The town of Farakka is in India on the river Ganges, about 17km from where the Ganges crosses the western borders of Bangladesh to become the Padma. The 7, 229 ft barrage at Farakka is the source of an on-going dispute between India and Bangladesh. The tension over the barrage has a complex history which is embedded in a network of communications between firstly, India and Pakistan and then later, after the War of Independence in 1971, between India and Bangladesh. The barrage has both affected and been affected by the relations between these countries who share the Ganges; it has highlighted governmental policies and social issues as well as touching, in the last decade, on the concept of water-ownership. The dispute has still to be fully settled: the most recent agreement was signed in 1996 but it does not constitute a long-term commitment. The power of Farakka Barrage to incite passion continues in the minds and hearts of Indians and Bangladeshis.
A barrage is built on flat land for the purpose of diverting water; this is achieved by raising the level of the river so that part of the flow can be diverted into a feeder canal which leads to wherever the water is required. The Farakka Barrage was constructed with the aim of reviving the Port of Calcutta, which is situated on the banks of the Hooghly, also called the Bhagirathi, river. The Indian government believed that the Hooghly was deteriorating and the build-up of silt would lead to the decline of Calcutta Port. The diverted water was designed to produce an extra flow that would flush the siltation from the lower reaches of the river. When the Farakka Barrage Plan was announced in 1961, the government of Pakistan responded with concern about the possible effects on East Bengal. They predicted that the reduced quantity of water flowing into East Bengal would be insufficient for the people who live on the banks and the agriculture and ecology that were dependent on the flow of water from the Ganges.
In the early exchanges of Pakistan’s concerns and India’s assurances, both countries engaged expert technical advice on the barrage; Prof. Walter Hensen was invited by India to examine the problems of Calcutta Port and Prof. Arthur Ippen and Clarence Wicker were asked to investigate India’s project by the government of Pakistan. Both countries’ experts came to opposite and equally definitive conclusions using the same information. More importantly, Ippen and Wicker felt strongly that the barrage could in fact exacerbate the problem it was trying to solve.. Why the experts differed so much in their opinions is hard to judge, except that there is evidence of the possibility that the Indian experts had forgotten to account for the effect of increased salinity in the water. The myths tell of a malign intent on India’s part in the continued construction of the Farakka Barrage despite the protests of opposition but, was it really India’s plan to sabotage Pakistan? Poor relations between the two countries after the partition certainly seem to add to this myth – however, there is evidence that there were other factors pressurizing India to go ahead. In 1959, the concern for Calcutta Port was very real; business interests, such as the profitability of shipping, commercial and industrial ventures were perceived to be threatened by the shallowing of the Hooghly. It was these economic and political pressures which lead to the need for such a rapid solution to the problem and they can alsoaccount for why an inadequate technical rationale was used and the project approved so quickly. Since the barrage has been utilized, there have been reports which support Ippen and Wicker’s conclusions, saying the barrage is responsible for worsening the Hooghly. It is true that the barrage at Farakka has done nothing to save Calcutta Port (which has suffered from the general decline in the Indian shipping industry) but – for obvious reasons – Indian authorities are reluctant to admit its failure.
At the root of the conflict was the Pakistani feeling that the Indian government was insensitive to the difficulties that might be caused by large diversions from the Ganges. The basic problem was that during the dry season, the Ganges had an insufficient amount of water to be supplying both India and Pakistan – a fact which India refused to admit. Between 1961 and 1970, Pakistan approached India to hold talks; firstly, to pressurize them to give up the barrage and when that failed, to have the right to be involved in deciding how much water was to be diverted. By 1970, after continued failed talks, Pakistan resorted to threatening India with a plan to build its own barrage to account for the missing water that would be diverted by India. As Pakistan had hoped, India had no interest in a counter-barrage that might threaten the existence of the one that had just been completed (costing US $240 million), so Pakistan was assured it would be involved in discussions on the amount of the diversion. However these talks were never held because in 1971, the struggle for independence began. Many of the Pakistani negotiators believe that during the years 1960-1970, India purposefully held off holding negotiations with Pakistan in order that the barrage be finished.
With the creation of the new state of Bangladesh, relations between the two countries changed course. What Pakistan had failed to gain in 10 years, Bangladesh received from India within 2 months. The Awami League recognised the role played by India in the birth of Bangladesh and therefore, the goodwill between the countries was at an unprecedented high. In 1972, the two governments made the Indo-Bangladesh Treaty of Friendship, Co-operation and Peace; in this treaty, Bangladesh recognised India’s right to the Farakka Barrage and India recognised Bangladesh’s right as co-user of the Ganges.
An important organisation established in this year was the Joint Rivers Commission (JRC) which was a panel of technical experts from both countries. However, despite the political goodwill, it soon emerged that there really was a conflict of interests and that opposition to the barrage was not a politically motivated fabrication of Pakistan to hinder India. The conflict lay in the simple fact that there was insufficient water in the Ganges for both countries during the driest season. Between the years of 1972 and 1975 very little was achieved in terms of negotiations for Bangladesh. In 1975, India began experimental operation of the barrage, even though important questions concerning usership were still to be answered.
Between 1975 and 1976, India was continuing to withdraw almost the maximum amount of water allowed by the project. During 1975, the Bangladesh government was preoccupied with it’s own internal politics and was busy dealing with the instability of coups and counter-coup attempts. By early 1976, Bangladesh had publicly protested that India was in breach of the agreement and that their continued withdrawals were seriously harming Bangladesh. After an organised and peaceful march of up to 500, 000 Bangladeshis in protest against the barrage – which stopped 6 miles short of the Indian border – the government took the case to the United Nations. Although the Bangladeshi diplomats succeeded in negotiating through the preparatory procedures of the General Assembley without being defeated or diverted, the final result was disappointing. It seems that although the United Nations was sympathetic enough to allow such a small and powerless nation through the intial procedures, it was not prepared to give positive support to the Bangladesh case, particularly against a nation as strong as India. However, an agreement about regulating the amount was reached through United Nation intermediaries working to negotiate between the two countries. During the late seventies and early eighties, each nation accused the other of using the conflict to further their own political gains; Bangladesh felt that India was attempting to destabilise it through continued support of anti-government guerilla attacks and India felt that Bangladesh was using the conflict to gain credence with the international community. In 1977, the Janeta Party ousted Mrs Gandhi and the new Indian government sought to repair relations with its neighbour.
An important issue which had been addressed but remains unresolved was the problem of augmentation – or increase – of the Ganges flow. Both countries agreed that the flow needed to be augmented but disagreed vehemently about the procedures to be taken. Bangladesh proposed that the dry season flow of the Ganges be augmented by construction of storage reservoirs on rivers in the Himalayas, whereas India wanted to build a canal to transfer surplus water into the Ganges from the Brahmaputra (a river that entered Bangladesh from north-east India). India’s idea was more practical but it also brought into the dispute the question of the Brahmaputra, which India also seemed to be laying claims to. This question of augmentation was to remain unsettled with India seeking a bilateral agreement and Bangladesh wanting to involve Nepal and China in any long-term development of the Ganges. However, in 1984, with the amount of Indian barrages on rivers increasing, Bangladesh realised an agreement was required to protect its interests in the Brahmaputra; they took the new approach of negotiating a permanent sharing agreement for all major rivers, crossing from India to Bangladesh. The move towards creating an international river development was realised in 1996, when the Indian government signed a thirty year treaty with Bangladesh, guaranteeing both countries a specific amount of water during the crucial dry months.
What have been the effects of Farakka Barrage on Bangladesh? The period between 1975 and 1976, when India was withdrawing the maximum amount of water from the Ganges, is the time of most concern. Several studies have been carried out, attempting to determine the agricultural, economical and ecological effect on Bangladesh at that time and the repercussions since. The water levels were at the lowest they have ever been during the dry season of 1976, causing the suction pumps, hand pumps and hand operated tubewells to be incapable of operating in such shallow water. Also, an increase in salinity was discovered, most likely the result of sea water travelling upland because the fresh water downland flow had decreased. For instance, in the town of Khulna which is situated on the Rhupsa-Pussur and is particularly sensitive to changes in the Ganges flow, the saline intrusion was considered to be the most dramatic. Khulna is a major area of industry in Bangladesh and it appears that the salinity changes have caused industrial losses to a value of almost 120 million Taka (US $8 million). This is only an estimate but, if we consider the possible occurences when industries are faced with unexpected levels of salt in their water, such as production delays, mechanical failure, increased corrosion, then such losses are indeed plausible.
The effect on agriculture in Bangladesh is a source of dispute – Bangladeshis believe the Farakka Barrage is responsible for reduced rice and other crop yields but India rejects this claim. The Sundarbans have also shown signs of deterioration through increased salinity, chlorinity and insufficient nutrients in the water. There are mixed conclusions as to the ecological effects of the Farakka Barrage but there is a strong presumption that the barrage has caused declining fish catches, for example in the hilsa species. People living in the area claim that the increased salinity is threatening their crops, industry and animal drinking water. It is unlikely that Bangladesh will receive compensation for the losses they claim since in so many areas, it has been impossible to prove that Farakka is solely responsible. Nevertheless, it is beyond doubt that the people of South Bengal have suffered greatly as a consequence of the Farakka Barrage.
The present concern is for the rights of the people of Bangladesh and the long term effects of the Farakka Barrage. The long term implications of the construction of barrages and dams are still being disputed, politically and socially. For the future, what is needed is a more ecologically-based focus which deals with the issue at a grass-roots level. The propensity to turn to man-made constructions as an answer to the problems caused by natural processes is troublesome; it often results in environmental catastrophes and human rights crises – floods and famine).
The Indo-Bangladesh Treaty runs for a period of thirty years and is to be reviewed every five years. The governing principles of the 1996 Treaty are to make “optimum utilisation” of the waters of the region and to bring “a fair and just solution to the Farakka waters problem” according to the principles of “equity and fair play”. Whether this will be achieved remains to be seen but what one can be certain of is that unless the people who are going to be affected are involved in the discussions, then a successful outcome is unlikely.
Compiled by Najma Pover