by- J. Sri Raman
Ever since India's general election, ending in the rout of the far right, international and regional attention has been focused on the country's relations with Pakistan and the prospects of their improvement. Unnoticed, meanwhile, is the ongoing damage threatened by India's proposed hydroelectric dam to its relations with Bangladesh, which an earlier ballot had promised to boost.
In the Bangladesh general election of December 2008, the Awami League (AL) of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed won a landslide victory despite attempts to pin the pro-India tag on her by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) of former Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia and her fundamentalist ally Jamaat-e-Islami (Jei). India seemed to have disappeared from the Bangladeshi political debate for some time, with the proposal for war crime trials threatening only to put Pakistan in the dock again.
India, however, figures in unflattering slogans at public rallies and street demonstrations staged over the past weeks. These are protests against the proposed dam, which seem as inimical to both the economy and environment of Bangladesh. The project is also resented as a display of big-brotherly disdain by India for the sensibilities of its eastern neighbor.
The BNP, with the support of almost all non-AL parties, has threatened to move the United Nations over the Tipaimukh project. The dam is being built across the Barak river on the border of India's northeastern States of Manipur and Mizoram, just 100 kilometers away from Bangladesh. The Barak becomes Meghna in Bangladesh, which the dam will reduce to the status of a lower riparian state.
Originally designed only to contain floods in the lower Barak Valley, the revised project aims to meet the power needs of India's rebellious northeast with an installed generating capacity of 1,500 megawatts. The dam is expected to submerge permanently an area of 275.50 square kilometers.
The protests can strike a popular chord because the bitterness caused in Bangladesh by an earlier Indian river project has yet to be erased. Fresh in the smaller neighbor's memory is the very unpleasant experience of the Farakka project.
The Farakka Barrage, completed in 1975 over the Ganga (a major river system shared by the two countries), led to a fierce controversy that continued for years. Built with the stated aim of diverting the Ganga into the Hooghly River of India's State of West Bengal during the dry season (January to June) in order to flush out silt, the dam came to be opposed for denying water to Bangladesh.
Unbiased accounts have largely corroborated the complaint. According to one finding, the water diversion caused this extremely poor country annual losses of over $4 billion. According to another, in some affected areas of Bangladesh, villagers had to "dig wells as deep as 200 feet to obtain drinking water."
In a recent article titled "From Farakka to Tipaimukh - the Dams that Kill," Bangladeshi human rights activist Habib Siddiqui, no friend of the BNP, recalled the history of the Farakka Barrage that should fill no Indian hearts with pride.
Siddiqui notes that Far?kka was the foremost subject on the agenda of the Indo-Bangladesh Joint Rivers Commission (JRC) from the birth of Bangladesh to early 1975, when the joint body discussed it 90 times. In April 1975, Dhaka agreed to a 41-day trial operation of the barrage on the condition that Bangladesh was assured of a water supply of 40,000 cusecs during the dry season. What followed, in his own words, was this: "Unfortunately, soon after (Father of Bangladesh) Sheikh Mujib's (Mujibur Rahman's) assassination in August 15, 1975, taking advantage of the political change in Bangladesh, India violated the agreement ... by cheating and diverting the full capacity of 40,000 cusecs unilaterally."
The issue went to the UN General Assembly. On November 5, 1977, an agreement was signed, assuring 34,500 cusecs for Bangladesh. The five-year treaty expired in 1982 and, after many shorter extensions, lapsed in 1989.
Siddiqui points out: "The JRC statistics shows very clearly that Bangladesh did not get her due share during all those years (1977-91). There was no improvement of the situation during the first Khaleda Zia Administration (1991-96) with average water share reduced to 10,000 to 12,000 cusecs ..."
Then, Hasina replaced Khaleda as the elected prime minister. She visited India and signed a treaty with her then counterpart Deve Gowda in December 1996. "The treaty addressed the heart of the conflict: water allocation (35,000 cusecs) during the five months of the dry season (January-May). During the rest of the year, there is sufficient water that India can operate the Farakka diversion without creating problems for Bangladesh."
According to Siddqui, however, India did not keep "her side of the bargain." He cites JRC figures again in support of his statement.
This record, as Siddiqui more than suggests, raises eminently warranted misgivings about the Tipaimukh project, for which the foundation stone was laid in December 2006..
As for the environmental dimension to the debate, several experts agree that the Farakka Barrage raised salinity levels, contaminated fisheries and posed a threat to water quality and public health in Bangladesh. According to some, the lower levels of soil moisture along with increased salinity also led to desertification. A study of 1997 estimated that it would take 50 to 60 years to repair the environmental damage with extensive international assistance.
India's West Bengal has not been spared the damage, say some experts. The South Asian Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP), in its report of November 1999 to the World Commission on Dams, is quoted as saying: "(The Farakka project) has resulted in massive devastation in Malda on its upstream and Murshidabad on its downstream in West Bengal. Huge sedimentation, increasing flood intensity and increasing tendency of bank failure are some of its impacts. Erosion has swept away large areas of these two districts causing large-scale population displacement ..."
The Tipaimuk project threaten similar consequences as well, say environmentalists. Objections to the project on this score have already been voiced in Manipur.
New Delhi's response to the protests has been to deny any ground for the grave apprehensions voiced about the project. The Hasina government, for its part, has promised the opposition that an all-party delegation will be sent to the site for an on-the-spot study of the project.
Siddiqui, however, speaks for many Bangladeshis. including supporters of the Hasina regime, when he wonders: "Given India's long history of dishonoring her agreements on Farakka with Bangladesh, can she be trusted for keeping any new promise? Are the UN and/or the ICJ (International Court of Justice) only options Bangladesh has to redress her grievances?"
It must be hoped that the option of bilateral discussions is preferred and that these are carried to a conclusion acceptable to common Bangladeshis. India's far right and Bangladesh's fundamentalists are waiting in the wings to take advantage of a failure of such efforts.