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Foreign Affairs

Water Resource Management is key challenge for maintaining ‘Sonali Adhyay’ between India and Bangladesh

If bilateral marathon meeting between Water resource secretaries under the mechanism of Joint River Commission, held on last Tuesday,  of the two countries is any indication then ‘Water Resource Management ‘ will be  one of the main challenges to keep the momentum of the bilateral ‘Sonali Adhyay’ between India and Bangladesh in the 50th year celebration of their diplomatic relations .

Prime Minister Narendra Modi will undertake two day visit to Bangladesh, his first foreign visit after the outbreak of Covid-19 pandemic, and will meet his counterpart Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on March 27 in Dhaka. Though the announcement from the External Affairs Ministry said,”this visit is in connection with the commemoration of three epochal events – Mujib Borsho, the birth centenary of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, 50 years of the establishment of diplomatic ties between India and Bangladesh and 50 years of liberation struggle”, both the leaders have to set a specific guidelines for resolving water resource management which  ” directly impact the livelihood of people in the two countries.”

The  delegation level talks between India and Bangladesh has created a huge expectation in both the countries as Joint River Commission of two countries has not met since 2010. Bangladesh side was led by senior Secretary of Water Resource Ministry Mr  Muhammad Imran Kabir Bin Anwar and assisted by High Commissioner of Bangladesh in India Mr  Muhammad Imran.  Mr Pankaj Kumar, Secretary of Jal Shakti Ministry, led the Indian delegation. It took almost eight hours to finalise the minutes of the meeting with a lunch break in the middle. Finally, after the dinner both sides agreed to issue separate press statements flagging the issues raised by both countries.

Apart from raising the issue signing of water sharing agreement of Teesta river which was inked by the two Secretaries of two countries in the year 2011, Dhaka  has opened the issue of ‘optimum utilization of  the water received by Bangladesh under the provisions of Ganges water sharing agreement of 1996’. They proposed a joint feasibility study of the flow of water during the lean period which was mandated in the treaty, by both India and Bangladesh.  Ganges water treaty was signed in 1996 and is due for renewal in the year 2026 as the treaty was in force for 30 years since then.

Water resource Secretary also raised the issue of remaining excavation work on the Rahimpur Khal for utilization of Kushiyara river water for irrigation purpose. Sources present in the meeting told that Indian side has requested to discuss all these issues including sharing of water of six trans-boundary  rivers which are in discussion for several years, after the assembly elections in West Bengal and Assam get over in May. Those rivers, such as Dudhkumar, Muhuri,Gomti, Manu,Khowai and Dharala ,are basically flowing from North East India .

Certain contentious issues were raised by the both sides on which no consensus could be achieved. Bangladesh side has referred to the pollution of  legendary river Titas which is continously polluted by the other rivers of Indian side like Janji and a channel which carries waste material. In fact, navigability of the river was reduced as huge boulders were dropped in the bed of the river to give access for making road connectivity to Akhaura-Agartala. Bangladesh side claimed that for the sake of connectivity they have sacrificed a lively river called Titas. Whatever channel of the river is alive now should be protected. They also raised the reduced flow of Mahananda river as West Bengal withdraws excess water from the river.

Indian side  urged the implementation of MOU for withdrwing water from the Feni river for drinking purpose for the city of Sabroom of Tripura .The MOU was signed during the visit of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to India in 2018 , but till today the mechanism has not been working. Discussions was held on finalisation of water sharing agreement of Feni river and less flow of water in the Attreyi, Punorbhava and Tangon and pollution of Mathavanga and Churni rivers due to effluent released from sugar mills of Bangladesh .

Later, a press release issued by the High Commission of India in  Dhaka said, “both sides agreed to expand cooperation across an entire gamut of water resources issues including framework for sharing of river waters, mitigation of pollution, river bank protection, flood management, basin management etc. A Joint Technical Working Group will provide inputs on the matter”.

Though there was no breakthrough in the meeting, both sides are happy that the “process of Joint River Commission meeting has been set in motion” and a ministerial level meeting might be held very soon.” Both the Secretaries also met the Jalshakti Minister  Gajendra Sekhwat and invited him for JRC meeting in Dhaka.

(The writer is a senior journalist based in Delhi and a commentator on India-Bangladesh affairs. The views expressed are personal.)

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