Tipaimukh Dam and Indian Hydropolitics
RASHID ASKARI examines the politics of dam building between India and Bangladesh.
India has finally moved to build the disputable dam (Tipaimukh) avowedly for flood-control and public welfare. An agreement was signed on Oct 22, 2011 between the State Government of Manipur and the hydro developers at New Delhi under wraps. So far as the proposed project (Tipaimukh Hydroelectric Project) is concerned, a dam is going to be erected on the river Barak in Manipur, India which flows down in the north-eastern part of Bangladesh assuming the names Surma and Kushiara. The 164 metre high and 390 metre long dam would cost about 1.35 billion US dollars, and have a capacity to generate around 1,500 megawatts of power for the national grid. The dam is within 100 km of Bangladeshi border town of Sylhet, and there is very close dependence of Indian river Barak and Bangladeshi rivers Surma and Kushiara. Now the question may arise as to what if India builds 101 dams and barrages in its own territory. But the thing is not as simple as that! It is a question of joint rivers and shared waters between India and Bangladesh. In point of this sort of upstream dam, Bangladesh is in a 'once bitten, twice shy'-like situation. The Farakka Barrage has been taking a heavy toll on her for a long time. Its entire north-eastern part is under threat of desertification. Another strike at Bangladesh's environment will only aggravate the existing wound. Experts from both the countries have sounded a note of serious caution on the building of the Tipaimikh Dam. But the Indian government seems totally unmoved by it.
Adverse effects of the project
Although hydroelectric projects are generally considered better than other power generation options, they have adverse long-term effects on the environment such as changes in the ecosystem, destruction of wildlife habitat and settlements. Especially in the densely populated countries like India and Bangladesh where rivers are a lifeline for most of the people, projects like Tipaimukh can cause numerous negative effects. Besides, a dam carries with it the seeds of its own malfunction. Even the world-famous Aswan High Dam has produced several detrimental effects, chief of which is the gradual decrease in the fertility of Egypt's riverside agricultural lands.
Its complete control of the Nile's annual flooding leaves its load of rich fertilising silt impounded in reservoirs and canals, and prevents the silt from being naturally deposited on farmlands. The Tipaimukh Dam may have similar effects on the fertility and productivity of the downstream land.
Effects on Bangladesh
If the Tipaimukh dam is put into operation, the whole North Eastern Bangladesh, especially Sylhet, Sunamganj, Moulavibazar, Habiganj, Brahmanbaria, Kishoreganj, Netrokona, Norshingdi and Narayanganj districts would suffer severe environmental consequences, and the people would be put to reduced circumstances. It would endanger wildlife, agriculture and freshwater fisheries in a vast area of land which would be alternately affected by worse droughts and floods in lean and wet seasons. And the daily life of a vast number of people of the Meghna basin who live by fishing would be put at risk. Above all, it would hugely contribute to the problem of water shortages which is assuming considerable dimensions at this crucial juncture of global warming while the availability of drinking water per capita is miserably shrinking worldwide.
Effects on India
The Tipaimukh Hydroelectric Project will not be worth the candle even for India. It is being foisted on the people of Manipur at such a place which is geologically one of the most vulnerable areas in the world. It is an epicentre for earthquakes that has recorded at least two major earthquakes measuring 8+ on the Richter scale in the past 50 years. A professor of the Department of Earth Sciences at Manipur University, Soibam Ibotombi warns: "the dam will be a geo-tectonic blunder of international dimensions". It would submerge a vast area of land, render thousands of people landless, affect 90 villages of Tamenglong district and about 27,242 hectares of cultivable land, and demolish some ancient monuments which bear witness to history of the Zeliangrong people.
The environment-conscious people of the world are fully aware of the harmful effects of building a dam on a river. So the people of north-eastern India and of Bangladesh are bitterly opposing the Tipaimukh Dam building steps. There is growing apprehension among them that the environment would be adversely affected by it. The people of Manipur have started fighting legally to stop the project. The Sinlung Indigenous People Human Rights Organization (SIPHRO) of India opined that the process of choosing the project premises ignored both the indigenous people and the recommendations of the WCD (World Commission on Dams). There have been widespread protests and anti-dam demonstrations throughout Bangladesh. But the Government of India seems to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to all criticisms levelled at the dam.
Why is Mr. Singh's government hell-bent on building the dam? While the developed countries in the world are backing off from governing nature by artificial means keeping in view its long term effects on the environment, India's decision to build this highly controversial dam gives rise to a host of questions. The reasons obviously are more political than developmental. The north-eastern region is a constant cause for concern to the far-off Delhi Government. This region of India has become a breeding ground for security risks. There are about 34 separatist organisations only in Manipur who often rise in rebellion against the central government which, unable to always resist by force, is trying to use the carrot and stick approach to control the rebel forces. Tipaimukh Hydroelectric project is an expression of the carrot approach to local people. The government has given Manipur people a tantalising offer of 10% free electricity (i.e. 40 MW) from the project in exchange for building the dam. That the local people can find huge employment from the project is another enticement to them.
This, however, is all about India's internal politics. But what is their politics with Bangladesh in this regard? Maybe it is not a deliberate act of hostility towards Bangladesh. Rather, it is happening as a ripple effect of the Tipaimukh project. Whatever it is, India would get a windfall gain in the bilateral relations by putting Bangladesh to pressure point.
Defence against the building of the dam
Although there is no immediately obvious penal system to bring this sort of anomaly to justice, there must be some basic political decencies of civilised countries which can dispense fair play in sustaining a gesture of goodwill amid conflicting interests. There are, however, some global agencies that can give necessary advice to settle such matters.
(A) Recommendations of World Commission on Dams (WCD)
The proposed Tipaimukh Dam is going to be built without conforming to some vital recommendations of WCD. First, as per the recommendations, a project should give social and environmental aspects the same significance as is given to technical, economic and financial factors. But the Tipaimukh project is giving significance neither to local environment nor to that of Bangladesh. Second, before the decision to set up a new dam is taken, outstanding social and environmental issues should be addressed, and all stakeholders should have the opportunity to participate in the decision-making processes. But the Tipaimukh project is the solitary decision of the corridors of power. Even the local people are not privy to it. Thirdly, the project should provide entitlements to the downstream project affected people to make up for their losses. Fourthly, the project affected people should be able to negotiate to ensure the implementation of development entitlements. But I don't know if Bangladesh Government, as the government of a large segment of project affected people, has been asked to negotiate any deal with India on Tipaimukh Project. Fifthly, the project should not affect the river ecosystem and endanger its wildlife. But experts are of the opinion that Tipaimukh hydroelectric project would imperil the ecosystem and wildlife habitat of the entire Meghna basin. Last but not least, a dam should not be constructed on a shared river if the other riparian state/country raises any objection to it. The people of Bangladesh have a strong objection to the building of the dam. This can easily be confirmed by referendum.
(B) The United Nations Convention
The United Nations General Assembly has recently introduced the rule of equitable utilisation on the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses (Article 5 of its United Nations Convention). The Assembly ratified the UN Convention on May 21, 1997. As per Article 5, the watercourse nations are required to utilise an international watercourse in an equitable and reasonable manner with a view to attaining optimal and sustainable utilisation and benefits consistent with adequate protection in the watercourse. It also states that watercourse nations shall participate in the use, development and protection of an international watercourse in an equitable and reasonable manner. But contrary to all these, Bangladesh as a watercourse nation has not been allowed either to utilise the watercourse equitably and reasonably, or to participate in its use, development and protection. The project owners are in open violation of the UN convention in this regard.
(C) No-Harm Rule
The UN Convention has also introduced a second principle called "no-harm rule" in its Article 7 which is subordinate to the rule of equitable utilisation of international watercourse. Article 7 suggests the watercourse nations to take all "appropriate measures" to prevent themselves from causing significant harm to other watercourse nations. Nevertheless, if they cause another watercourse nation any significant harm, they must take all appropriate measures in consultation with the affected nation, to eliminate or mitigate the harm and, where appropriate, to discuss the question of compensation.
Although the UN Convention has not come into force, it has received broad endorsements, and is widely accepted as an embodiment of the basic principles of international water law. It should be used as the law on transboundary fresh waters among the watercourse nations regardless of whether they have ratified it. This law was confirmed by the International Court of Justice in its ruling on the Danube River Case (Hungary v. Slovakia) in 1997. So, the watercourse nations need to develop treaties to ensure the equitable utilisation and management of internationally shared groundwater basins.
(D) The International Boundary Waters Treaty:
The International Boundary Waters Treaty (1909), between the United States and Great Britain set up an International Joint Commission of Americans and Canadians to supervise the issues related to waters on the boundary between the United States and Canada. Utilisation of the shared waters, shipping and other transportation rights, building of dams and bridges, and concern for probable water pollution are within the jurisdiction of the Joint Commission. The treaty proposed the commission "to prevent disputes regarding the use of boundary waters and to settle all questions which are now pending between the United States and the Dominion of Canada involving the rights, obligations, or interests of either in relation to the other or to the inhabitants of the other, along their common frontier."
(E) Indus Waters Treaty
After partition of India in 1947, while the irrigation system of the Bari Doab and the Sutlej Valley Project was disrupted by the international boundary between India and West Pakistan leading to disruptions to the water supply in some parts of Pakistan, a treaty between Pakistan and India known as the 'Indus Waters Treaty' was drawn up in 1960 under the mediation of the World Bank to resolve the crisis. This was also done in light of the 'International Boundary Waters Treaty' and both the countries built dams and barrages in their own parts under the terms of the treaty. This is also a shining example of the equitable use of shared waters by neighbouring countries. Similarly, as a lower riparian country, Bangladesh preserves the right to an equitable share of the waters of Barak River, and in its light can seek to examine the details of the dam construction by neighbouring India. And India, being an upper riparian country, is bound by legal obligation to negotiate with Bangladesh for the erection of such a huge structure on a common river.
(F) Indo-Bangladesh Joint River Commission
A Joint River Commission was signed between India and Bangladesh on November 24, 1972. In Article 4 of its Statute, it is clearly stated that the Commission will "maintain liaison between the participating countries in order to ensure the most effective joint efforts in maximising the benefits from common river systems to both the countries" and "study flood control and irrigation projects so that the water resources of the region can be utilized on an equitable basis for the mutual benefit of the peoples of the two countries". What benefits is Bangladesh going to get from the dam to be built on a common river? Has India made any liaison with Bangladesh regarding this dam under the terms of the Commission? The answer is in the negative.
Policy on the issue
It is not our lookout to see how India deals with its local people in Tipaimukh in particular and Seven Sister States in general but we are obviously deeply concerned about the devastating effects of the dam on our Bangladesh. We should leave no bilateral and global stones unturned to mitigate the problem. India may have the privilege of the upstream Barak, but we too have the rights to the downstream Surma and Kushiara. All the global schools of legal thought would look with favour upon our cause.
We should, however, deal with this problem with a balanced, down to earth policy. We should try to settle the dispute by diplomatic means and rounds of negotiations. In the first instance, we should try to get the ins and outs of the project straight from the horse's mouth, and then determine its detrimental effects on us with a view to embarking on meaningful negotiations. If we can sound very convincing to India and to the international community with regard to our claims as the project affected people, we can easily drum up support in our favour, and be able to stop the project or at least come to an equitable compromise that would give us our due. The government can find a way out, if they have a sincere will. They have taken our maritime cases to international court and are hoping to win. They may have to take recourse to international legal proceedings in this regard too if all negotiations falter.
The surge of protest against the dam is sweeping through Bangladesh and parts of India. It is a big plus in the anti-dam campaign. But we should keep an open mind on it. It would be best if we could totally stop the dam construction steps taken by upstream India. But if it is not at all possible, we should not close the book on the issue. It could be wiser to choose the lesser of the two evils than to lose all at the end of the day.
We should strike a bargain with India on the question of PAP's (Project Affected People) rights/ dues. We have to think of maximising our profits and minimising the losses inflicted on us by India's Tipaimukh project. It's good that both our Prime Minister and Opposition Leader seem to have seen eye to eye with each other at least on this issue. But if they only play to the gallery, we cannot get anything out of it. They should mean what they say. The government's steps should not be affected by any smaller interest of ascendancy or that of the opposition by any cheap politicking. To work honestly, sincerely, and disinterestedly for the country, to bargain and negotiate rationally for it, and to fight for its rights, for the sake of the country itself, not for anything else's sake, is the sign of true patriotism in a democratic government and a conscientious opposition party. If our present democratic government and the party / parties in opposition realise this, winning or losing the Tipaimukh deal won't make any significant difference to us in the long run.
Water is an eternal cause of rivalry. It is the ambient natural resource that neither knows nor respects human boundaries. The world's 261 international river basins, spreading over 45% of the earth's surface, are shared by more than one nation. But the reality is that, even the most neighbourly nations have found it difficult to reach a mutually acceptable settlement regarding transboundary waters. It is worth noting that the English word "rival" is derived from the Latin word 'rivalis' which means persons who live on the opposite banks of the same river. So, water is too vital a resource for nations to fight over. A wide range of water conflicts appear throughout history, and people have been repeatedly at war while protecting each other's water- rights. Many apprehend that the third World War would be a Water War. Whatever it is, we never want to go to war with our closest neighbour over water issue. We want to arrange to share the waters of our transboundary basin mutually and amicably, and settle our differences out of court. Even in the absence of any approved arrangements, India and Bangladesh can consult customary international law, and follow the simple rules that can enable them to coexist peacefully within a shared river basin. Indian premier Manmohan Singh has unambiguously told us in his recent Dhaka University speech that India would not cause any harm to Bangladesh in regard to anything. We still believe that he would not sell us down the river, and would show a spirit of goodwill in bilateral relations. We would never want a rupture in relations between Bangladesh and India.
Dr. Rashid Askari writes fiction and columns, and teaches English literature at Kushtia Islamic University, Bangladesh. He can be reached at email@example.com.