Some issues are eternal in politics. They lie dormant for a while, and then get activated when an appropriate trigger is in place. This pattern can be repeatedly seen in the public controversies surrounding the Tipaimukh hydroelectric dam, which is an issue embedded within conflictual perceptions both bilaterally and domestically between/within India and Bangladesh.
While allegations on the lack of appropriate communication from India (regarding the dam’s construction) is often raised in Bangladesh, it is on record that a barrage on the Barak river was discussed by both countries at the very first meeting of the Joint Rivers Commission held in New Delhi on 25-26 June 1972. At that time, the “construction of a storage reservoir on Barak river” was envisaged to manage peak floods. The broader context for this decision was the flood situation in Eastern India, and as a response, both countries decided to undertake a joint study to assess the flood situation in Sylhet area in Bangladesh and Cachar and other adjoining areas in India. Significantly, the maiden understanding between India and Bangladesh was thus on flood prevention and management.
The Tipaimukh dam entered the lexicon of the Joint Rivers Commission more categorically in 1978, when it was decided that “the concerned Superintending Engineers of the two countries should jointly examine the scope of the Indian scheme of storage dam on Barak river at Tipaimukh.” It further added that the “potential flood control and other benefits (particularly power) to Bangladesh should be studied expeditiously.” But in the following two decades, Teesta and Ganges and Tipaimukh took a back seat. Indeed, as Rao Birender Singh, India’s former Agriculture, Rural Reconstruction and Irrigation Minister, pointed out in a Review Meeting of the Ganges Waters Agreement held at New Delhi on January 7, 1981, “the unfortunate part, however, has been that Bangladesh has not come forward to study the data on scientific and rational basis to discuss the scheme and then come to its conclusions.” This statement revealed that India had carried out detailed explorations and investigations on the Tipaimukh dam.
After an interregnum of almost 25 years, Tipaimukh once again reared its head in 2005 at the Joint Rivers Commission. In the interim a lot had changed—internationally and domestically. For instance, a very peculiar development was the global movement against dams, which highlighted the social and environmental costs of multi-purpose projects. These concerns were fully articulated in a report released by the World Commission on Dams in 2000, which, in addition to highlighting social and environmental issues, also emphasised upon people’s participation in decisions related to dam building activities. Such concerns were later raised in the case of the Tipaimukh dam as well. For instance, a paper on the Tipaimukh Dam was presented to the Dams and Development Project (DDP)1 in 2005 by Zakir Kibria, Executive director of the NGO BanglaPraxis, titled “Gaining Public Acceptance (GPA) for Large Dams on International Rivers: The Case of Tipaimukh Dam in India and Concerns in Lower Riparian Bangladesh.” While Kibria’s primary argument was the importance of “gaining public acceptability” for Tipaimukh, he also flagged additional issues like hydrological impact, impact on flooding pattern and the river floodplain-wetland ecosystem, impact on morphology, impact on water quality, dam break, etc.
In the light of broader ecological, hydrological and social costs of large dams gaining prominence and being increasingly highlighted by various institutes, academics, affected peoples’ groups and civil society at large, when India proposed the construction of the Tipaimukh dam at the Joint Rivers Commission meeting held in Dhaka in 2005, Bangladesh expressed categorical concerns on the adverse downstream impact of the dam. Since then, the issue of Tipaimukh has been surrounded by controversies leading to an implementation-lag, and consensus-deficit at various levels. If one were to make sense of the controversies, two parallel strands emerge. The first is the official version shared between the UPA government in India and the Awami League in Bangladesh, and the second relates to the broader concerns raised by the civil society questioning the dam on environmental, technical and social grounds. The two discourses can be categorised within the following broad themes:
Nature of the Project: While the Indian official position emphasises that the Tipaimukh dam would be a “hydro-electric project with provision to control floods”, it explicitly states that the project would not involve “diversion of water on account of irrigation.” Gowher Rizvi, Foreign Affairs Advisor to the Sheikh Hasina-led government, has accepted this position and equated it to a “run of the river project, where the water stored in the dam or the reservoir has to be discharged continuously to enable generation of electricity”. Meanwhile, the civil society in Bangladesh has questioned the nature of the dam in restricting water availability to the Kushiara and Surma rivers as well as the capacity of the dam to generate 1500 MW.
Information Communication and Knowledge Sharing: There has been a lot of hyperbole by the civil society on the lack of transparent communication and sharing of knowledge between the two countries. However, records reveal that at the official level both countries have shown consistent interest in solving the issue bilaterally. For instance, in 2009, a 10-member Bangladesh parliamentary delegation led by Abdur Razzak visited India to survey the proposed dam site and found no diversionary structure. Similarly, after the signing of the Promoter’s Agreement between the Government of Manipur, NHPC Ltd. and Sutlej Jal Vidyut Nigam Ltd (SJVN) on 22 October 2011, Mashiur Rahman and Gowher Rizvi, advisors to Sheikh Hasina, paid a visit to New Delhi, to discuss their concerns. In the wake of this two day visit in early December 2011, Gowher Rizvi wrote an editorial page article in the Daily Star (13 December 2011), in which he clearly reiterated the need for a rational and scientific discussion on Tipaimukh.
Benefits and Impact of the Project: While India has been emphasising upon the hydro-electric and flood prevention benefits of the project, Bangladesh has been concerned about the impact of such activity on the river regime, capacity of the dam to control floods, impact on hydrology, particularly the water drainage on crop lands, etc. India has sought to allay these concerns by pointing out that the impact of the dam would be felt inside Indian territory as well, given that some land and National Highway No. 53 in Manipur will be partially submerged. India has also invited Bangladesh to become a partner in the project, which would also facilitate the sharing of power to be generated.
These are only some of the concerns expressed by the Bangladesh government and civil society groups. Moreover, there are domestic issues within India and Bangladesh which need to be addressed by both the governments. At present, the issue of Tipaimukh seems to be clouded by technicalities associated with the project. Given this perceptual divide, a joint technical survey becomes mandatory in order to allay people’s apprehensions about the ecological impact of the project. This issue is under deliberation and could be incorporated into the agenda of the Joint Rivers Commission.
In fact, a list of 10 Bangladeshi experts to conduct a joint study has already been sent by Dhaka to New Delhi. According to the Daily Star, these experts are primarily government officials drawn from the ministries of water resources and foreign affairs, the Water Development Board, the Centre for Environment and Geographical Information Services and the Institute of Water Modelling. This is a welcome gesture and should be taken forward without any interruption.
Tipaimukh has become a prominent issue in India-Bangladesh bilateral relations and has a huge potential to be exploited by vested interests. In order to obviate myopic policies, which could jeopardise the bonhomie in India-Bangladesh relations, the technical underpinnings of the project need to be jointly undertaken by both countries. Joint studies and particularly the institutional framework offered by the Joint Rivers Commission offer an excellent opportunity for resolving misperceptions and bridging differences. Significantly, the Joint Technical Survey, which is in the offing, is perhaps the first step and an appropriate way to move forward.