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India-Bangladesh border talks have lessons for Nepal

But in August 2019, India and Bangladesh held a meeting of the Joint River Commission in Dhaka and the two countries agreed to collect data and prepare water-sharing agreements for seven other trans-boundary rivers. 

Bangladesh borders India’s strategically located northeastern states, where India wants to bring quicker economic development by using road links to the sea through Bangladesh. India is also worried about the growing Chinese influence in Bangladesh., and is bent on resolving outstanding border and water-sharing issues with Dhaka.

The most famous water-sharing dispute between India and Bangladesh is over India’s construction in 1975 of the Farakka Barrage on the Ganges near the border. This river straddles the India-Bangladesh border for about 100km before it joins  Jamuna (Brahmaputra) in Bangladesh.  The width of the constantly-shifting river varies from 1.5-14km.

India built the Farakka Barrage to stop siltation at its important port on the Hoogly near Kolkata. However this reduced the flow into north-western Bangladesh in the dry season. Despite this history of mistrust, the two countries signed a 30-year treaty on the sharing of the Ganges water.  

The other riverine dispute is the Teesta, which flows down from Sikkim and also joins the Jamuna in northern Bangladesh. India constructed a barrage over the Teesta, reducing the flow into Bangladesh in the dry season. After years of dispute, in 2015 things took a positive turn after the Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee agreed to support the Central Government of India on a new water-sharing agreement.

A dispute over water sharing of the Feni River after it changed course after floods was also resolved in 2019. Another dispute over whether a British map of 1893 constituted the real border at the Muhari River (as preferred by Bangladesh) or the 1854 map (as India wanted) was also solved using the international 1967 Helsinki Rules on the Uses of the Waters of International Rivers.

Besides rivers, India and Bangladesh have also grappled for three decades with their maritime border in the Bay of Bengal. It was finally settled by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in 2014 in a ruling which favoured Bangladesh, and the country got 19,467 km2out of the 25,602 km2disputed coastal seas.

Prabhakar Sharma is a Nepali expert on international boundaries, and worked as a survey engineer for the Cameroon-Nigeria border demarcation by the United Nations.


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