An aerial view of the Indus in Leh (Photo: Getty Images)
A YEAR AFTER THE Kargil Himalayas rang with the sound of artillery and automatic weapons, a deceptive calm prevailed at Batalik, not far from the Line of Control (LoC). Indian troops ousted Pakistani intruders in the summer of 1999 but a banner, “Victors of Batalik”, barely conveyed the scale of the fighting. The opening salvo of Operation Vijay saw Major Mariappan Saravanan of 1 Bihar falling after he led an audacious assault on Point 4268. His unit swore to recapture the Jubar ridge and bring back the officer’s body. They did so almost 40 days later and a nation beholden to the soldiers honoured the fallen hero with a Vir Chakra.
Not far from the scenes of war and valour, the Indus flows into Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK), traversing the width of Ladakh after entering India at Demchok, a key post manned by the Indian Army in a region that remains a site of India-China border tensions. At both ends of its course in India the passage of the Indus is marked by conflict even as it remains an important water source in a parched, cold and dry landscape. Though its course is swift and unhindered, the Indus and its tributaries have been at the centre of a political conflict that took its latest turn with India issuing notice to Pakistan on January 25 for modification of the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) and seeking government-to-government talks. The move attracted comment, but not as much as it might have due to the current economic and political crisis in Pakistan and domestic events in India, such as the Union Budget and the Adani stocks controversy. Yet, India’s move is a political signal to Pakistan, conveys dissatisfaction with the World Bank, reflects a need to update the science on water sharing, and, above all, points to new thinking on Jammu and Kashmir (J&K).
The interpretation of the IWT of 1960 is a fairly technical matter and best left to engineers and scientists who have done a fair job of it despite the rocky state of India-Pakistan relations. The Indus commissioners have met regularly barring a suspension of meetings after the terror attack on the Indian Army camp at Uri. They met last year too, and mutually concluded the annual report. There have been visits by Pakistani officials to sites where river projects are being undertaken by India without much bother even as Islamabad routinely protests any Indian activity as a violation of its rights. Pakistan’s refusal to come to grips with its objections and sit across the table seems to have led India to seek modification of the treaty with experts pointing out that the Indian formulation stops well short of “abrogation”. Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) spokesperson Arindam Bagchi said the decision of the World Bank (which brokered the 1960 treaty) to appoint a neutral expert and activate the court of arbitration process over the Kishanganga and Ratle projects is disappointing. He said two parallel processes are not in consonance with the provisions of the treaty.
India’s decision to seek bilateral talks to amend the treaty, apart from being an expression of unhappiness about how disputes raised by Pakistan over hydro projects are being dealt with (the objections have lingered without resolution), also points to a need to take into account advances in dam-building and the increased salience of climate change. More recent technologies allow for water levels to be lowered more than earlier to clean sediments, and this raises new issues in controlling water flows. Also, the increase in population means the need for the waters of the Indus basin has changed and requires fresh consideration. “India is not suggesting a unilateral action. It wants Pakistan to seriously apply itself to various aspects of the treaty and devise equitable solutions. Of course, India does not want disputes to linger,” said an official. The water flows in the Indus itself are limited and its course in India is fairly short. It is the waters of the Chenab and the Jhelum that are of greater consequence. The waters of these “western rivers” have been allotted to Pakistan but India is not barred from constructing run-of-river projects. In all, India can go ahead with 28 projects, and the long pendency of some has become a nagging problem. The Tulbul navigation project that intends to maintain a draft to allow transport from the Wular Lake to Baramulla via Sopore is one such that holds attention. The stop-start nature of work on the project has been an impediment to development and a brake on economic activities.
After the attack on the Army camp at Uri, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had noted that blood and water cannot flow at the same time. The terrorist strike led to a comprehensive rethink and India decided to go ahead and use the water allocated to it and this includes projects objected to by Pakistan. The talk of abrogating the treaty was not considered in view of international implications and India’s record of honouring the treaty. But the change in India’s thinking on IWT is not in isolation and is part of a strategy for J&K that has played out since the 2016 Uri attack. The surgical strikes that followed, the air strike on Balakot in February 2019, the scrapping of Article 370 in J&K in August 2019, as well as political and governance initiatives in the newly formed Union territory thereafter are all part of a new approach towards the region and towards Pakistan. On the one hand, the actions are intended to extinguish any ambiguity about the status of J&K as a part of India and are a strong prod to Pakistan to review its stance on bilateral ties. India’s altered view on IWT suggests that Pakistan needs to reconsider its strategy of continuously raising disputes with regard to the Indus waters and claiming to be the victim of upper riparian conspiracies. India’s moves do not seek to weaponise water sharing but are intended to encourage a change in mindsets across the border. By the same token, progress on projects will emphasise India’s administrative control on its territory and convey a determination to protect its interests.
In no other project has the World Bank played such an interventionist role in brokering a water treaty. Proposals for Indus water management were initiated by David Lilienthal, who had headed the Tennessee Valley Authority (a model adopted for the Damodar Valley Corporation), in the early 1950s. The World Bank agreed to being broker and its plan was finally accepted in 1960. The US had an interest in the region remaining stable and water disputes could easily escalate into war. While the World Bank has accepted that India has the right to run-of-river projects, Pakistan has objected to the Kishanganga project on grounds that it is a tributary of the Jhelum, the waters of which are allocated to it. There is a growing impatience with the objections raised by Pakistan to projects on the Indian side even as its own water management has grown more chaotic with the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics noting poor agricultural sector water management, bad infrastructure and water pollution as well tensions between provinces. The Indian decision to invite Pakistan for talks is a clear signal to the World Bank that its responses to the treaty’s provisions are inadequate and it might have a diminishing role going ahead.
While the World Bank has accepted that India has the right to run-of-river projects, Pakistan has objected to the Kishanganga project on grounds that it is a tributary of the Jhelum, the waters of which are allocated to it. There is a growing impatience with the objections raised by Pakistan
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India’s victories on the ground have been hard fought and not limited to the battlefield. In his book Indus Basin Uninterrupted, Uttam Sinha (see column) recounts that control of the headworks of the Sutlej at Ferozepur in Punjab were retained by India only due to the energetic efforts of Bikaner royal Sadul Singh and the alertness of Indian civil engineers. Last-hour interventions resulted in the Radcliffe Line being moved a few crucial kilometres west. The gains in the early days of independence were threatened by war and Pakistan has always seen the Indus waters and territorial control in the same light. While it made Kashmir its pet agenda, it never lost sight of the centrality of the Indus waters—for its own use and to deny India its rightful use. During a stint at UK’s Royal College of Defence Studies, Pervez Musharraf, former Pakistan army chief and president who died recently, had identified water as a likely source of conflict between the neighbours. Musharraf, it would seem, never harboured any doubt about the need to control territory in pursuit of Pakistan’s interests—so much for his reported advocacy of “non-territorial” solutions in parleys with former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
India has taken the first necessary, if very belated, step 62 years after the treaty was signed towards refashioning the Indus Waters Treaty in order to reset a stale political narrative and protect its long-term national interests.