From Farakka to Tipaimukh — the Dams that Kill

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In recent days, Bangladesh seems to have wakened up to the danger posed by construction of the Tipaimukh Dam in the neighboring Manipur state of India. There are some in Bangladesh who have a habit of translating national issues of this kind into deplorable partisanship thereby fostering disunity when national unity is needed. In so doing they commit acts of treason.

In what follows before delving into the Tipaimukh project I would like to share some facts surrounding the Farakka Barrage. Although the construction of the Farakka Barrage was completed during the Mujib rule in 1974-5, the decision to build this dam can be traced back to 1951. In those days, hydroelectric dams were popular methods to generating electric power. India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bhutan planned on building hundreds of hydropower dams from rivers that flowed down from the Himalayas. The Farakka dam was built to divert water from the Ganges River into the Hooghly River during the dry season (January to June), in order to flush out the accumulating silt which in the 1950s and 1960s was a problem at the major port of Kolkata on the Hooghly River. A series of negotiations between the Pakistani and Indian governments failed to persuade India into abandoning the Farakka project. The World Bank, the I.M.F and other international financial institutions financed the project.[1] So, one wonders how could Sk. Mujib be blamed for the Farakka Barrage!

After Bangladesh’s independence the Indo-Bangladesh Joint Rivers Commission met over 90 times to discuss the Farakka Barrage issue, but without any results. The Bangladesh team was headed by Mr. B. M. Abbas. In April 1975, Bangladesh agreed to a trial operation of the Farakka Barrage for a period of 41 days from April 21 to May 31, 1975 to divert 11,000-16,000 cfs (cusecs) with the understanding that India will not operate feeder canal until a final agreement was reached between India and Bangladesh on the sharing of Ganges water. Bangladesh was assured of getting 40,000 cusecs during the dry season.

Unfortunately, soon after Sk. Mujib’s assassination in August 15, 1975, taking advantage of the political change in Bangladesh, India violated the agreement (MOU) by cheating and diverting the full capacity of 40,000 cusecs unilaterally. The matter was brought to the attention of U.N. General Assembly, which on November 26, 1976 adopted a consensus statement directing the parties to arrive at a fair and expeditious settlement. On November 5, 1977 the Ganges Waters Agreement was signed, assuring 34,500 cusecs for Bangladesh.[2] The five-year treaty expired in 1982 and after several shorter extensions lapsed entirely in 1989. The JRC statistics shows very clearly that Bangladesh did not get her due share during all those years (1977-91). There was no improvement of the situation during the first Khaleda Zia Administration (1991-96) with average water share reduced to 10,000 to 12,000 cusecs, with one extreme event of only 9,000 cusecs, during the dry season.[3]

After Sk. Hasina was elected Prime Minister, she visited India and signed a treaty with her counterpart Deve Gowda on Dec. 12, 1996.[4] The Treaty addressed the heart of the conflict: water allocation (35,000 cusecs) during the five months of the dry season. During the rest of the year, there is sufficient water that India can operate the Farakka diversion without creating problems for Bangladesh. The treaty stipulated that below a certain flow rate, India and Bangladesh will each share half of the water. Above a certain limit, Bangladesh will be guaranteed a certain minimum level, and if the water flow exceeds a given limit, India will withdraw a given amount, and the balance will be received by Bangladesh (which will be more than 50%).[5]

The statement of Mr. I.K. Gujral, External Affairs Minister in the Rajya Sabha on December 12, 1996 on the visit of Prime Minister of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh to India and the signing of the treaty on the sharing of Ganges water at Farakka reads: "[D]uring the critical period within the lean season, i.e. from March 1 to May 10, India and Bangladesh each shall receive a guaranteed flow of 35,000 cusecs of water in an alternating sequence of three 10-day periods each. This is aimed at meeting the fundamental requirements of both our countries through a just and reasonable sharing of the burden of shortage. The Treaty also has the merit of being a long-term arrangement combined with scope for reviews at shorter intervals to study the impact of the sharing formula and to make needed adjustments. While the Treaty will be for 30 years and renewable on mutual consent, there is a provision of mandatory reviews at the end of 5 years and even earlier after 2 years with provisions for adjustments as required. Pending a fresh understanding after the review stage, Bangladesh would continue to receive 90% of its share in accordance with the new formula. We would thus avoid a situation where there is no agreement on the sharing of the Ganga waters between India and Bangladesh… As the House would recall, we have already taken initiatives in the commercial sphere by extending tariff concessions to Bangladesh on a range of products of export interest to them. We propose to extend commercial credits of Rs. 1 billion to enhance trade relations further."[6]

In the light of the above facts, it is difficult to sustain accusations that the 1996 Treaty went against the interest of Bangladesh, becoming a fait accompli. I have never heard an intelligent person say that a treaty signed with the aim of getting fair and equitable share is worse than not having one. Was the 1977-treaty silly, too? More outrageous is the implied assertion by some that the AL government that had ruled only five years in the post-Mujib era of 34 years is solely to be blamed for all the maladies facing Bangladesh today, including the Tipaimukh Dam, soon to be constructed by India.

It is true though that India had not kept her side of the bargain since signing of the treaty. The Joint River Commission (JRC) statistics, as quoted by Syful Islam in the New Nation, March 9, 2009, shows that in 1999 Bangladesh got 1,033 cusecs of water at Teesta barrage point against its normal requirements of 10,000 cusecs of water. After JRC meeting in 2000 the water flow rose to 4,530 cusecs, in January 2001 it reduced to 1406 cusecs, in January 2002 to 1,000 cusecs, in January 2003 to 1,100 cusecs, in November 2006 to 950 cusecs, in January 2007 to 525 cusecs and in January 2008 to 1,500 cusecs.[7]

India’s behavior mimics those of Israel in dishonoring every treaty that the rogue state had signed with the Palestinian Authority. Should not she be ashamed of her iniquity?

Let’s now look at the disastrous effect of the Farakka Barrage on Bangladesh. The immediate effects have been (1) reduction in agricultural products due to insufficient water for irrigation; (2) reduction in aquatic population; (3) river transportation problems during dry season; (4) increased salinity threatening crops, animal life drinking water, and industrial activities in southwest Bangladesh. The long term effects, which are already being felt, include: (a) one fourth of the fertile agricultural land will become wasteland due to a shortage of water; (b) thirty million lives are affected through environmental and economical ruin; (c) an estimated annual economic loss of over half a billion dollars in agricultural, fisheries, navigation and industries; (d) frequent flooding due to environmental imbalance and changes in the natural flow of the Ganges.[8] A BSS report of 2004 stated that over 80 rivers of the country dried up during last three decades due to the construction of the Farakka barrage on the Indian side of the river Ganges.[9]

Bridge and Husain, researchers in Kansas, USA, have identified Farakka as the root cause behind arsenic poisoning with groundwater in Bangladesh and West Bengal State of India.[10]

As to its impact in India, the South Asian Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP), report (Nov. 1999) to the World Commission on Dams is quite revealing. It says, "Farakka Barrage Project taken up for the resuscitation of the navigational status of the Port of Calcutta has resulted in massive devastation in Malda on its upstream and Murshidabad on its downstream in West Bengal. Huge sedimentation, increasing flood intensity and increasing tendency of bank failure are some of its impacts. Erosion has swept away large areas of these two districts causing large scale population displacement, border disputes with Bihar and Bangladesh, pauperization and marginalisation of the rural communities living by the river and creation of neo-refugees on the chars."[11]

So, it is clear that even the supposed beneficiary – the state of West Bengal – did not benefit from the project. Farakka Barrage has rightly been termed by some environmentalists as the greatest man-made eco-disaster of our time. If we had imagined Farakka was the last of such criminal calamities imposed on Bangladesh, we are wrong.

Syful Islam mentions about a study conducted by the "International Rivers", a U.S.-based NGO that protects rivers and defends the rights of communities, which revealed that India had already built 74 dams, Nepal 15, Pakistan 6 and Bhutan 5 in the Himalayan region in the recent years. It also found that 37 Indian, 7 Pakistani and 2 Nepalese dams were under construction in that area. The study also identified that India had planned to build 318 dams, Nepal 37, Pakistan 35 and Bhutan 16 to add over 1,50,000 MW of additional electricity capacity in the next 20 years.[12] With 4,300 large dams already constructed and many more in the pipeline, India is one of the world’s most prolific dam-builders.[13] India is committed to building more than 100 dams in eight states of the north-east corner alone.[14]

If these numbers are true, it is important that the current government issues a white paper disclosing actions taken, if any, by past and present governments to stop India from such projects that are going to be built on international rivers harming Bangladesh.

Let’s now look at Tipaimukh. Manipur needs about 140 MW of power to fulfill the unrestricted demand at the peak hours (1700 hrs to 2200 hrs). The total availability of power from all the Central Sector plants located in Assam, Meghalaya, Manipur, Nagaland and Tripura comes to around 105 MW.[15] The Tipaimukh Dam plan, built on the river Barak, which bifurcates into two streams as it enters Bangladesh as the rivers Surma and Kushiara, has been on the drawing board for nearly 40 years.[16] According to the implementing agency, North Eastern Electric Power Corporation (NEEPCO), this 390-meter-long, 163-meterhigh dam would have an installed capacity of 1,500 MW. As a multipurpose project, the dam also aims at flood moderation, improving navigation, irrigation and aquaculture in the region. Efforts were made in the past to get the World Bank or JBIC (a Japanese development bank) to back the project, but their involvement is still elusive.[17] It is costing India Rs. 6,800 crore –” an escalation from the earlier estimated expenditure of Rs 5,163 crore. The foundation stone of the Tipaimukh project was laid by India’s Union minister for industries and Cachar’s representative in the Lok Sabha, Sontosh Mohan Dev, along with other central ministers, on December 16, 2006. [18] According to a NEEPCO source there, the work in January of 2007 mainly dealt with underground drilling at the reservoir site of the project. The Brahmaputra Board, a wing of the Union water resources ministry, drilled those sites in 1997.

The proposed dam is unpopular in the Manipur State where it is being constructed. Experts there have rightly termed it a geo-tectonic blunder of international dimensions.[19] The Indian government’s decision to construct the Tipaimukh Dam in the North-east India is not only arrogant it is criminal to the core. It will have lasting devastating impact in the entire region. It will adversely affect millions of Bangladeshis living down south in the north-east corner of the country, weakening their means of livelihood, forcing them to become internally displaced people, and thereby worsening Bangladesh’s overall economy. It will harm bilateral relationship between the two neighboring countries. Bangladeshi people have already suffered miserably from the Farakka Barrage and cannot afford to see another one built to threaten them.

Our experience in the past fifty years has also taught us that humanity has brought more harm than good by challenging the natural course of rivers. Man-made systems like hydroelectric dams have failed to wipe out famine and hunger. More people have become poor than rich, which often time is concentrated amongst the very few that are involved with construction project. As Arundhati Roy has once said about dams, "They’re a guaranteed way of taking a farmer’s wisdom away from him. They’re a brazen means of taking water, land and irrigation away from the poor and gifting it to the rich. Their reservoirs displace huge populations of people, leaving them homeless and destitute. Ecologically, they’re in the doghouse. They lay the earth to waste. They cause floods, water-logging, salinity, they spread disease. There is mounting evidence that links Big Dams to earthquakes."[20]

What really concerned me most is the stupidity of the Indian government decision to go ahead with hydroelectric dams to meet her electric demand. This decision seems too short-sighted, too irresponsible, and can only antagonize people on either sides of the border. If India cares about meeting energy needs in the north-eastern corner she would better serve the interest of her people by choosing the nuclear alternative. India has several nuclear power plants that are operating in various parts of India.[21] It is inconceivable that she cannot afford to build one extra plant in the north-east corner of the country to meet her energy demand.

Again, I want to know: what did the previous administrations in Bangladesh do about this dam? How is the new government planning to deal with this issue? What can conscientious human beings of our planet do to stop India from building dams that kill people?

As hinted earlier, the very people targeted for drawing the benefits of the Tipaimukh dam living in the Manipur State had long been fighting a losing battle to stop this project. It is highly unlikely that demonstrations and protests inside Bangladesh would push India to abandon the project now, esp. after spending hundreds of crores of Rupees in front end loading (FEL) activities.

While we are critical of Indian government’s decision to construct dams that produce devastating results affecting tens of millions of people, we have to be self-critical of our own failure to bring world attention to the gargantuan harm that India’s Farakka has already brought upon Bangladesh. If we had succeeded in that endeavor, India today wouldn’t be building the Tipaimukh dam. Whether we like it or not, we must realize that self-interest rules the day. In our world, there are no permanent friends or enemies. We are continuously reminded that what is permanent is self-interest and that has to be pursued vigorously.[22] That says a lot about moral bankruptcy of a world that we live in and share with our neighbors in which might is increasingly becoming right, and the powerless has no effective means to fight against powerful enemies and nations that prey upon them.

At this stage, what actions and programs are meaningful for Bangladesh? Can India be persuaded to abandon dam projects on international rivers in favor of alternative options for energy need? Given India’s long history of dishonoring her agreements on Farakka with Bangladesh, can she be trusted for keeping any new promise? Are the UN and/or the ICJ only options Bangladesh has to redress her grievances?

Notes:

[1]. http://www.cyberbangladesh.org/disaster.html

[2]. http://www.cyberbangladesh.org/disaster.html

[3]. http://rezwanul.blogspot.com/2007/04/farakka-
lost-battle-for-bangladesh.html

[4]. http://www.geocities.com/athens/academy/
5772/treaty.html

[5]. http://rezwanul.blogspot.com/2007/04/farakka-
lost-battle-for-bangladesh.html

[6]. http://www.indianembassy.org/policy/
Foreign_Policy/ganga.htm

[7]. http://nation.ittefaq.com/issues/2009/03/09/
news0711.htm

[8]. http://www.cyberbangladesh.org/disaster.html

[9]. http://www.waterconserve.org/shared/reader/
welcome.aspx?linkid=30378

[10]. http://www.physics.harvard.edu/~wilson/arsenic/
references/Bridge+Husain.htm

[11]. http://www.sandrp.in/dams/impct_frka_wcd.pdf

[12]. http://www.sos-arsenic.net/english/groundwater
/waterbattle.html

[13]. http://internationalrivers.org/en/south-asia/india

[14]. http://internationalrivers.org/files/WRR.V20.N2.pdf

[15]. http://www.e-pao.net/epSubPageExtractor.asp?src
=news_section.opinions.Opinion_on_Building_of_
Tipaimukh_Dam.Q_A_Tipaimukh_Hydro-electric_Project_1

[16]. http://www.sos-arsenic.net/english/groundwater/
waterbattle.html

[17]. http://internationalrivers.org/files/WRR.V20.N2.pdf

[18]. http://www.telegraphindia.com/1070102/asp/northeast/
story_7208477.asp

[19]. http://www.kanglaonline.com/index.php?
template=kshow&kid=691

[20]. http://www.narmada.org/gcg/gcg.html

[21]. http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf53.html
http://www.mapsofindia.com/maps/india/nuclearpowerplants.htm

[22]. http://www.sos-arsenic.net/english/groundwater
/respond.html
Barrister Harun ur Rashid, The Daily Star, January 05, 2005.

[23]. See this author’s article offering an alternative recommendation for India:
http://usa.mediamonitors.net/content/view/full/62938

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