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India water-sharing deals anger Bangladeshis

Rahat Rafe
October 11, 2019

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who was in New Delhi last week, signed major agreements on water-sharing with India. Bangladesh's citizens, however, are unhappy with the deals.

Sheikh Hasina meets Narendra Modi in New Delhi
Image: AFP/P. Singh

Dhaka signed several bilateral agreements with New Delhi during Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's visit to India last week. In her four-day trip, Hasina struck seven deals that, among others, allowed India to access water from a river flowing within Bangladesh. She also signed agreements allowing New Delhi to monitor Bangladesh's coastal region and use two seaports for transporting goods.

The deals have met with sharp criticism from many in Bangladesh who said these would only help India. They have also asked the Dhaka government to publish details about them. Hasina's government did not issue an official statement prior to her visit to India and citizens came to know about the agreements only through news agencies.

Read more: Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina in India

Ar Raji, an assistant professor of Bangladesh's state-run Chittagong University, said in his Facebook post, "People of the country suddenly and through a third party [the media] came to learn that Bangladesh signed several agreements with its neighbor. I feel ashamed and I protest this."

However, in a press conference after the trip, Hasina confirmed that her government was trying its best to protect Bangladesh's interests.

Meanwhile, members of Sheikh Hasina's party, the Awami League's youth wing, known as the Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL) were accused of killing an undergraduate student who voiced his protest against the deals on Facebook. The 21-year-old was allegedly "interrogated" by fellow students and later found dead in his hostel room. Several members of the BCL have been arrested following the incident.

Bangladesh's 'lifeline'

The Ganges and the Brahmaputra are two major rivers that flow from India through Bangladesh and into the Bay of Bengal
The Ganges and the Brahmaputra are two major rivers that flow from India through Bangladesh and into the Bay of Bengal

Bangladesh has around 400 rivers and its rural economy is dependent on agricultural production. "People in Bangladesh depend on rivers for their livelihood. Rivers are their identity, their lives,'' Sheikh Rokon, Secretary-General of Riverine People, a civil society organization dedicated to river issues in Bangladesh told DW.

Bangladesh shares 54 rivers with its neighbor India, with just one river going upstream and the remaining 53 coming southward from India, according to the Bangladesh National River Conservation Commission. India, therefore, has the upper hand in regulating water flow. 

Read more: Bangladesh emerging as new IT hub in South Asia

In 1996, the two countries signed a deal to share water from the Ganges, which is an important source of water for rivers in Bangladesh's north and northwestern regions. But Bangladesh claims that its neighbor has been breaching the terms of the treaty. Dhaka has also been trying to strike a deal on fair water share of the Teesta, which, like the Ganges, supplies water to smaller rivers downstream.

"In the decades after the independence of Bangladesh, India used its dominant power to enforce its own interests in its relations with Bangladesh. The Farakka Barrage, an Indian dam very near to the Bangladesh border, is a symbol of this power policy," Dieter Reinhardt, political scientist at Germany's Rhine-Waal University told DW. The Farakka dam diverted water to Kolkata and that without this barrier, all the water would flow into Bangladesh. The dam has been the main reason for water scarcity in northwestern Bangladesh, he added.

Bilateral treaties favoring India?

Rivers are a major source of livelihood for rural Bangladeshis
Rivers are a major source of livelihood for rural BangladeshisImage: DW/M. M. Rahman

India is the world's fifth-largest economy and a dominant power in South Asia. After Bangladesh Premier Sheikh Hasina came to power in 2009, the two countries signed several bilateral agreements on transportation, including rail transport, water sharing and development. Experts claim that many of the bilateral agreements favor India's interests instead of addressing the concerns of both parties, and blame Bangladesh for failing to negotiate with its neighbor.

Asif Nazrul, professor at the University of Dhaka, told DW that in recent years, Bangladesh had failed to negotiate with India. He said that the current government did not have the mandate of the people and could therefore not pull its weight in the negotiations. "Thus it only hears hear what the neighbor is saying," he told DW.

Read more: Modi arrives in Bangladesh for landmark border deal

Experts also accuse India of not paying attention to any of its concerns, including trade, water-sharing and most recently, the issue of Rohingya refugees. Bangladesh's government, however, has denied such claims.

International Advisor to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Gowher Rizvi, told DW that Bangladesh was maintaining its fair benefit of the agreements signed between the two countries. "It is now internationally recognized that Bangladesh is a role model on settling disputes with neighbors,'' he said, adding that people who claimed that Bangladesh was depriving itself of its share were "ignorant of the facts."

Furthermore, according to Asia expert Reinhardt, Bangladesh's bargaining position has improved in the last ten years because of China, which has replaced India as Dhaka's largest trading partner. Experts believe that in the future, India may have to pay more attention to its neighbor's concerns, rather than taking it for granted and treating it like its own backyard.