A Tryst with the Teesta

SummitTimes presents the month-long Spotlight series focusing on hydel projects and climate change in Sikkim and West Bengal. The series has been made possible with support from Wageningen University, NWO and UK Department for International Development [DFID] under Conflict and Cooperation in the Management of Climate Change research project ‘Enhancing mediascapes for sustainability and justice in the Eastern Himalaya’ coordinated by DLRP, a Darjeeling-based NGO. We will be featuring two articles every week.

Our speedboat whirs to a stop on the brown waves of the mighty Brahmaputra in northern extremities of Bangladesh. Lalbhai and Atahur stand up and point to a strip of greyish-blue water lapping between two char islands under the canopy of a bright, blue sky.

“Teestamukh!” Lalbhai exclaims. “But there’s no water.”

“What are you saying, Lalbhai?” I ask confusedly. “There is so much water!”

In response, Atahur pulls out of nowhere, a bamboo pole, about 10 feet long, and dips it into the water. When he pulls it out, barely two or three feet of it is wet.

The water is indeed very shallow.

There is no water in the Teesta – how many times must I have heard those words in the past few days! The lack of a sharing agreement over the Teesta between India and Bangladesh is pricking our bilateral relations, while the river herself is on the verge of extinction.

Lalbhai is hosting me at his haveli-like house in Kurigram in the Rangpur province of northern Bangladesh. His brother, Lincolnbhai, is the Public Prosecutor of Kurigram and a history enthusiast who has turned the haveli into a museum preserving North Bangladesh’s history and culture.

The ‘North Bengal Museum’, or Lincolnbhai’s Museum as I call it, is a collection of photographs, notes, letters, news clippings and artefacts from the Liberation Movement and the War of 1971. A few articles predate the struggle.

Lincolnbhai has travelled all over North Bengal and interviewed hundreds of freedom fighters, students, farmers, and villagers who trusted him with their stories and artefacts, which he now preserves in his museum. Till date, more than 5,000 people have visited the place. Lincolnbhai welcomes them all and doesn’t charge any fees.

I notice a few Indians in some pictures.

“Indians too played a huge role in our culture and history,” he says gravely. “That is why the name of the museum is North Bengal, not North Bangladesh. Bengal is on both sides of the border, and our history and culture is also on both sides of the border. Indian Bengalis have contributed here too.”

I tell him about my day at Teestamukh.

“Yes, there is no water in the Teesta,” he says apologetically.

“It is sad because the river was once the protector of our Liberation forces. In her heyday, an unshackled Teesta was a monster. Crossing the Teesta was no child’s play, and for the Pakistani soldiers who came from a drier land, the ordeal of crossing the Teesta, Brahmaputra, Dharala rivers was very real. In 1971, when they tried to capture the airport and railway junction at Lalmonirhat, they were resisted by the locals, as well as the river, which delayed their conquest by eight days. They managed eventually, but the river slowed their progress. Our rivers have always been our natural protectors,” he finishes with a smile.

The next day, I begin my travel upstream the Teesta.

A team from Solidarity, Lalbhai’s NGO, takes me to Khitab Khan, a riparian village of the Teesta. We are greeted with an uproar and the villagers quickly huddle up around us.

Then, the stories start coming. The Teesta is hard on Khitab Khan; agriculture, fisheries and navigation suffer due to extreme variability in Teesta’s flow throughout the year. This leaves the villagers, most of them farmers doubling up as fishermen post monsoons, with very few avenues for livelihood. Young men end up migrating to Dhaka and Chittagong for work. The elderly folk narrate stories of displacement from their homes, twice or even thrice in their lifetimes. Poverty and scarcity, I speculate, must have set the stage for economic conflicts within the community, but I am touched by their response.

“Food and water scarcity are routine, but whatever is available is shared among all. We do not compete; we share everything, including the losses.”

In that moment, I remember everything I have ever read about water cooperation. ‘Deficit sharing’ is a cornerstone of effective transboundary water cooperation, and the last place I expect to stumble across it in such a natural, casual manner, is a poor Bangladeshi village ravaged by droughts and floods on the banks of the Teesta.

We proceed to the town of Ulipur for a meeting at the Press Club. As we gather around a round table of journalists and activists, a bespectacled man in a crisp Safari suit tells me about a movement to revive the Buri Teesta, a distributary of the Teesta. After the collapse of one of its sluice gates thirty years ago, the river has been silting rapidly, harming fisheries, navigation and agriculture in the area. It is almost a dead river now, and the residents of Ulipur have come out on the street demanding that their government restore the river’s flow immediately.

I ask whether the issue has cropped up because India holds back Teesta’s waters.

There is an abrupt silence.

“That is a government problem,” someone mutters.

“How will your government revive Buri Teesta’s flow if India doesn’t release Teesta’s waters?” I persist.

The table erupts with spirited chatter – I gather that even when India releases an optimum amount of water in the Teesta, the locals hardly benefit. The Bangladeshi government needs to improve domestic water management as well.

Our discussion then veers towards spirituality of the river. Sufism, they beam with pride, spread in Bangladesh through the Teesta. They tell me wistfully that the Ashtami Snaan and Durga Visarjan, important religious rituals for the Hindus, have been badly affected due to reduction in Teesta’s flow. As the conversation flows, I am struck by their emotional involvement in the Teesta’s entity as a godly spirit rather than an economic resource. While I am all too familiar with South Asia relegating deityhood to its rivers, experiencing the rawness of this faith first hand takes me aback.

The next day is the final stretch, right up to the border.

As a farewell party, the members of Solidarity arrange a lovely program of Bollywood film songs and Rabindrosangeet for me. I join them in singing all the Hindi numbers, and then sit back and listen to Rabindrosangeet with fascination. I am touched when they all rise and sing ‘Jana Gana Mana’ – it is another rendition of the affection I have seen among common Bangladeshis for India over the last few days.

I leave with the Solidarity team, and we ride along the Teesta on motorbikes. Lush green fields and meadows adorn our route and white, sandy silt which looks like Rangoli powder laces both sides of the road. Occasionally, we discover a pond or two amidst bamboo groves and banana plantations. Small, picturesque settlements pop up intermittently. The river itself is dry in patches but carries unmistakeable signs of lost beauty. Fields of rice, jute and then maize stretch out as far as the eye can see; I find it hard to believe that this is a drought-prone area. Later, I find out that this region receives more than double the amount of rainfall in the parched areas of Maharashtra, but droughts still occur because of very high variability in the annual distribution of rainfall. Further, my companions tell me, there is a lack of water storage facilities, rainwater harvesting is not all that prevalent, and groundwater is exploited to unsustainable levels.

We ride through Lalmonirhat and Hatibandha and reach the Dalia barrage. Built in the early 1990s, the Dalia barrage is part of the Teesta Barrage Project, meant to provide irrigation to agriculture in northern Bangladesh. However, the Gajaldoba Barrage, built upstream in West Bengal, India, holds back Teesta’s waters, rendering the Dalia useless. Sure enough, we can see that the Dalia barrage is quite dry both upstream and downstream, except a right-bank canal which flows with abundant, emerald-green water.

“How does this canal have so much water if the rest of the river is drying up?” I ask, surprised.

“Whatever water flows down,” my companions explain, “is diverted here. This canal irrigates crops in Dinajpur district in western Bangladesh.”

We reach Patgram where we put up for the night before I cross the border into India next morning. At the first crack of dawn, I am up and ready; we get back on our bikes and ride straight to Burimari checkpoint. Immigration cleared, I sprint across no man’s land to Chengrabandha, India. Just as I spot the tricolour, I wave back gratefully to my companions for their support, literally up to the last inch of Bangladesh.

Oh, the feeling! I happily zip through immigration; it is brisk, everyone speaks Hindi, and there is a feeling of familiarity which instantly embraces me. I board a bus to Mainaguri. My environs now are completely different: there is more traffic, a few advertisement boards in English dot the road, and the first tea plantations come into view. My first stop is the home of Dinesh Roy, from whom I learn that the tribal people of northern West Bengal such as the Mechhis and Rajbanshis attach great cultural significance to the Teesta. For them, she is ancient (an old woman, or “Buri” Teesta), a nurturer and a tyrant. They worship her through many rituals, but few are as elaborate as a song-and-dance routine carried out by the Mechhi folk.

That evening, I head off to Jalpaiguri. The next morning, I visit the Jalpesh temple, for that very day, it is hosting the Mecchi folk dance festival. On the way, I cross over the Teesta. There is hardly any water, and the wide river bed is pockmarked with transmission towers and sand mining equipment. I sigh; things don’t seem to be great on this side of the border either.

The Jalpesh Temple is pretty simple – white domes with minimal design. A huge crowd has gathered to see the performances, but I find a good place among the bystanders. The dances begin. Sprightly women, wearing red-and-white sarees, elaborate makeup and ghungroos (curiously, on just one ankle) enter with jars of Teesta water and tastefully decorated umbrellas. Each dance ritual begins with placing the jar i.e. a symbolic Teesta before the audience and covering it with the umbrella. All dancers are exclusively female, and while they sing in chorus and dance, the only instruments accompanying them are a drum and their ghungroos. I watch, enchanted. Their simple and graceful steps and their kohl-lined eyes portray a kind of beauty I have never seen before.

My next destination that afternoon is Gajaldoba, the infamous barrage central to the Teesta sharing dispute between India and Bangladesh. It is exactly like I heard and imagined it to be. Upstream, there is a large expanse of water, as far as anyone could see. Downstream, the situation is drastically different: the river is mostly dry and where it flows, it does so weakly. There are two canals leading out of the Gajaldoba; the left-bank canal is dry to the bone while the east bank canal is gushing with abundant water.

Why so? I ask a young, urban boy visiting the barrage. He shrugs.

“Maybe they use groundwater in the east,” he ventures. “Siliguri, which is to the west, definitely gets water from here, so that’s why this canal must be full. It takes water to the Mahananda river as well.”

I think of the passionate discourses on water diversion from Teesta to Mahananda in Bangladesh, and here is inter-basin water transfer, right in front of my eyes.

Next morning, I am off to Siliguri to meet Raj Basu who has filmed a documentary on the Teesta. He gives me the most fascinating cultural and historical perspective of the Teesta River. There is so much I don’t know! I repeatedly ask Rajda for books and other literary references, but he shakes his head.

“There are a few,” he says, “but the rest – and there is a lot of it – is embedded in culture. You have to live it to know it.”

Overwhelmed, I can’t stop picturing the magnanimity of Teesta’s existence. From being secondary to another river – Karatoya – to becoming the lifeline of about 30 million people today; from being a host to many Tantrapeeths and Tantric Buddhism, to connecting Bengal to the Silk Route; from being home to great Sufi musicians and social leaders to defining the eastern frontier of the Mughal empire – the Teesta holds in her arms a million stories to be discovered and retold. The scope of Teesta’s civilisation is huge and well beyond my thirty-day pilgrimage and year-long research.

It is rainy in Siliguri, but when the sun comes out the next day, I go up to Sevoke. The bus drops me at the freshly painted Coronation Bridge. Far below, the Teesta has transformed completely; it is no more a parched river bed but flows fresh, with a greenish tinge and vibrancy that I had not experienced downstream.

On one side of the bridge, the river descends from the hills. On the other, she hits the plains and spreads out. The British, I am told, built this bridge in an arch without constructing any pillars in the river bed because the water current was simply too strong to allow any construction activity.

The Coronation Bridge is indeed one of the most geopolitically significant points for India. Situated in the ‘Chicken’s Neck’ with proximity to four countries – Nepal, China, Bangladesh and Bhutan – it (along with the Teesta Railway bridge) connects the North East to the rest of India. The Teesta’s course actually cuts the North East separate from the rest of the country; to move from one part to another without leaving Indian territory, traversing the Teesta is mandatory. The enormity of the thought sends a slight shiver down my spine.

Upstream of Sevoke, the landscape changes dramatically; lush green, towering mountains vying for the skies hide the horizon. I reach Kalimpong, the beautiful but less noticed sister of the glamorous Darjeeling. I decide to play tourist in Kalimpong and the first thing I do is go down to Melli for river rafting. It is quite an experience; the Teesta is bluish green, swirling and rushing, throwing up white waves and spray in the air. The water is icy cold and instantly refreshing. As we bob on gentler waves, I put my cupped hands into the river and drink a little of what I can gather- it is cold, sweet, delicious! Later in the day, I check out gardens, monasteries, and temples, but what really stays with me is the cool, refreshing touch of the Teesta on my bare skin. Contrary to everyone’s advice, I do not wash it off; I want a bit of Teesta on me forever.

From Kalimpong, I board a bus to Singtam; there are no seats, but the driver happily arranges a few cushions for me next to him. Once we leave Kalimpong, the Teesta joins us and is a very consistent companion throughout the journey. Trees, houses and sudden turns make us lose sight of her, but she keeps flowing and comes back to greet us every time. Occasionally, the path clears, and we see her far ahead, meandering down rapidly amidst green mountains stacked alternatively against each other, forming a steep and gorgeous valley.

At the confluence of the Rangeet and Teesta, the driver tells me, “Rangeet is the boy and Teesta is the girl. They are in love, and they meet here.” I smile at his imagination, only to discover that this is a popular folklore in the hills.

From Singtam, I catch a jeep to Mangan. Once we leave Singtam behind, the Teesta begins to disappear from view. I know she is still flowing down there and going by the signboards of the NHPC, I also know she is dammed, but our route has hardly any view of the river or her dams. It is finally at Dikchu that I get a clear view of the river flowing abundantly, which, I later learn, was because the Teesta V dam had just released water. By now, I am aware of the dam-building spree and the local resistance to it in Sikkim. Intrigued, I try hard to get more first-hand perspectives, but I am short on time, and have to wait all the way till I get home to learn in detail about the entire situation.

It is late afternoon by the time we reach Mangan, and I head straight for Joe Sir’s homestay. That evening, Joe Sir and I discuss the logistics of my Tso Lhamo trip over some delicate Sikkimese tea. I am disheartened to find out that the final leg of my trip, from Lachen to Tso Lhamo, is going to be quite expensive. I have very little cash, and the few ATMs in Mangan are under risk from the global WannaCry ransomware attack.

With a sinking feeling, I wonder what to do, when Joe Sir offers to help.

“How much is convenient for you?” I ask falteringly.

“How much do you need?” he counter questions me calmly. “Ten thousand?”

My eyes as big as saucers, I nod meekly.

It is extraordinary that he is ready to trust me with such a large amount of money with such little acquaintance and simply my word that I would return it when I am back. I am amazed at his faith and conviction and thank him profusely. Joe Sir simply smiles.

“We were an independent country till 1975,” he says a while later in a thoughtful manner, “and the sentiment is still there. But that generation is fading away. Once they are gone… well, all of us, the youngsters, my daughter, we are Indians.”

He speaks about his community, the Lepchas, quite briefly, but with fondness and a tinge of melancholy. “There was an influx of different communities in Sikkim. We are outnumbered in our own land and stay in protected areas. Our culture is fading.” We then talk about my fellowship and the need for transboundary co-operation over Teesta’s waters before I turn in.

I wake up early and even catch the sunrise on Kangchenjunga peak. With a permit to visit Tso Lhamo lake and the cash which Joe Sir hands over to me on his own accord, I board the only jeep to Lachen.

The road to Lachen is dangerously narrow at many places, and each time a vehicle swerves ahead of us, my heart skips a beat. I have always dreaded the vulnerability of travelling in the mountains, and the Himalayas for me are the ultimate reminder of the fragility of human life: they can take it, but they have also been sustaining it through their silt and water, for millennia. In them I see a divinity which I am yet to see in any place of worship.

At Chungthang, I spot turquoise blue waters held back in the reservoir of the Teesta III HEP and am confused; I remember reading that it is a run-of-the-river scheme with no storage, but what I see here is different. I find out later that Sikkim’s dams, in fact, do hold back a lot of Teesta’s water in order to generate electricity at peak times, and have a strong and cascading impact on the environment and society of not only Sikkim but the entire Teesta basin.

The hotel in Lachen is dark and empty. I shiver with cold and feel terribly lonely, but I can scarcely believe I made it this far. Just one last leg, I tell myself. My spirits high, I set out for Tso Lhamo in the freezing and dark hours of dawn with no winter gear except a coat. The taxi driver is Tibetan by origin and talks about Buddhism, tourism and the Teesta. Like other locals, he isn’t much impressed by the hydroelectric projects, and he laughs when I ask if they drink Teesta’s water.

"Oh no, the Teesta is dirty," he points at the cheerful stream which still looks very clean to me. "We drink water from the springs which flow down from the mountains around Lachen."

As we climb higher, the verdant landscape disappears. We are now in the cold desert, on the fringe of the Tibetan plateau. The Teesta is reduced to a small trickle and the earth is draped in pure white snow. It feels surreal.

The driver is surprised; he tells me that this region does not usually see so much snow at this time of the year as it is a cold desert with “just soil and pebbles all over the place”. I am lost in the enchanting surroundings when he stops abruptly and points to a greyish-blue patch on the other side of the road.

“Tso Lhamo!” he exclaims. “It’s snowing though, so we need to move fast.”

I am dumbstruck. I get out of the taxi and walk up to the edge of the road, towards the greyish-blue lake surrounded by snow. Oblivious to the biting cold, my mind goes back to Teestamukh, a greyish-blue patch of water flanked by two silvery white char islands. How different the two are, and how similar!

In that moment, from Teestamukh to Tso Lhamo, I sense an intricate web of space and time; the changing geography of the Teesta enmeshed with the journey of her life. Her course in Sikkim is her childhood, her youth lies in northern West Bengal, and she is at a ripe, old age in northern Bangladesh. In that moment, she is neither an economic resource nor a political issue, but a deity and mother of numerous civilisations, a stunning proof that a divine power exists. In that realisation, I find indescribable solace. I kneel down, close my eyes and pray.

[Gauri is a transboundary water conflicts researcher who has researched water problems in the Middle East, South-East Asia and South Asia. She has studied Economics at Fergusson College, Pune and the University of Hong Kong.]

[All photos by the author]

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Sikkim's Hydel Story

People of Sikkim - A repository of climate change