Bend in the river?




    It is a welcome news that India has formed two separate expert groups to advance sub-regional cooperation—one among Nepal, India and Bangladesh (NIB) and another among Bhutan, India and Bangladesh (BIB) respectively—on water resources management for hydropower development in Ganges and Brahmaputra river basins (The Hindu, April 15). This suggests a change of track in Indian policy towards its neighbors. The Indian government’s change of policy on shared water resources in the region was exemplified by the Framework Agreement for Development between India and Bangladesh during the Indian Prime Minister’s visit to Bangladesh in 2011, wherein both the governments agreed “to harness the advantage of sub-regional cooperation” in the power sector and water resources management. Not only that, according to the Joint statement issued during the visit, the two Prime Ministers had directed their experts to formulate necessary terms of reference for joint projects in the shared river basins.

    Going by the history of sub-regional cooperation on water resources and energy connectivity, the subject has remained a taboo so far as the Indian government is concerned. One may be reminded of the fact that when the subject was mooted in the first Summit of the Heads of States of the SAARC countries by Nepal and further advanced by the Bangladesh President in the Banglore Summit of 1986, the Indian Prime Minister almost dismissed the idea out of hand, saying, “We have not sought to melt our bilateral relationship into a common regional identity.”

    During negotiations on Farakka Barrage, which basically turned out to be an issue of sharing of Ganges water between India and Bangladesh, the proposal of Bangladesh to expand the scope of the negotiation and include Nepal in the Joint River Commission was refuted by India on many occasions. It has repeatedly opposed inclusion of transit connectivity of electricity in the scope of the meaning of ‘transit to the landlocked countries’.

    Several attempts through track-two diplomacy backed by studies on regional or sub regional cooperation on water resources among the countries sharing the waters of Ganges and Brahmaputra have not resulted in any success so far, mainly because of the strict policy of bilateralism pursued by India.

    Against this backdrop, no wonder water resources cooperation has been taken as a subject of “bilateral” nature that does not merit discussion in SAARC. Given these historical facts, one wonders: Why this sudden change of heart? The issue calls for an inquiry.

    The watchers of South Asian waters may find this change as being prompted by the fact that in recent days India has been alarmed by China’s initiation of the construction of a series of hydropower projects, including the planned 320-MW hydel project with a reservoir of 28 million cubic metres at Jiacha on the main stream of Brahamaputra. Such a move, the Indians claim, may affect the River Linking Project along with other consumptive uses downstream in India besides creating environmental and other problems. This concern was reportedly expressed by the Prime Minister of India to the Chinese Premier on the sidelines of the BRICS meeting in Durban last month. India, though an upper riparian country for Bangladesh and lower riparian for Nepal in the case of Ganges river, has adopted a policy of differential bilateralism. India’s policy of fait accompli under the so-called policy of bilateralism on matters of water sharing—be it in the case of Farakka Bridge or Tankapur hydro-project or recently the Tipai Mukh Dam against which serious concern has been expressed by Bangladesh—is very much evident. In matters of water resources India so far has used its geographical position to pursue its own objectives, often at the cost of meaningful regional initiatives. However, in the case of Brahamaputra it shares the concern of Bangladesh, as both India and Bangladesh are lower riparian to the river. Hence, it frantically seeks a common ground with Bangladesh to argue against the reported Chinese initiative on the Bharamaputra. It is noteworthy that India abstained in the voting at the UN General Assembly on the “Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Use of International Watercourses” whereas China voted against it. Hence both the countries flout the international legal regime on watercourse. However, if India is to make a case against China on the use of Brahamaputra waters, there is no option for it than to argue the case on the basis of the principles enshrined in the above convention. This is the reason India is trying to add strength to its argument by aligning itself with Bangladesh and Bhutan.

    Thus, in a way China’s reported initiative on Brahmputra river can be seen as a welcome development, one which has forced India to cooperate sub-regionally with Bangladesh and Nepal on the use of the waters of Ganges. This also helps India not only to build its international credentials but also to establish a strong case in the case of the Ganges.

    But to make this policy shift meaningful, India needs to gain the confidence and trust of its neighbors. The starting point for India could be to change its recently published Water Resources Policy which negates any sub-regional cooperation and stresses on bilateralism on international watercourses. Second, India must get rid of its hitherto policy of fait accompli on the projects with cross-border implications. It also needs to shun secrecy on the water related data and information. Data on international waters should be openly put up in public domain. Real cooperation does not start without openness to the partners.

    Third, there is a need to establish examples of cooperation at the regional level by doing projects which could be cited as a win-win case for all the cooperating countries. China may want to join such projects as sustainable conservation and utilization of the trans-Himalayan river and its eco-system is vital for us all. Fourth, India’s credentials on honest and just implementation of bilateral agreements need to be buttressed by even being prepared to review past inequitable treaties and arrangements with its neighbors.

    Given the imperatives created by the impact of climate change on shared ecology and water, there is no option for the countries than to cooperate for equitable gain. We can only hope that the apparent change of heart in Indian policy is genuine.

    The writer is a water expert and former Secretary at the Ministry of Water Resource

    Source : Republica