Finding the course at last

with Prime Minister (pm) Sheikh Hasina Wajed of Bangladesh and her Indian counterpart H D Deve Gowda signing the 30-year agreement on sharing of the Ganga waters, it seems that the two countries have finally resolved their long-standing dispute. The treaty is the third of its kind, after 1975 and 1977, and has been hailed by both the pm s as being "fair and just'.

Under the 1977 pact, in which January 1 to May 31 was regarded as the lean season, Bangladesh was getting 34,500 cusec from the Farakka barrage during the leanest period between April 21 and April 30, as against India's 20,500 cusec. However, under the new treaty, both the countries shall receive 35,000 cusec of water in alternate 10-day periods from March 1 to May 10. In the event of Farakka having between 70,000-50,000 cusec, the countries will share in an equal proportion. The treaty also states that in case the flow at Farakka falls below 50,000 cusec in any 10-day period, the two governments will immediately meet to make adjustments on an emergency basis. Says Ramaswamy Iyer of the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, "While Bangladesh needs more water during end-April, our requirement is maximum between late-March and early-April. The 10-day division clause would, therefore, adequately meet our as well as our neighbour's requirements.' However, there is another option that in an effort to befittingly act as the big brother, India has been more than generous to Bangladesh.

India's chief concern, apart from meeting the demands of navigability at the Calcutta dock systems, was to ensure adequate water for farmers in the Ganga-Bhagirathi basin in lower West Bengal. Bangladesh was interested in protecting the irrigation needs of the country's western part, besides assuring a minimum flow in the river to arrest salinity ingress, among other things.

The treaty, however, has drawn considerable flak from different quarters, especially from Bihar. Bihar utilises a large amount of water from upstream Ganga for irrigation purposes and its grouse is that the allocation to Bangladesh, which was largely master minded by the West Bengal chief minister Jyoti Basu, would adversely affect irrigation development in the state.

In fact, Gowda has reportedly assured the West Bengal chief minister that clearance to any future irrigation project in the Ganga basin would be given only after consideration of lean season requirements at Farakka. This is aimed at cutting down any further utili sation of the Ganga by the upper ripari an states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.

The problem of upstream use, leading to a lower quantum of water for Farakka, has for long remained unresolved. Plans are on to augment supplies to Farakka by building a 141-km long canal from the Sankosh river in Bhutan, across the northern part of West Bengal, into the Teesta river. The proposed canal project has been criticised severely on environmental grounds ( Down To Earth , Vol 5, No 14). According to West Bengal finance minister Asim Dasgupta, water would be carried from the Teesta barrage in Jalpaiguri through the Teesta canal system into Farakka. One of the aims of this exercise is to assure a steady supply of water to desilt Calcutta port.

But some very fundamental issues seem to have been camouflaged in the hype created by the agreement. Firstly, 21 years since Farakka became operational, its principal rationale, that enough water would be pushed down to flush the annual silt load of 10 million cubic feet brought into the lower reaches of the Ganga near Calcutta, is yet to be materialised.

Farakka was built to divert the Ganga waters into Bhagirathi, as the Ganga abandoned the Bhagirathi course for east-flowing Padma river some three centuries ago. There are some indications available now, which show that the alluvial river may again be changing course. Severe erosion of banks in Murshidabad district in West Bengal is one such indication. Such a development would render the Farakka a testimony to the shortsightedness of the planners. However, officials of the water resources ministry said they do not see such definite changes.

More important is the question of augmentation of lean flow through non-structural solutions. Experience has shown that if the upstream catchment basin is properly managed through local water harvesting, watershed development and afforestation, then lean season flow can be substantially augmented. S S Sohani, commissioner, ministry of water resources, agreed that ecologically, this would be a much better way to augment the lean season flow. However, he passed off the blame on to state governments for imbalanced flow augmentation, emphasising that water was a state subject.