Int’l arbitration, a way out for Teesta

Mizanur Rahman Khan | Update:

We must certainly give due recognition to the Indian prime minister’s assurance that the Teesta deal would be signed soon. At the same time, it would be prudent for Bangladesh to start preparing from now to resort to international arbitration. Fresh initiative must be taken for a sharing of common rivers on a multilateral basis, of course with India’s acquiescence.

It would also not be wise to delay any further a bilateral solution to the problem on the basis of West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s alternative proposal. Mamata’s proposal will bewilder any water expert, though in India there hasn’t been any significant reaction as yet. No one has even pointed out that she’s put forward incorrect data as she named a non-existent river Manshiri.

Instead of 54 international rivers, only the Teesta agreement has been specifically mentioned in the joint statement. Even if the Teesta deal was not signed right now, this could have been compensated by including the 54 common rivers in the joint statement. But this was not done. No mention was made of Mamata’s attitude towards the proposed Ganges barrage either. No specific timeframe was given for the Teesta deal. It was indicated that the Teesta deal would not go through without a nod from Mamata.

In 2011 it had been said that Bangladesh would not give India transit unless it received a fair share of Teesta waters. Bangladesh has handed over transit to India at a tariff rate of just Tk 192 per tonne, instead of the stipulated Tk 1,058. The Teesta deal remains to be signed. Even when Congress was in power, Mamata had been their ‘scapegoat’. And now when defence MoU was signed on the basis of India’s priority, the Modi government still hasn’t budged from its stand.

In the joint statement issued following Manmohan-Hasina talks in Dhaka on 7 September 2011, it was said that though the Teesta deal hadn’t been signed, it ‘would also be signed soon’.

On 6 July 2015 Modi had said in the joint statement in Dhaka that he was confident a fair solution would come about regarding the rivers Teesta and Feni [‘water sharing’ was not mentioned] with the cooperation of the India’s state governments [not just one!]. It was said in the joint statement after the summit talks that if Sheikh Hasina wanted a Teesta deal immediately, Modi would discuss the matter with the stakeholders [read: with Mamata’s approval] and would make the deal ‘as soon as possible’. In the 2017 joint statement, the words ‘as soon as possible’ are conspicuously missing.

Nowhere in the official joint statement is it written ‘we will sign the Teesta agreement’. It was only said in the speech. Whatever has been said in the joint statement is India’s stance. The speech is political. That is why the veracity of India’s words about Teesta is questionable.

A state government can be sidestepped when it comes to implementing international agreements. That is why the Indian government has put the words in Sheikh Hasina’s mouth, saying that she has agreed to the matter.

Previously, India made the commitment to sign the Teesta agreement ‘as soon as possible’ and then moved away from its word. So like the maritime boundary or water sharing, India’s inability has to be taken into consideration. It would be wrong to waste time any longer.

There has also been no mention of a guarantee clause in the proposed agreement. No one is assuring us on this count. The 1996 Ganges Water-sharing Treaty was termed ‘historic’, but it had neither a guarantee clause nor an arbitration clause. The foreign secretary at the time had raised the issue at the VIP lounge of the Delhi airport in presence of Sheikh Hasina and IK Gujral. Mr Gujral expressed his ‘surprise’ that such a clause was not included and blamed the bureaucrats. The agreement, however, was signed just as it was in the draft.

The draft was reportedly finalised based on three MoUs at the JRC (Joint Rivers Commission) meeting during Manmohan’s government. This never happened for Teesta. Firstly, water cannot be withdrawn upstream, it will remain limited. Secondly, a specific amount of water will be retained to keep the river alive. Thirdly, the remaining water will be distributed. Unfortunately, India never provides data on upstream water withdrawal. That is why it is best to silently prepare to go for international arbitration.

We do not want to lose faith. We want to believe India sincerely wants to solve the water problem, but for some reason is stuck. That is why if we go for arbitration, all sides will win. We want to uphold our friendship with India at all times.

*Mizanur Rahman is a journalist and joint editor at Prothom Alo. This article, originally published in Prothom Alo Bangla print edition, has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir.

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