Kashmir & The Indus

29 May 2015
The Statesman
Partha Pratim Basu

New Delhi: The Kashmir issue remains a hydra-headed problem, one that is marked by a territorial controversy, an ideological dispute, the question of self-determination, militancy, and a human rights dimension. But one critical aspect of this multifaceted muddle that often escapes our attention has been the complexities arising out of sharing of common river water resources by the 'distant' neighbours and the associated institutional mechanisms. It bears recall that Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, as foreign minister of Pakistan in 1965, had told the UN Security Council that the main obstacle to the resolution of the Kashmir problem is water. Nearly five decades later, an editorial in Nawa-e-Waqt, an Urdu daily of Pakistan, on 8 December 2011 bore the headline: 'War inevitable to tackle Indian water aggression'. Though mercifully, the anticipated water war between India and Pakistan is yet to break out, this essay examines the pros and cons of this issue in the backdrop of the installation of the PDP-BJP government in Jammu and Kashmir coupled with the BJP-led NDA regime's purported readiness to resume the stalled dialogue with Pakistan. The Indus River Basin not only cradled one of the world's oldest civilisations, but the survival and sustenance of sizable communities in contemporary Pakistan and India also remain critically dependent on the river and its tributaries. The Indus network constitutes the lifeline of Pakistan where more than 90 per cent of the land is semi-arid and nearly half of the population is employed in the agricultural sector. The river nourishes the water-deficient states of north-western India, notably Punjab, the 'bread basket of India'. It originates in the Tibetan Plateau and along with its tributaries flows through Jammu and Kashmir before entering Pakistan. Thus the Partition of 1947 called for a division not simply of land and people, but also of waterways thereby posing a formidable challenge to Sir Cyril Radcliffe, Chairman of the Border Commission. The dispute over sharing of Indus waters came to the fore immediately after Partition because the existing irrigation canal headworks remained in the Indian state of (East) Punjab, while the lands being irrigated by the river fell in Pakistan's (West) Punjab and Bahawalpur, leaving India with a handle to 'choke' lower riparian Pakistan. The issue was sought to be addressed through two Standstill Agreements concluded in December 1947 between the Chief Engineers of the two Punjabs. They agreed to allow the existing water-sharing arrangements to continue till the following year. Meanwhile, relations between the two countries had soured following the first Kashmir war which broke out in October 1947 and continued till January 1948 before Prime Minister Nehru sought the UN Security Council's intervention. The Standstill Agreements expired on 31 March 1948, and the following day Indian Punjab cut off the water-flow to Pakistan on the ground that the canal colonies in Pakistan served by these headworks did not pay the standard water dues. Though the people in charge of the headworks pointed out that they were applying exactly the same kind of sanction they would have imposed in undivided India viz. 'no canal dues, no water', the connection between the Indo-Pak conflict and stoppage of water supply cannot be overlooked altogether. It was in the backdrop of this mutual acrimony and stalemate that David Lilienthal, a former Chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority, suggested in 1951 that India and Pakistan should work out a programme jointly to develop and operate the Indus river system perhaps with financial assistance from the World Bank. Eugene Black, the President of the World Bank (and a close friend of Lilienthal) readily expressed interest in this proposal and in September 1951 the bank formally offered its good offices to the parties concerned. However, once it became clear that the joint Indus Engineering Corporation envisaged by Lilienthal to manage the Indus waters was unlikely to materialise, the Bank officials proposed to India and Pakistan division of the river in 1954, a proposal which culminated in the Indus Water Treaty (IWT) of 1961. The treaty laid down that the three eastern rivers of the Indus system (Ravi, Beas and Sutlej) were to cater to India's needs; and three western rivers (Jhelum, Chenab and Indus) were to meet Pakistan's requirements. Moreover, since both Chenab and Jhelum, with high hydro-potential, flowed out of Kashmir, it was important to determine how India could use Chenab and Jhelum waters in a non-consumptive way - without interfering with Pakistan's right to those waters. This riddle was addressed by the stipulation that power could be generated and used in Indian Kashmir as long as it did not affect the quantum or timing of water flows to Pakistan. This was to be ensured by limiting the amount of live storage - the water in a dam that can be manipulated by opening and closing gates - in specific Indian hydroelectric plants. It was held that India could only take water from the relatively higher levels in the reservoir, leaving most of the reservoir as 'dead storage' which cannot be manipulated, and thus Pakistan's suspicious were sought to be set at rest. After the conclusion of IWT, Nehru told Parliament that 'we purchased a settlement. and it is good for both countries'. However, several MPs belonging to various parties including the Congress, felt that India's interests Rs especially those of Punjab and Rajasthan - were sacrificed while trying to placate Pakistan. They argued that the eastern rivers given to India carried only 20-25 per cent of the total flow of the Indus Basin as against 75-80 per cent in the three western rivers allocated to Pakistan. However, going by the experience on the ground, IWT, according to many commentators, constituted an exceptional instance of Indo-Pak cooperation and functioned more or less smoothly for nearly three decades without any recourse to external intervention. Pakistan raised objections regarding construction of the Salal Dam by India on the Chenab in 1978 on the ground that the storage could be used for flooding the lower riparian regions and India sought to accommodate this concern by changing the design of the dam. Similarly, Islamabad protested against the Tulbul Navigation Project involving erection of a barrage on the Jhelum in 1984 which in Pakistan's perception could be used by India as a geostrategic weapon to control the river's flow. New Delhi in response chose to shelve the project on which bilateral talks have remained inconclusive till date. Serious differences, however, cropped up in the 1990s following New Delhi's stepped-up drive to harness the abundant hydrological resources of Jammu and Kashmir leading to the construction of a series of hydropower projects in the state. This spurt of activity was occasioned by the resumption of insurgency in Kashmir in the late 1980s and the government harping on the message of development as an antidote, which in turn raised Islamabad's hackles. The 900 MW Balighar Hydel Power Project on the Chenab became a major point of discord at the turn of the century as Pakistan raised questions about the number, size and elevation of the eight gated spillways specified in the design. Islamabad claimed that the design enabled India to control flood-discharge water on a scale precluded by IWT. The Indian side, however, claimed that the spillway design was necessary to prevent the silt-load from blocking the intakes (as it happened in case of the Salal dam following design modification) and ensure hassle-free operation of the mechanism. Since bilateral talks failed to yield a breakthrough, Pakistan pressed for arbitration under IWT. The World Bank appointed Raymond Lafitte, a Swiss civil engineer as a neutral expert to look into the matter. In his verdict delivered in 2007, Lafitte virtually endorsed the Indian position by pronouncing that the design of the spillways aimed not at controlling flood discharge (that apparently worried the Pakistanis) but at containing silt accumulation which in his view did not contravene IWT. However, the real source of Pakistan's anxiety lay with the latest silt management technique which requires the clear water to be stored and muddy water discharged, so that during heavy rainfall, the sediment can be flushed out of the reservoir. This murky scenario has become further complicated by repeated assertions in political, intellectual and media circles of Indian Kashmir that IWT was unfair to the state, that its interests were not duly taken into consideration when New Delhi agreed to relinquish consumptive rights over the west-flowing rivers. No wonder demands for scrapping IWT have been raised off and on within the state assembly, and cutting across party lines. However, scrapping the Indus Water Treaty does not appear to be a prudent course; a hasty step will only intensify rather than defuse bilateral tensions. Yet matters cannot be allowed to drift.