Murmurs in the ground, and on Teesta

Written by Sudipta Datta | Updated: Sep 26 2011, 08:26am hrs
That West Bengal and many parts of the east and the northeast are not disaster-ready has unfortunately been proven time and again. Floods, landslides, cyclones and droughts often ravage Bihar, Orissa, West Bengal and Assam. Every single time, images of utter helplessness in the face of an acute lack of disaster management recur.

So, when an earthquake of a magnitude of 6.8 on the Richter scale hit the region last Sunday, no one was ready, thus aggravating the situation. The Darjeeling hills and other parts of the northeast are highly prone to earthquakes but there has been scant regard for constructing buildings that are quake-resistant, to give just one example. Over the past few years, multi-storeyed buildings have mushroomed in Darjeeling, Gangtok and other hill stations, often built on stiltsthus endangering the structures further.

In Kolkata, which is in seismic zone 3 and thus should also remain quake-ready, people just didnt know what to do when the earthquake occurred. Some of them even chose to take the lift in, say, 30-storeyed apartments, thereafter narrating horrifying stories of how the lift knocked about and hit the shaft as it came down.

The West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee was candid enough to admit that the state is ill-equipped for a disaster. And citizens cant shy away from responsibility either, asmore often than notthey add to the total lack of preparedness by flouting norms at will and not learning lessons from disasters. Even after a devastating fire ravaged a 150-year-old heritage building on one of the citys best-known streets two years ago, to the horrified cries of conservationists and ordinary citizenry alike, it did little to equip the city for a disaster.

In neighbouring Bihar, chief minister Nitish Kumar has echoed Banerjee. He admitted that if the epicentre had been Patna, his state would also have seen widespread devastation. In Orissa, chief minister Naveen Patnaik has just sought R2,000-plus crore aid from the Centre because his state has been ravaged by floods.

In Sikkim, where the epicentre lay in the north, infrastructure has been badly hit. Roads have been swept away in landslides, and at least two projects of the R10,000-crore 1,200-mw Teesta Urja hydro power project in the upper reaches of the Teesta river have been severely damaged. Many lives have been lost. And tourism, which earns the state R300 crore annually (this number has been growing), will be badly hit at a time when the peak season was just about to begin.

Though Sikkim has taken the brunt of the disaster, this should come as a wake-up call, if any was necessary, to the hills of Darjeeling and foothills of Siliguri.

The Bengal chief minister has a lot on her plate given that states economy is in tatters, and there dont appear to be any surefire ways to generate more revenues.

Besides, there are issues to settle in the Darjeeling Hills in the north and with the Maoists in the South.

To this list of challenges should obviously be added the Teesta water-sharing agreement, which she refused to give her nod to, embarrassing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during his recent visit to Bangladesh. But, as various experts have pointed out, theres more to the Teesta than meets the eye. The bottom line is that the Centre and West Bengal will have to thrash out some details before an international treaty with Bangladesh is signed. One wonders why Delhi and West Bengal didnt go over the treatys fine print well in advance of the the Prime Ministers Bangladesh visit. Had they done this, the last-minute diplomatic disaster could likely have been avoided. Plus, as Teesta was pushed off the table, Dhaka too dug in and refused to allow transit facilities to India over Bangladeshfacilities which would have dramatically shortened travel to the remote northeast.

On Teesta, the bone of contention is the amount of water Bengal has to earmark for Bangladesh once the treaty is signed. Under the United Nations protocol for trans-national water-sharing, there must be an equitable and reasonable sharing of waters. There are experts who say had the agreement been signed in its present format (on a 52:48 sharing basis between India and Bangladesh), we would have faced an acute shortage of water in the lean months between December to April when the flow comes down. This would have defeated the very purpose of the agreement. With Sikkim building 22 low dams on the Teesta, which originates in Sikkim, the flow of water to the Bengal districts of Darjeeling and Jalpaiguri is bound to be impacted anyway.

So, while Bengal cannot shy away from signing a treaty, some more fine-tuning of its details is necessary so that both sides can claim that they got the best possible deal. With the Ganga treaty (1996) playing on her mindthe diversion of Farakka waters has only added to the woes of Kolkata port. The West Bengal chief minister is holding review meetings and a fresh deal is likely to be thrashed out over the next few months.

For Mamata Banerjee, whose party managed to shake off the Left in north Bengal not too long ago, the Teesta stand is calculated to make her newfound votebank happy. That she also managed to play hardball on Teesta because her party is such a crucial ally of UPA II is not lost on anyone, either. But Bengal will have to give to get some, especially as Bangladesh has the potential to be one of its most important trade partners.