the expanse stretching along Jalpaiguri, Maynaguri, Lataguri, Mekhliganj and Haldibari up till Bangladesh, are deprived of their rightful share of water. This impairs cultivation in this agricultural belt of North Bengal.
The West Bengal government controls the Teesta barrage. However, the official contacted there refuses to provide any information.
Teesta barrage at risk
India began construction of the Teesta barrage in 1976 at Gazaldoba, Jalpaiguri. Water is being blocked at Gazaldoba and diverted to the river Mahandanda. At Fulbari, the Mahananda barrage has been constructed and water diverted for irrigation purposes. Then there were plans to construct Dauk barrage (North Dinajpur) on the Mahananda canal at Chopra and the Tangon barrage (South Dinajpur) downstream near the Bangladesh border. The Dauk barrage has been made, but not the Tangon barrage.
Political leaders on the Teesta issue
West Bengal’s chief minister Mamata Banerjee has offered an alternative of sharing the water of other common rivers. But Bangladesh receives these waters anyway. Congress leader and leader of the opposition in the West Bengal Legislative Assembly, Abdul Mannan, told Prothom Alo, “This is just a political stunt of Mamata. She lacks the mindset required for international agreements.”
Left Front leader Sujon Chakraborty told Prothom Alo, “Those who say they will give water from Torsa, not Teesta, do not understand North Bengal, nor do they understand the nature of rivers. It is important to maintain good relations with our neighbours. Mamata’s refusal to give Teesta water will simply strengthen the fundamentalist forces in Bangladesh. It will encourage the fundamentalists in West Bengal.”
Former West Bengal BJP president Rahul Sinha told Prothom Alo, “We will implement the Teesta agreement very soon. We will resolve the Teesta problem in accordance to Mr Modi’s words.”
What do leaders of Teesta’s three districts say?
Mamata refuses to share Teesta’s waters and so her party leaders echo her sentiment. However, the left leaning leaders and BJP leaders speak otherwise. The BJP presidents of three districts, Darjeeling, Jalpaiguri and Cooch Bihar, say that prime minister Narendra Modi has promised to implement the Teesta agreement.
Prothom Alo spoke to two river researchers in North Bengal, Manosh Majumdar and Animesh Basu. They say that Teesta is an international river. The countries through which it flows all have right to its waters. They admit that the river is no longer as strong as it used to be and its waters have decreased.
*The article originally written in Bangla has been rewirtten in English by Ayesha Kabir.