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In a move that is bound to go down badly with India’s central government, the Jammu and Kashmir state government is seeking to put a premium on its water resources. In the process, it is effectively questioning the constitutions of India and Pakistan, which say only the central government has the right to enter into a treaty with another sovereign country.

National Conference, the party now in power in Jammu and Kashmir, is a part of the Congress Party-led coalition that rules at the centre. The state’s chief minister is Omar Abdullah, while his father Farooq Abdullah is a minister in the central cabinet, in charge of new and renewable energy.

But that has not stopped the state government from asking some uncomfortable questions: who owns the water that runs through the state, the state or the centre? If a hydroelectric project is built on a river running through the state, who has the first right on the electricity, the state or the regional grid, in this case the northern India grid?

The questions have been raised in the past. Thrice, the Jammu and Kashmir government has passed resolutions protesting the Indus Water Treaty (IWT) because it prohibits India from holding back any water from the four western rivers in the Indus basin before they flow into Pakistan.

Water treaty holds back Kashmir’s  development

Since 1960, when the treaty was signed, it has been the contention of the state government that it cannot irrigate its farms because it cannot hold back the water, thanks to the IWT, and that the central government had no right to negotiate on rivers that flow through the state. Among the western rivers mentioned in the IWT, the Jhelum and the Chenab flow through Jammu and Kashmir before reaching Pakistan.

The state government has repeatedly demanded that the centre compensate it for the IWT, and has repeatedly been ignored. It is a question of constitutional law where the Jammu and Kashmir government knows it is on a weak wicket, so it has taken a new tack.

In an energy-hungry era, when the central government is building and planning a number of run-of-the-river hydroelectric projects in Kashmir, the state government has asked Halcrow Consulting India Limited, a part of Halcrow Group of Britain, to estimate the losses.

This will help the government to get an independent estimate of the losses which in turn can be used during discussions with the central government for compensation, says Jammu and Kashmir’s finance minister Abdul Rahim Rather. Rough estimates suggest that the figure runs into billions of dollars.

The state government seems determined that this does not become another futile exercise. In 2011, it passed the State Water Resources Regulation and Management Act, which imposed a water tax on the National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC) for the electricity it generated in Kashmir for India’s northern grid.

For the first time, the NHPC had to give 45 million Indian rupees (US$826,000) to the state government last year as water usage charges. The government has also constituted a State Water Resources Regulatory Authority which works for return of some the NHPC power projects in Kashmir to the state government.

Globally, the IWT is often cited as a model of cooperation between otherwise antagonistic neighbours. But in Kashmir it has always been seen as a huge problem. Shakeel Qalandar, president of the Federation of Chamber of Industries in Kashmir (FCIK), says that due to the IWT, only 40% of the cultivatable land in the state can be irrigated and less than 10% of the hydroelectric potential harnessed.

Legal wrangles between India and Pakistan

The treaty has also come under increasing attack from Pakistan, which has taken India to international arbitrators every time India has planned a hydroelectric project on any of the western rivers. In 2005 Pakistan had sought the World Bank’s intervention to stop construction of the 450 megawatt Baglihar dam and the hydroelectricity power project over the River Chenab, but Bank-appointed experts cleared the project while asking India to restrict the overall height of the dam.

Earlier India had to stop construction of Tulbul Navigation Project on the Jhelum on account of objections raised by Pakistan. Last year Pakistan raised objections on construction of the 330 megawatt Kishanganga power project  by India over a Jhelum tributary and took the matter to the International Court of Justice.

Kashmiris say that despite the legal wrangling India and Pakistan are still well-placed in terms of exploitation of water resources, and residents of this Himalayan region should also benefit from it.

Reacting to the frequent power outages in Kashmir, chairman of Kashmir Economic Alliance (KEA), Mohammad Yasin Khan said, “The truth is we are not the beneficiaries. The NHPC has constructed power projects in Kashmir, but Kashmiris do not share the benefits of these projects.”

Well-known political analyst Javid Iqbal says the NHPC has pocketed the entire benefits of Kashmir’s water resources. “In 1975 this company came with 2,000 million rupees. Today it has 3,870,180 million which becomes 193.5 times of what it had in the beginning. It is unbelievable. The law of natural justice demands that one-third of this money should be ours.”

Qalandar says India’s central government owes the state a huge sum on various counts. “They have to pay that debt. And since they have so far failed to pay this huge debt, let them pay the interest as well.”

Image by draskd shows Kashmir’s Balglihar dam.

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