Indo-Bangladesh relations: Trouble over water

Amit Ranjan is a Research Scholar in South Asian Studies division of School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. His other posts can be seen here. He can be reached at

Amit Ranjan

The main source of conflict between the India and Bangladesh is the dispute over water sharing from Ganga River System

After the initial honeymoon, the relations between India and Bangladesh have never been at their best. The political representatives of the two countries have had locked their horns on various issues. Bangladesh always fears that India being a big and powerful country will swallow it hence it has always been suspicious towards India.


Sadly, India has never taken steps to allay those fears from the minds of Bangladeshis, which have led to emergence of anti-India constituency in Bangladesh. As a result of not-so-good relationship between the two countries, various contentious issues, which could have been easily sorted out, remain unresolved.

India has territorial disputes with Bangladesh mainly due to accession of princely states of Cooch Behar to East Bengal (then part of Pakistan) and Tripura to India. Surveyors of the two countries have demarcated 4188 kms of the borderland between India and Bangladesh but 6.5 kms area in three sectors: Muhurri, Cathitila and Doikhata are yet to be demarcated. Besides 29.5 kms of the border region, where demarcation by the surveyors of the two countries has been completed, concrete boundary pillars have not been erected yet. Then the issue of Chakma refugees, enclaves and territorial right over New Moore Island is still disturbing the relationship between the two countries.

But the important source of conflict between the two countries is the dispute over water sharing from Ganga river system. India and Bangladesh shares fifty-four rivers, including the three large ones: the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghana (GBM). The total catchment area of the GBM system is 1.75 million sq.kms of which Bangladesh accounts for 7%, Bhutan 3%, India 63%, Nepal 9% and Tibet (China) 19%. Of the three large river basins that are shared, the Ganges River has been the most contentious one. This is also one of the most densely populated basins in the world, with a total population of about 600 million, almost one-tenth of the world population.

The dispute over the Ganges erupted as a result of India’s decision to construct 2,240 meters long barrage in West Bengal known as the Farakka Barrage. Work started in 1961 and completed in 1971 and it was started in 1975. At that time this project was not opposed by Pakistani authorities mainly because of two reasons: firstly, India after having its experience with IWT didn’t agree to involve a third party in resolving transborder water dispute. Also, Pakistan was not ready in a position to exert itself. Secondly, Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) was treated a part of Pakistan and not ‘the part’. Hence Pakistani elites were not much concerned about the problems of that side of Pakistan. Also political outburst of nationalist forces in East Pakistan made Pakistani authorities to neglect that part.

The Farakka Barrage, India contended, was needed to divert at least 40,000 cubic feet per second waters from the Ganges to the Hooghly River and made it navigable and thus made the Calcutta (now Kolkata) Port accessible, by flushing down the silt that gradually deposits in the Port. Other incidental reasons for the barrage were to overcome the problem of salinity and to provide water to Calcutta (Kolkata) for irrigation, domestic and municipal purposes.

During Sheikh Mujib’s tenure India was making steady progress to address the water related concerns with Bangladesh. Indira Gandhi and Sheikh Mujib, in their friendship agreement, had highlighted the water issues and also vowed to resolve it peacefully. But after General Zia-ur-Rehman led army took over, Bangladesh became aggressive in its attitude towards India, revisited its policy and even drastically changed its stance. Under him Bangladesh explored the possibilities of having good relationship with the other Islamic countries. Bangladesh joined OIC and Zia-ur–Rehman’s initiative to set up the SAARC was aimed to reduce India’s regional domination by joining hands with other south Asian countries.

On the issue of water-sharing, General Zia took a strong step, which he considered was in Bangladesh’s national interests.   Much against India’s insistence on August 21, 1976 Bangladesh decided to take up the dispute with India over Farakka Barrage to the United Nations. In the UN both sides presented their cases but Bangladesh failed to get the required majority to pass the resolution in General Assembly. That is mainly because the eastern block and many NAM member countries voted in favour of India. However on November 26, 1976, Bangladesh was successful in adopting a Consensus Statement in General Assembly. In its Consensus Statement, the UN issued guidelines to resolve transborder water dispute mutually.

Embarrassed by Bangladesh’s step to challenge India in the UN, the newly elected Indian Government tried to resolve the dispute by signing Ganga Water Sharing Agreement with Bangladesh in 1977. But this agreement did not last long and problems erupted once again in 1980s. The incremental measures taken up to address the problems but the serious step was only taken up in 1996 when the two countries signed a treaty and not an agreement as they had done in 1977 to share Ganga water. India’s position over the years has also changed. Earlier it used to consider it as its own river but now it recognises it as an international river.

Despite the treaty of 1996, the problem is far from over. Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), a right wing political party, always blames the ANP for sacrificing national interest to placate India. Bangladesh always complains that during dry season India does not release much needed water for crops and in the heavy rainy season it releases all water to flood the catchment areas lying in Bangladesh. Thus in both cases Bangladeshis think that India creates a problem and is a threat to its food security. Though India has never accepted these claims and considered them as mere allegations from those who want to jeopardise India-Bangladesh relationship.

India’s Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh’s will be visiting Bangladesh soon. During the visit, the two countries are likely to discuss water sharing issue between them. India must pursue this issue seriously because it can’t afford to ignore and overlook the interest of small but strategically important neighbour.