China, India in tug of war over Teesta project in Bangladesh

Beijing and New Delhi are on a collision course after India’s latest proposal to finance the Teesta river restoration and management project when China has already offered both financial and technical support for the same project. 

Tension grew between the two countries as the matter was discussed during Sheikh Hasina’s bilateral talks with her Indian counterpart Narendra Modi during her June 21–22 visit to New Delhi, her second trip to the country in 15 days.

Hasina earlier visited India on June 9 to attend Modi’s oath-taking for the third consecutive term.

A Chinese minister arrived in Dhaka on Saturday on a four-day visit that coincided with Hasina’s return from Delhi.

The visiting minister, Liu Jianchao, is scheduled to call on prime minister Hasina today ahead of her planned bilateral visit to China in the second week of July, foreign ministry officials confirmed.

Before Hasina’s Delhi visit, India expressed its willingness to support the implementation of the proposed Teesta River Comprehensive Management and Restoration Plan in Bangladesh’s north, a strategically important location for India where China has already completed a survey for a $1 billion project.

Indian external affairs secretary Vinay Mohan Kwatra conveyed his country’s interest during a courtesy call on foreign minister Hasan Mahmud in Dhaka in May.

‘India’s interest in the Teesta management project conveyed recently has obviously created some tension with China due to the timing of the proposal from New Delhi, as Dhaka has already sought Beijing’s support for the development project,’ said retired diplomat Munshi Faiz Ahmad, who also served as Bangladesh ambassador to China.

Faiz, also a former chairman of the Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies, told New Age that India’s purpose behind the move seemed to counter China on its strategically important location.

Foreign minister Hasan Mahmud on Sunday welcomed India’s announcement of sending a technical  team to discuss Teesta management.

Terming the planned visit of India’s technical team as a positive move, he told reporters that it was needed since Teesta was a big project.

Speaking to reporters at his office, Hasan said that bilateral talks in New Delhi did not discuss anything concerning China over the Teesta project.

Jianchao, minister of the international department of the Communist Party of China Central Committee, is also scheduled to hold a meeting with Hasan at the State Guesthouse Padma in the city today, according to officials. 

Although nothing specific was announced after the summit about the signing of a water-sharing deal on the common river Teesta, a pressing issue for Bangladesh kept pending for a long by successive Indian governments, Modi on Saturday announced that a technical team would soon visit Bangladesh to discuss ‘conservation and management of the Teesta River in Bangladesh.’

‘We have decided to start technical level discussions for renewal of the 1996 Ganga Water Treaty. A technical team will soon visit Bangladesh to discuss conservation and management of the Teesta River in Bangladesh,’ said Modi in a press statement after the bilateral meeting with Hasina at Hyderabad House.

Greeting Hasina as their first state guest, Modi, who took over as prime minister of India for the third consecutive term on June 9, said that they had met almost 10 times in the past years.

New Delhi has kept pending the signing of the Teesta water-sharing treaty with Dhaka for a long time, adversely affecting the lives and livelihoods of the people in the Rangpur region.

After the finalisation of the draft of the Teesta deal by the two sides, India backtracked on signing the treaty just hours before the arrival of then-Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh in Dhaka on September 6, 2011, on the plea that West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee objected to the agreement.

Modi, like his predecessor, continued to promise to conclude the interim agreements on sharing the waters of seven transboundary rivers, the Teesta in particular, amid repeated requests from Bangladesh prime minister Hasina on almost every occasion they met.

Asked about China’s interest in implementing the proposed Teesta management project, foreign minister Hasan Mahmud earlier said that they had only discussed India’s willingness to support the mega project with the Indian foreign secretary.

The Teesta becomes almost dry in the lean season due to the unilateral withdrawal of water upstream in India, while in monsoon, the common river overflows, causing frequent floods in Bangladesh as Indian authorities often open floodgates at the Gajoldoba barrage to offload water pressure.

Biodiversity and agriculture in Bangladesh’s northern districts have been seriously affected in the absence of any water-sharing treaty between Bangladesh and India.

The foreign ministry said in December last year that China was willing to support a development project on the transboundary river Teesta inside Bangladesh, and the ministries concerned would consider it.

In case of any dispute from India against the proposed project on one of the common rivers, Bangladesh would go ahead with the proposal, keeping into consideration its geo-political implications, foreign ministry spokesperson Seheli Sabrin told a weekly press briefing at the ministry on December 28.

The Chinese ambassador to Bangladesh, Yao Wen, said at an event in Dhaka on December 21 that the country had already sent a revised proposal to Bangladesh on the ‘Teesta River Comprehensive Management and Restoration Project,’ lowering its costs.

Expressing hope that work on the Teesta water management project would start after the national elections in Bangladesh, he said, ‘We have proposed implementing the project in phases.’

Responding to a question in parliament, Sheikh Hasina said on June 12 that after completing the survey of the Chinese government›s financial support for the implementation of the Teesta Master Plan, the Chinese government had sent an evaluation report on PDPP (Preliminary Development Project Proposal) to the Economic Relations Department on March 5, 2023.

She said the Chinese government suggested a more detailed survey for the phased implementation of the project.

According to the instructions of the Chinese government, the Power China Authority sent the proposal for revision of the feasibility study report to the Bangladesh Water Development Board on August 27.

In this context, the next activities were being implemented, she said about the Teesta project.

Originating in Sikkim in India and entering Bangladesh through Lalmonirhat, the 315-kilometre-long Teesta travels more than 150 kilometres through half a dozen other districts, including Rangpur, Gaibandha, Nilphamari, and Kurigram, before merging with the Jamuna River at Fulchhari.

A survey on the river was completed in 2019 by the Power Construction Corporation of China under the Bangladesh Water Development Board of the water resources ministry.

The development works incorporate river dredging, construction of dams and reservoirs in the project area, according to BWDB officials.

A visit by the then Chinese ambassador Li Jiming to the Teesta Barrage in Lalmonirhat in 2022 showed Beijing’s keen interest in funding and implementing the ‘Teesta River Comprehensive Management and Restoration Project’, they said.

The BWDB officials said that they had been negotiating a nearly $1 billion loan from China through the Economic Relations Division.

The project aimed at upgrading the socio-economic condition of the Rangpur division by establishing new economic growth points along both banks of the river, preventing floods, and removing slits from the river bed, according to the primary plan.

The ruling Awami League in 2017 announced that it had abandoned a planned $4 billion Ganges Barrage Project—implementation of which was awaiting India’s consent—and said that it would explore an alternative option to optimise the utilisation of the Ganges waters in Bangladesh.

The Ganges, or Padma in Bangladesh, is one of the 54 common rivers between lower-riparian Bangladesh and upper-riparian India.

China earlier expressed its eagerness to provide both financial and technical assistance for Bangladesh’s much-hyped project for the construction of the Ganges Barrage at Pangsha in Rajbari.

It took the Bangladesh government four years, beginning in 2009, to complete the feasibility studies for the Ganges Barrage construction, which cost Tk 42 crore.

Construction of the Ganges Barrage was due to begin in 2014 and end in 2020.

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