Tipaimukh dam pact a setback to Hasina
By Syed Tashfin Chowdhury
DHAKA - The work of two years of improving relations between India and
Bangladesh, culminating in Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visit to
Dhaka in September, appears to be unraveling following India's decision to go
ahead with construction of a dam on waters that flow between the two countries
On October 22, the Manipur state government of India signed an agreement with
two other parties to construct the Tipaimukh dam in Manipur, without providing
any prior information to Bangladesh. Since then, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina
of Bangladesh and her cabinet have tried to mend the crisis while under
increasing public and opposition criticism for the government's "subservient"
attitude to its bigger neighbor.
"The agreement for construction of Tipaimukh dam has made it
clear that India is deviating from the formal and informal commitments it made
to Bangladesh," Center for Global Change executive director Ahsan Uddin Ahmed
told New Age on November 19.
Public hostility to the dam could prove fatal to Hasina's hopes of securing
voters' support in parliamentary elections due at the end of 2013.
"The incident portrays how weak Bangladesh's diplomatic stance is with India,"
M Inamul Haq, former director general of Water Resources Planning Organization
(WARPO) told Asia Times Online. "Although this government came to power with a
landslide support from the public, they have lost most of it already following
this recent development with the Tipaimukh dam."
A full-day strike was held last Thursday in Sylhet, the area bordering India
through which the affected Bakar river flows, and the opposition Bangladesh
National Party is threatening further action through into next month. Opponents
of the dam say it will dry up a number of rivers and cause other environmental
problems in north-eastern Bangladesh. Protests have also been staged in Manipur
as the dam will displace people upstream and affect agriculture and water use
The agreement by the Manipur government and other parties, which cleared the
way for construction of the long-proposed dam, is contrary to joint
declarations made after summits between the premiers of Bangladesh and India in
2010 and 2011, when Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh assured Prime Minister
Sheikh Hasina that New Delhi would "not take any step regarding their planned
Tipaimukh Dam that may harm Bangladesh".
It came barely seven weeks after Hasina and Manmohan signed the "Framework
Agreement on Cooperation for Development between India and Bangladesh" in Dhaka
on September 6. This signaled important headway on several long-standing
cross-border issues and opened the way for improved trade between the two
"That is the nature of India's diplomacy," M Inamul Haq, former director
general of the government's Water Resources Planning Organization, told Asia
Times Online. "No matter what they say to Bangladesh to improve ties, they will
never steer away from the original imperialist perspective that is followed by
the central government of India as far as water and other resources are
Demonstrations in Manipur and across Bangladesh started on November 17, after
it was reported that the tripartite agreement had been signed between NHPC Ltd
(a hydropower company owned by the Indian government), Satluj Jal Vidyut Nigam
(SJVN) Ltd, and the Manipur government to set up a joint venture company that
will implement the 1,500 MW Tipaimukh Hydroelectric (Multipurpose) Project.
The local government will hold a 5% interest in the venture, NHPC 69% and SJVN
26%, under the project agreement, which was signed on October 22 in New Delhi,
according to a press release on the NHPC website dated October 24.
The release said the "project is located in Churachandpur district of Manipur"
and has been "conceived as a multipurpose storage project on the Barak river
with the main objective of hydropower generation along with flood moderation of
downstream area. The project is estimated to generate 3,800 Million Units of
electricity annually and likely completion period is 87 months after government
The Bangladesh government was not informed of the agreement details until it
asked for them on November 21, adding fuel to BNP's long-held claims that the
ruling party is "subservient" toward India.
The dam will block the Barak (also known as Borak) river, which develops in
Manipur before flowing briefly into Mizoram state and on to Assam state, where
it flows west before dividing into the Surma and Kushiara (or Kushiyara) rivers
almost immediately before the border with Bangladesh. Those two rivers then
form a vital irrigation network across the flat northeast of the country before
finally rejoining as the Meghna River.
The dam, to be located 500 meters downstream from the juncture of the Barak and
Tuivai rivers, was first proposed in 1954 by the Assam government but following
protests by populations in affected areas was shelved a number of times till
1999. The central government then handed the project to North-Eastern
Electronic Power Co-operation and it was apparently approved by the Indian
president in 2001.
Preparatory work on the ground started in 2003, was halted after national and
international uproar, then was begun again in late 2008. With protests renewed
in Bangladesh and Manipur, the Indian government invited a parliamentary
delegation from Bangladesh in July 2009 to discuss the project and visit the
site. Indian Power Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde assured the Bangladesh
delegation that "no water flow will be diverted and no irrigation project will
be constructed upstream or downstream of the project".
Following the meeting, the delegation and senior Awami League leader Abdur
Razzak was quoted by Daily Star on July 31, 2009, as saying, "Whatever they
[India] do, they will do through discussions with Bangladesh" and that "all
issues can be resolved through talks."
The tripartite agreement in October took the ruling Awami League in Bangladesh
by surprise. BNP leader Khaleda Zia was quick to take advantage. On December 1,
she told the press she had written on November 22 to the Indian prime minister
asking for a "joint impact study by experts from both countries". She said she
would release the reply, which she received on November 26, at a later date.
India was going ahead with the Tipaimukh dam project due to "ineffective and
bow-down foreign policy of the [Bangladesh] government," she said. "If the dam
is built, water flow in Meghna, Surma and Kushiara rivers [of Bangladesh] will
be seriously affected," she said.
The Sylhet region would be under a constant threat of flood, as the proposed
dam site is in an earthquake-prone area and "if there is any breach in the dam,
Sylhet region will be under eight-foot of water."
The opposition party is capitalizing on the lack of trust that Bangladesh has
held towards Delhi since India built the Farakka barrage, completed across the
Ganges in 1970, in West Bengal about 18 kilometers from the border with
Bangladesh. The stated objective of this water diversion scheme was to "save
Calcutta Port from silting".
A 1974 summit between the two countries secured assurances that the barrage
would not be put into operation before an agreement was reached on sharing the
dry season flow of the Ganges, which terminates in the vast delta that forms
much of Bangladesh. Dhaka agreed that India could test the feeder canal of the
barrage in 1975, but Delhi commissioned the barrage and continued unilateral
diversion of the Ganges beyond the stipulated test period.
The barrage was then operational without a water-sharing agreement until 1997.
On November 21, the foreign ministry in Dhaka urged India to share all
information regarding the October Manipur agreement while it underscored
Bangladesh's right as "a co-riparian country" and urged the "need for prior
consultation before initiating any intervention on common rivers like the
Hasina assured parliament that a formal delegation will visit India to discuss
the issue, with a date tentatively set for December 4. Hasina's international
affairs adviser Gowher Rizi and economic affairs adviser Mashiur Rahman went to
New Delhi four days earlier to discuss the issue.
The same day, India welcomed the proposal of Bangladesh for further
consultations on the Tipaimukh project. It noted that the Tipaimukh project has
been under discussion bilaterally since 1972, with the objective of reducing
flood damage in the Cachar and Sylhet areas of India and Bangladesh
Syed Tashfin Chowdhury is the Editor of Xtra, the weekend magazine of New
Age, in Bangladesh.
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