The Ganges Water Sharing Treaty: Genesis & Significance

24 Jan, 2000    ·   310

Saswati Chanda & Alok Kumar Gupta enlist the numerous benefits of the water sharing treaty between India and Bangladesh

The 1996 Indo-Bangladesh water sharing treaty has opened a new gateway for fruitful bilateral cooperation. India and Bangladesh share 54 trans-boundary rivers that drain through Bangladesh of which the Ganges is highly seasonal.  In 1975 India constructed a Barrage across the Ganges at Farakka for diverting the flow of water to the Hooghly River and to ensure the flushing of the Calcutta Port thus affecting Bangladesh ’s share of the Ganges waters. 



Though the necessity for cooperative development of water resources of Ganges was expressed by India in 1953, all bilateral meetings held till 1970 remained inconclusive. With the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971, prospects of cooperative development greatly improved. A decision was taken to establish the Indo-Bangladesh Joint River Commission (JRC) to undertake joint action on the following:



· A comprehensive survey of the river systems shared, and



· Formulate projects in the area of flood control, hydroelectric power generation, river basin development and irrigation and to implement them.



The question of sharing of the waters of the Ganges was kept out of the purview of the JRC to be settled later at the Prime Ministerial level as the problem had acquired political dimensions.



The Prime Ministerial meeting of 1974 discussed the Ganges issue and made a joint declaration on the question of augmentation. But the deadlock continued, though both agreed to a test run of the feeder canal at Farakka as per India ’s suggestion in the ensuing lean season. India ’s unilateral withdrawal in the summer of 1976 led to record low level flows at the Hardinge Bridge (the point within Bangladesh where flows are monitored). President Zia-ur-Rahman took the issue to the UN in 1976. A special committee of the UNGA, called for early negotiations and settlement of the dispute. 



Consequent negotiations, led to the signing of the 1977 treaty for a period of five years (1978-82). The main clauses of the treaty were:



· Sharing apportioned according to a schedule of 10 day flows from 1Januaryto 31May.



· Observed data (1948-73) of the flow at Farakka assumed at 75 percent availability of water, of which 60% flow to be allocated to Bangladesh .



· Incorporation of the ‘Guarantee Clause’ (during the leanest period, 21 April to 31 May), incase of exceptionally low flows, below 55,000cusecs, Bangladesh was to be guaranteed at least 80%, 27000 cusecs of her stipulated for the concerned 10-day period).



· JRC to arrive at a mutually acceptable recommendation for dry-season-flow augmentation at Farakka within a three-year period.



The 1977 agreement was further extended in 1982 for two more years, deleting the ‘Minimum Guarantee Clause’, and adopting the ‘Burden Sharing Clause’ for exceptionally low flows below 75%. In 1985 it was renewed for three years. Then followed a period of agreement vacuum.  Since 1991a series of discussions at the level of the political leadership and Joint Committee paved the way for the historic treaty signed on December 12, 1996



The main features of the treaty are:



¨ Validity for thirty years subject to review by the two governments at five years intervals or as desired by either signatory.



¨ Either party can seek the first review after two years to assess the impact.



¨ Sharing to be by ten-day periods from January1-May31 every year.



¨ Sharing will be on 50:50 basis, if the availability at Farakka is less than 70,000 cusecs.



¨ Bangladesh will get 35,000 cusecs and India the balance of flow if the availability at Farakka is between 70,000 and 75,000 cusecs.



¨ India will receive 75,000 cusecs and Bangladesh the rest in case of availability of 75,000cusecs or more.



¨ During the critical month of April Bangladesh will get a guaranteed flow of 35,000 cusecs in the first and last ten days of April, and 27,633 cusecs during the period 11-20April.



¨ If flow falls below 50,000 cusecs in any ten-day period the two governments will enter into immediate consultations to make emergency adjustments.



¨ The schedule is an indicative schedule based on the average 40 years flow data (1949-1988) to be applied to the sharing-formula which actually governs the treaty. 



¨ Provision of a fail-safe mechanism as India is obliged to release downstream water at a rate not less than 90% of Bangladesh ’s share as enjoined in the treaty until the five yearly review.



¨ Joint Committee of equal number of representatives to be formed for daily monitoring of flows at the feeder canal in Farakka and at the navigation lock at Hardinge bridge and to submit annual reports to the two governments.



The benefits for Bangladesh are:



¨ Treaty of long-term duration unlike the previous MOUs.



¨ De-linkage from the question of augmentation. 



¨ Fail-safe provision to prevent treaty vacuum.



¨ A much better deal than any previous agreement.



However, critics have questioned the secrecy that featured the settlement and failure of the treaty to guarantee an adequate volume of water to Bangladesh . The signing of the agreement has raised new hopes and paved the way for future negotiations on other crucial water sharing issues like the Teesta River . The agreement has proved that despite the asymmetries, willingness amongst both the governments to keep in view the long term economic and other benefits can definitely resolve long-standing political problems.