Will India Engage in Multilateral Transboundary Water Cooperation?

The Teesta River at Sevoke, West Bengal. Source: Author

Eight years ago, on 6th September 2011, negotiations on the Teesta river fell apart. PM Manmohan Singh was on a visit to Dhaka to sign the long-awaited treaty with PM Sheikh Hasina, however, West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee’s consistent opposition led, ultimately, to the failure of the negotiations over sharing the 400-kms-long transboundary river. This led to a rough patch between the two neighbours, and while both reconciled over time, the Teesta Treaty remains unsigned, with little certainty in sight.

Since then, India’s policies towards her neighbours has undergone drastic changes. During the rule of the Singh-led UPA-II government, India’s foreign policy primarily focused on economic goals, which resulted in a number of free trade agreements, especially with East and South East Asia as a continuation of India’s “Look East” policy. This period also saw China’s economic influence grow across South Asia.

On the transboundary waters front, while the Teesta negotiations failed, other arrangements on rivers shared with Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan (for hydropower generation) and even China continued to function, albeit in their limited and transactional manner, as originally envisaged. 

India’s (and China’s) strong emphasis on bilateralism in transboundary water cooperation reflected across all these arrangements; despite Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, China and India sharing the Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghana (GBM) basin, there is, till date, no single treaty binding all of them, while China and Afghanistan, riparians in the Indus basin, are not signatories to the Indus Water Treaty.

However, the years of UPA-II sowed the seeds of a new chapter of South Asian multilateralism. Hostilities with Pakistan continued to undermine the effectivity of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). However, the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) (which also includes Myanmar and Thailand) and the South Asian Subregional Economic Cooperation (SASEC) programme took off, and the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal (BBIN) Initiative took roots.

During the tenure of NDA-I government under PM Narendra Modi, the new avatar of South Asian multilateralism solidified. As China made further inroads into South Asian economies, India began feeling the need to re-engage, with more vigour and attention, with her immediate neighbourhood. Kicking off the ‘neighbourhood first’ policy, PM Modi invited SAARC leaders for the swearing-in ceremony in 2014. 

The government rechristened the ‘Look East’ policy as the ‘Act East’ policy and brought both BIMSTEC and BBIN into greater limelight. India increasingly embraced multilateral engagements with her South Asian neighbours across trade, maritime strategy (through the Indian Ocean Rim Association), technology, agriculture, culture, development, tourism, health, environment, energy and security.

However, one area – transboundary water cooperation – continued to remain bilateral.

PM Modi and his government were elected back into power in May 2019, and the guests at the swearing-in ceremony this time were not of SAARC, but of BIMSTEC (all members of BBIN are members of BIMSTEC). Following the Pulwama attack and with no immediate respite from hostilities with Pakistan in sight, India clearly sidestepped Pakistan with this move. Unsurprisingly, the issue of Indus waters also cropped up every time Indo-Pak friction resurfaced, and with the abrogation of Article 370, the Indian government, much to the chagrin of Pakistan, is now looking to further harness the Indus and accelerate hydropower projects in J&K.

BIMSTEC Leaders at inaugural summit in Nepal in 2018. Source: PIB, India.

With India’s diplomatic focus shifting from Pakistan and squarely resting on multilateral engagements with her eastern neighbours, it is worth contemplating whether this focus will extend to establishing multilateral transboundary water cooperation in the GBM basin. 

That it should is undoubted. The GBM basin is spread across India, China, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal, and strongly needs an institution, mechanism or arrangement of management and governance, involving all five riparians. As all five increasingly confront the borderless effects of droughts and floods, climate change, and growing water demands and consequent scarcity, the need for a multilateral approach to conserving and developing the GBM basin and its 700 million+ people is being increasingly felt. 

In the past few years, India has inched closer to multilateral water cooperation, especially in the area of inland water transport. Throughout 2018 and 2019, the Indian government has collaborated with NepalBhutanBangladesh and even Myanmar on developing waterways for cargo and passenger transport – but bilaterally (except linking Bhutan and Bangladesh), falling just short of officially establishing a network involving all five countries. Indeed, the economic and environmental appeal of these waterways could pave the way towards greater multilateral transboundary cooperation in the GBM basin, should the Indian government display the wisdom and will to establish it.

India’s bilateral approach towards transboundary water cooperation has not delivered progressive, sustainable results, even to her own people.

Areas lying in transboundary basins continue to suffer from developmental-environmental issues such as poverty, water misuse, scarcity and pollution, recurrent droughts and floods, groundwater contamination and depletion and vulnerability to climate change impacts, to name a few. Not a single bilateral water cooperation treaty signed by India is equipped to deal with these issues. 

Water crises have hit across the length and breadth of India and the increasingly touted solution of River Inter-Linking Project is fraught with economic and environmental challenges, not to mention tensions with the very riparian neighbours India is increasingly engaging with. If India is looking to harness her transboundary rivers, especially those from the GBM basin, to address her water and energy crises, she must extend her embrace of South Asian multilateralism to transboundary water cooperation as well. 

Going multilateral does not mean India should neglect or abandon existing bilateral mechanisms. In fact, robust bilateral mechanisms established by India can serve as both, interlinks as well as the bedrock, of multilateral water cooperation in South Asia. However, a lot remains to be accomplished in the area of South Asian bilateral water cooperation as well. The signing of an updated, holistic Teesta Treaty (a significant departure from the current draft) should be a good first step. Revamping the Indo-Bangladeshi Joint Rivers Commission to cooperate actively on all of the 54 rivers shared by India and Bangladesh is also a dire necessity. India must also revisit her water sharing agreements with Pakistan, Nepal and Bhutan as well, and equip them to deal with environmental, socio-economic, cultural and climatic issues.

Simultaneously, the spirit of and mechanisms for multilateral engagement must extend to transboundary water cooperation. It will certainly be a challenge to bring China onboard, but China or not, India and other riparian neighbours must initiate and carry out the process. This is easier said than done as a great deal of trust deficit needs to be overcome, but it is not impossible. Shared environmental vulnerabilities and developmental needs and deepening multilateralism can serve as strong catalysts if harnessed in a smart and timely manner. For this, political wisdom, creativity and will are required, and it is up to India, the leading power of the region, to generate, foster and sustain the three.

Gauri Noolkar-Oak

Gauri Noolkar-Oak is a transboundary water conflicts researcher and has studied river basins in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and South Asia. She is also a co-founder of The Tilak Chronicle.

The views and opinions expressed in the article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Tilak Chronicle and TTC Media Pvt Ltd.

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