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“Deliberate attempts to cause misunderstanding between Bhutan and Assam”: Bhutan Govt denies claims that it has stopped irrigation water to Assam

Rejecting claims of stopping irrigation water supply to Assam, Bhutan govt clarified that due to the coronavirus restrictions the farmers from Assam were unable to enter Bhutan to maintain the irrigation system which provides water to farmers at the Indo-Bhutan border for decades.

Hundreds of farmers in Baksa district along Indo-Bhutan border, Assam, had staged a protest early this week against the Bhutan government’s decision to not allow farmers from the Indian side to channelise water from Bhutan’s side for irrigation.

Thousands of farmers from around 25 villages under Tamulpur sub-division of Baksa district along Indo-Bhutan border are involved in the cultivation of paddy rice by using water from the 100-year-old indigenous irrigation system called dong bandh on the Bhutan side. But this year Bhutan govt didn’t allow the farmers to enter Bhutan to repair the channels, due to which water didn’t reach the farms in Assam.

With demands to resolve the problem, hundreds of farmers of 25 villages in Tamulpur sub-division, on June 22 (Monday) staged protests and blockaded Rongia-Bhutan connecting road for several hours. The farmers demanded the Assam government to take the issue seriously and resolve it soon.

Farmers on Indo-Bhutan border using “Dong” bandh since 1953.

Farmers in Baksa region which is along the Indo-Bhutan border have never seen their harvest getting spoilt by either drought or delayed rainfall, despite having no access to irrigation pipes or water pumps. This is because for the past several decades the farmers in Baksa have been relying on water from the “Dong” bandh system in Okaladonga Barnadi Ashama Aranga. The channels have been used by farmers of Bhutan and India in the region since 1953 to use water from several rivers that originate in Bhutan and flow through the region towards the Brahmaputra.

Several decades ago, farmers in the Indo-Bhutan border, had built small dams on the rivers and routed the water through canals to their paddy fields and household ponds. The Dong bandh irrigation systems of Baksa, which spreads over 300 square kilometres, serve around 149,000 farmers and 94,600 agricultural labourers. This irrigation system is maintained by the Okaladonga Barnadi Ashama Aranga Dong Bandh Committee, which makes sure that the water keeps flowing to the farms. As the bunds are earthen structures, they require regular maintenance, and the channels also get blocked every year due to silt. Assamese farmers every year go across to the Bhutan side and clear the channels and repair the bunds to divert water from rivers in Bhutan into channels that irrigate farms in Assam.

However, as the farmers were not allowed to enter Bhutan this year, the channels could not be cleared and the fields in the area didn’t get water, which had created massive resentment in the entire district.

The news of protest by farmers was used by many to claim that after China and Nepal, now India’s relation with Bhutan has also deteriorated. But now both the Bhutan and Assam govt has issued statements clarifying that Bhutan has not taken any hostile step against Indian farmers, and the problems were created by Coronavirus and natural factors.

Bhutan govt call media reports a “deliberate attempt” to cause misunderstanding between India and Bhutan

After the outrage, the Bhutan government has now issued clarifications. It has rejected claims of stopping irrigation water supply to Assam. The Bhutan Foreign Ministry has said that the charges “are totally baseless” and that these are “deliberate attempts” to cause misunderstanding between the people of Bhutan and Assam.

It clarified that due to the coronavirus restrictions, the farmers from Assam were unable to enter Bhutan to maintain the irrigation system, which otherwise is a usual practice and this has led to the problem in the water supply.

Issuing a clarification on its Facebook page, the Bhutan Foreign Ministry has said: “It is a distressing allegation and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs would like to clarify that the news articles are totally baseless as there is no reason why the flow of water should be stopped at this time. It is a deliberate attempt by vested interests to spread misinformation and cause misunderstanding between the friendly people of Bhutan and Assam.”

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“Baksa and Udalguri Districts in Assam have been benefitting from the water sources in Bhutan for many decades and they continue to do so even during the present difficult times when we are faced with the COVID-19 pandemic,” added the Bhutan government.

“However, understanding the difficulty that would be faced by the farmers in Assam, the Samdrup Jongkhar District Officials and the general public have taken the initiative to repair the irrigation channels whenever there are problems to ensure the smooth flow of water to Assam,” said the Bhutan government statement.

Assam chief secretary, Kumar Sanjay Krishna states that the actual reason is “natural blockage”

Earlier in the day, the Assam chief secretary, Kumar Sanjay Krishna had also given similar clarification while speaking to ANI: “Irrigation water comes to Assam from hills of Bhutan, but there were boulders on the way which stopped the flow. We talked to Bhutan and they immediately cleared the path. There’s no dispute and to say that they stopped the water to Assam is wrong.”

Taking to Twitter, Krishna had shunned all media reports calling it “incorrect” and stated that “the actual reason is the natural blockage of informal irrigation channels into Indian fields”.

He also stated that Bhutan has been actually helping to clear the blockage.

The editor of The Bhutanese newspaper in ThimpHu, Tenzing Lamsang had earlier in a series of tweets, stated that Bhutan had, since March, imposed a mandatory 21-day quarantine even for its own citizens upon entering the kingdom. This has also had the effect of preventing Indian farmers from doing so for their agricultural needs.

“This is how we have prevented community transmission so far. Please don’t politicize this or draw non-existential inferences. Situation is not as heartless as it is being made out to be as local government on Bhutan side there had earlier agreed to maintain those water channels,” he tweeted.

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