Hilsa diplomacy is fine, what about Teesta water?
It has been a neighbour’s envy since 2011 when the Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League government in Bangladesh banned the export of the Bengalis’ favorite fish-Hilsa-especially the variety that is netted in the Padma river.
Hilsa or ‘ilish’ as it is called in Bengali, connects Bengalis like nothing else. Their love for the delicate fish has seeped into the fine arts, literature, songs and is on to the silver screen too. It is now into trans-boundary river politics.
And right in the thick of this is a geopolitical struggle between the two neighbors and between two of the most powerful women in the Banglasphere-the Bengali-speaking world-Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee over sharing of the water of a transboundary river that originates high up in the Himalayas and flows through West Bengal and Bangladesh.
The ‘Poddar ilish’-hilsa from the Padma-Meghna rivers in Bangladesh-has been eluding the Bengali platter on the Indian side of Bengal since 2012 following a ‘tit-for-tat’ ban on export of the silver beauty by the Sheikh Hasina-led government in Bangladesh. The Hasina government imposed the ban after Banerjee scuttled the signing of the Teesta water-sharing pact in 2011.
As friendly gesture, the Hasina government last month permitted Bangladesh fish traders to export 1,450 metric tonnes of Padma River hilsa to India ahead of the Bengal’s biggest festival of Durga Puja, which has rekindled hope of the resumption of regular border trade in the fish after a gap of eight years.
The goodwill gesture by the Hasina government to temporarily lift the ban on hilsa exports to India from time to time-the first in 2018 and the subsequent years since-is to gauge the sentiments, feelings, and pulse of the middle-class, which can afford the overpriced Padma-Meghna hilsa, says Bangladesh-watcher and strategic analyst Dr Sabyasachi Basu Roychowdhury of Rabindra Bharati University in Kolkata.
Just as it is a tradition in both the Bengals to relish ilish maach,the Bengalis in West Bengal have a soft corner for ‘Poddar ilish’-the variety of Hilsa from the Padma River, Roychowdhury told South Asian Monitor.
Chicken’s Neck vulnerability?
After spending almost a decade trying to finalize a water-sharing deal with India on the Teesta River, the Bangladesh government is considering a US$ 1 billion proposal from China on the management and restoration of the Teesta River.
The new Beijing-backed Teesta river management and restoration project offers hope for the people living in the northern region of Bangladesh, who face floods and erosion during the monsoon and severe water shortages during the dry season.
Though the Chinese-funded mega project so close to the vulnerable Siliguri corridor is being viewed as a security concern by many in India, strategic and defense analysts in India brush off such fears.
The worry that the Chinese investment in Bangladesh will be a threat to the vulnerable Siliguri Corridor-a narrow, 29 kilometre-wide sliver of land, with Nepal on one side and Bangladesh on the other, and also known as the ‘chicken neck’ that connects mainland India with its seven north-eastern states-is overblown, says defense and strategic analyst Major General (retired) Arun Roye.
“For the China’s People Liberation Army (PLA) to reach the vulnerable chicken’s neck, it needs roads. So the concerns about the Siliguri corridor are overblown,” Roye, who headed the Indian Army’s Eastern Command and is now with the Kolkata-based think-tank CENTRES-K-Research Centre for Eastern and North Eastern Studies-Kolkata-told South Asian Monitor.
“Both Bangladesh and China are independent and sovereign countries and have every right to strengthen, empower their economy and defense.
India's overlordship has already cost it one neighboring country after another in the region. Besides, the people of Bangladesh have a right to the water of not only the Teesta, but all the 64 rivers that flow from India to the neighboring country, Roye says.
“Bangladesh is sensitive to its strategic and security needs as it is surrounded by India on three sides. Bangladesh can come to any understanding (with any other country) as long as it does not hurt India’s interest,” Roye said.
Mamata Banerjee’s folly
However, Banerjee’s stiff opposition to the Teesta water-sharing deal has struck rare a political unanimity in West Bengal where there are sharp political fault lines. Political leaders in West Bengal-including those from the Hindu right-wing - are not adverse to Banerjee’s stand of ‘West Bengal first’ which they think is correct and something that New Delhi still finds difficult to ignore.
In opposing the Teesta water sharing pact, Banerjee is aware that she may have turned a blind eye to the international conventions that a river cannot be blocked from flowing into Bangladesh, say analysts.
But the temperamental Banerjee, who has her own set of political compulsions, is of the view that the volume in the Teesta is decreasing and it should be shored up by connecting with other rivers that flow from Northern West Bengal into Bangladesh. At least 64 small and big rivers flow from India into Bangladesh.
Though the volume of water in the Teesta is a well-kept secret by the West Bengal administration, experts say that Banerjee feels that sharing Teesta’s water with Bangladesh will have implications for irrigation in West Bengal, which is a political risk for her.
The Teesta water sharing pact will only bear fruit and the problem can be solved only if Dhaka and New Delhi involve Kolkata and Gangtok in the river water sharing parleys, says Roy Chowdhury.
“The Teesta, for instance, originates from the Himalayan state of Sikkim and the upstream flow of the river has been reduced drastically over the years due to dams along the river in Sikkim and West Bengal.,” Roy Chowdhury said.
Banerjee has to capitalize on the sentiment of a large number of people living in north Bengal over the sensitive Teesta water-sharing deal. "It was a sensible political ploy on Banerjee’s part,” Roy Chowdhury averred.
But India has got enough water that it should and can share, counters Roye.
“Our people in the foreign ministry are too laidback… Let us fix our own home first before being concerned about our neighbors,” Roye says.
Banerjee’s last minute refusal to accompany the then Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Dhaka did not go down well with the ruling Congress, who dismissed her action as egocentric.
The Teesta River is crucial for meeting the domestic needs of the growing population and for irrigating farmlands of the northern region of two the Bengals-in West Bengal and northern Bangladesh-as well as the domestic and irrigation needs in northern Bangladesh.
The Teesta helps irrigate more than 120,000 hectares of farmland in West Bengal.
Mamata Banerjee was never consulted about the nitty-gritty of the Teesta water sharing pact between Bangladesh and India, says Dr Smruti S Pattanaik, a research fellow at the New Delhi-based Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses (IDSA).
“It is more of Mamata Banerjee’s ego and rightly so. If she was made a party to the discussion from its early stage on the quantum of the Teesta water to be shared and not at the verge of signing the pact in 2011, she would have made certain concessions of her own,” says Pattanaik.
“There has to be something for Mamata in order for her to agree to the water sharing pact. So India and Bangladesh have to work on the pact in a very imaginative way. Hasina's approach has been of a leader who is generous. The Teesta water sharing pact is more about the water needs of the run-offs of North Bengal,” she said.
Strategic experts say that neither Indian Prime Minister Modi nor his party –the BJP, who are at loggerheads with Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress, have shown any hurry in settling the Teesta problem. It’s a big political issue for BJP as well the Trinamool, especially in northern West Bengal, analysts say.
The Teesta water-sharing muddle is unlikely to be settled before the assembly elections in West Bengal, which are scheduled in early or mid-2021. A lot depends on the poll results, veteran journalist and political analyst Goutam Laheri said.
“Though the Narendra Modi-led BJP government in Delhi wants to go through with the Teesta pact, for Mamata Banerjee, opposing the water sharing deal is big political compulsion in northern part of West Bengal, where her party was defeated by the BJP in the 2019 general elections,” Laheri told SAM over phone.
Banerjee knows that the Teesta pact is important for India-Bangladesh relationship, but the West Bengal Chief Minister will not succumb to pressures unless she has her way on the quantum of the water sharing on a 52: 48 ratio, says Laheri, adding that even the BJP in North West Bengal is against the signing the Teesta water pact with Bangladesh.
Banerjee may take a middle path-with concession for Bangladesh in the quantum of Teesta water-if she and her party retain power in the state.