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Indus Waters Treaty: an unjustified resentment

The 1960 Indus Waters Treaty is not perfect but represents the best that was possible in the circumstances that prevailed then. It cannot be changed until India-Pakistan relations improve

This is not a comment on Rohan D’Souza’s very interesting article in The Hindu (September 13, 2013), but seeks to provide a somewhat different and supplementary perspective on both the Indus Waters Treaty and on the dissatisfaction with it in Jammu & Kashmir.

The most striking feature of the Indus Waters Treaty 1960 (IWT) was that it performed a drastic surgery on an integrated river system, dividing it into two segments, one for Pakistan and the other for India. There will be universal agreement that this was a bad way of dealing with a living, integral whole.

The second striking characteristic of the Indus Waters Treaty is that it is overwhelmingly an engineering document: it was a treaty between two sets of engineers. It is easy enough to criticise these features or characteristics, but in doing so we have to avoid the danger of anachronistic and ahistorical judgment.

Second best course

Yes, there is hardly any doubt that the living, integral, organic whole ought to have been dealt with as a unity and not cut up into two segments. As a matter of fact, David Lilienthal of Tennessee Valley Authority fame did advocate the joint management of the total system in an integrated manner, but such a course was not found practical for obvious reasons.

Given the bitterness of Partition, the horrendous bloodshed that followed, and the implacable mutual hostility in which the two new countries were locked, it would have been naïve to expect that they could jointly, constructively and harmoniously manage the Indus system as a whole. (Such a possibility might have been difficult to reconcile with the logic of Partition.) When the ideal course is not possible, we have to settle for the second best course, and that was what the treaty represented.

Once the land was partitioned in 1947, a partitioning of the waters was bound to follow, and it happened in 1960. Unfortunately, that history continues to plague us. It can hardly be said that a good, constructive, friendly relationship prevails between the two countries today, and that the IWT can now be replaced by a better and more holistic treaty.

Let me turn now to the other and more difficult point. All of us agree now that water is not a matter for engineers alone, and that it is a complex, multi-dimensional substance (avoiding the economist’s language of ‘resource’) that demands an inter-disciplinary study. We stress hydrology, ecology, sociology, anthropology, economics, law, history, tradition, custom, culture, and so on. All this is familiar talk now and is almost becoming conventional wisdom, but it was quite unknown in the 1950s when the Indus Waters Treaty was being formulated and negotiated.

From the advent of modern engineering with colonial rule up to the 1950s or even later, water was indeed regarded essentially a matter for engineers. Even the constitutional entries on water (Entry 17 in the State list and 56 in the Union List) show the strong influence of engineering thinking. Water use largely meant irrigation, irrigation meant canals, canals meant dams, barrages, weirs, gates, sluices and so on. It is therefore hardly surprising that when Partition forced the two new countries to negotiate a treaty on the Indus waters, the negotiation was largely entrusted to engineers on both sides; and it must be noted that the two opposing groups of engineers shared similar orientations, lexicons and concerns.

Besides, Pakistan was anxious not only to secure a share of the waters but also to protect itself against the twin dangers of denial of water and flooding. The IWT was thus not merely a water-sharing treaty but also a water-control treaty.

Certainly, the authors of the IWT wanted the waters used for development but ‘development’ then meant projects for irrigation and hydroelectric power. ‘Projects’ were taken to be wholly benign; Environmental Impact Assessments were unknown; the possible human and social impacts of projects were even less recognised. The idea of a ‘minimum’ or ‘ecological’ flow would have been incomprehensible.

Naturally, IWT is silent on these matters. As for climate change, that concern emerged several decades later. We must indeed go beyond IWT today and take these matters on board, but eventually IWT needs to be replaced by a very different, holistic, wise and harmonious treaty.

Unfortunately, that will have to wait for a time when the relations between the two countries have ceased to be pathological.

Let us consider now the strong resentment against the IWT in J&K. There is a widespread feeling that while negotiating the treaty with Pakistan, India failed to keep the interests of J&K in mind. At one stage, the J&K Assembly even passed a resolution demanding the scrapping of the treaty.

While one must take note of the negative feeling about the treaty in J&K, it would be unfair to say that the Indian negotiators ignored J&K’s interests. Water-sharing by itself is only a small part of the treaty. The bulk of the treaty — the large and dense annexures and appendices — is about Indian projects on the western rivers, both storage and run-of-the-river. All those projects will be in J&K. Therefore, the substantial part of the negotiation was about projects to be located in J&K. How then can anyone say that J&K’s interests were ignored?

True, while India proposes to build a number of hydroelectric projects on the Jhelum and the Chenab (and their tributaries) in J&K, it does not follow that J&K will necessarily benefit from those projects. J&K may well feel that the power generated in the State will be taken elsewhere for use. Other States also have similar feelings about projects in their terrain. This, however, is a matter between the J&K State and the Government of India; it has nothing to do with the Indus Treaty.

What puzzles me is the following. When J&K complains that the treaty prevents it from utilising the waters that pass through the State, it appears that it is thinking of the restrictive provisions that limit the storage that can be built and impose several stringent conditions even on run-of-the-river (RoR) projects. India has so far not built the 3.6 MAF of storage that it is allowed to build. As for RoR projects, despite all the stringent conditions, it has built or is building several projects, and is planning a total of 33 projects. Assuming that the treaty was less restrictive, or non-existent, India could perhaps have built many more projects in J&K, both storage and RoR. (I am not going into the question of whether they would have been built by Central or State agencies.) Is that what the State wants?

Impact of dams on ecology

We are talking about pristine, mountainous, seismically active, and ecologically sensitive areas.

Does the State want 50 or 60 dams and reservoirs to be built in this area? What will such a massive intervention do to the ecology of the region? Elsewhere in the country, say in Assam, Kerala, Karnataka, Odisha, and so on, there are strong movements against hydroelectric projects.

A study has been undertaken of the cumulative impacts of a large number of projects on the Ganga. The recent catastrophic floods in Uttarakhand have been partly attributed to mismanaged, mis-operated projects. In a recent case, the Supreme court has expressed concern about the cumulative impact of many projects on the Alaknanda, the Bhagirathi and on the Ganga as a whole, and has directed the MoEF as well as the State of Uttarakhand not to grant any further environmental clearance or forest clearance for any hydroelectric power project in Uttarakhand until further orders.

Is there no similar concern in J&K? Are the people of that State quite easy in their minds about as many as 33 projects being built on the Jhelum and Chenab in their State? Undoubtedly, the energy needs of the people of the State, wisely estimated, must be met. Are massive dams the only answer? Assuming that to be the mainstream view, there must be other voices; but one does not seem to hear them.

This article was first published by The Hindu.