Recently the Planning Commission of India, in association with the Ministry of Water Resources, has proposed a major policy change. It has decided to include social-workers and anthropologists in the study of any water-related development projects. This is a positive development not only for the smooth and sustainable execution of Indian water projects within the country but also for the country’s inter-state or rather inter-societal relations with its eastern neighbour, Bangladesh. This will go a long way in inspiring confidence among the people of both nations. Even after fourteen years of uninterrupted operation of the Ganges Water Treaty signed between India and Bangladesh in 1996, informal complaints by the Bangladeshis have been that the quantum of water reaching Farakka (water is distributed between the two countries according to the availability in this barrage) is not in the same proportion as was promised in the treaty.
Indo-Bangladeshi water-sharing has seen a great evolution in the last fifty years. The 1977 agreement contained a ‘guarantee clause’, according to which, if the water flow in the Farakka barrage reduced to 80 percent of the assumed value in any 10-day period, India would guarantee Bangladesh 80 percent of its stipulated share. The 1985 deal also contained a ‘burden-sharing’ formula. The 1996 Treaty, however, does not include any compulsory in-built safeguards for Bangladesh. Despite this, there are various provisions which provide a modicum of security, for instance, there is a guarantee of 35,000 cusecs to either side in the alternate ten day segments in the period from 11 March to 10 May. Another important aspect of the treaty is that when the flow goes below 50,000 cusecs, it recognizes an emergency situation and provides for immediate consultations between the two governments. It is also expected that the water flow will reduce over a period of time, and thus the treaty requires the government of India to make every effort to protect the flow arriving at Farakka. The newly adopted provisions of the Indian Planning Commission are going to soothe the apprehensions of Bangladesh further.
According to the new provisions, the Command area development programme will be merged with the Accelerated Irrigation Benefit Programme (AIBP), and no project will be considered complete until all minor canals and distributaries are aligned and water users’ associations are formed. The social-workers would ensure the enlistment of farmers. All other affected groups will be consulted before undertaking any project. Water-guzzler crops which have been adopted by different regions only for profit motive without giving any consideration to physical conditions suitable for particular crops will be discouraged. The cropping of rice in Punjab with incompatible physical conditions has led to environmental problems of water logging and salinization in fields is an illustration of this.
Already the National Water Mission as part of the National Action Plan on Climate Change takes into account the effects of climate change and underlines the need to prioritize documentation and modelling of surface and groundwater resources in each river basin to benefit the users of these basins. Also as part of a new approach, a comprehensive map of the country’s aquifers with their storage and transmission characteristics at a watershed scale will be prepared. This will help crop water budgeting. If each region or river basin is planned according to all the parameters which have been enshrined in the Planning Commission document, the planning and execution of water-related development projects will be in congruence with the tolerable capacity of the surface region. This will help generate a positive spillover effect into other riverine neighbours. As a consequence, India will not be required to overexploit surface and sub-surface water. On the one hand, this will assist in the conveyance of a significant flow of water to Farakka barrage and on the other hand, India will be able help Bangladesh in the preparation of sustainable development water projects. Bangladesh will thus be able to initiate water development as well as cropping patterns according to its climatic and geographic features.
The exercise of realpolitik in inter-state water issues is not prudent because the suffering of one leads to the suffering of the other. With the impending threat of China’s plans to divert the Brahmaputra, even pragmatism demands that India be mindful of Bangladesh’s anxieties. The chalking out of a joint strategy to deal with new developments upstream therefore seems to be a necessary action.