Don't be fooled by the official line that India took on Monday that it would stand by the infamous Indus Waters Treaty. If you read between lines, the very announcement that India would ignore Pakistan’s objections to three hydro-electric projects on Indus tributaries and go ahead with them in itself constitutes nothing short of a major water offensive by India.
The announcement, which came at the end of a meeting Prime Minister Narendra Modi had called to “review” the treaty, was designed to deliver a jolt to Pakistan. It did.
"India set to wage war against Pakistan," screamed a headline in Tuesday’s edition of The Nation, a Pakistani newspaper.
Shireen Mazari, former journalist and leader of Pakistan-Tehreek-e-Insaf party, went to the extent of saying that India’s "suspension of the treaty" was the first step towards declaring (a real) war against Pakistan. Speaking in Pakistan’s National Assembly on Monday, she demanded an immediate response to India from Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
Indeed, what India says it intends to do now does not amount to abrogating the treaty but suspending it.
And don’t miss India’s announcement not to participate in the meetings of the Indus Water Commission. What India is telling Pakistan, in other words, is that it no longer respects the provisions of the treaty which demand that all matters related to projects on the sprawling Indus basin must be discussed at this forum once a year.
In the past, India did indeed suspend the Indus Commission talks. But this time, what adds a ring of menace to it is that it is accompanied by a threat to ignore Pakistan’s objections to India’s projects and proceed with them.
In any case, Pakistan has all along been accusing India of not strictly abiding by the treaty. The new measures that India announced only mean that India will not effectively abide by the treaty from now, though it says it will. So where does all this leave the treaty? In a limbo.
If the government’s talk on Monday wasn’t just empty rhetoric—there is no reason at least yet to believe it is—it will take about two years to harm Pakistan’s agricultural interests. If the government is serious about all this, it amounts to the first big threat Modi is making to the terror exporters across the border after the Uri attack.
In fact, it India takes it to the logical end, it would be the most substantial, calculated move that any recent Indian government has ever made against Pakistan. Modi’s new line that ‘blood and water can’t flow together’ is a clear deviation from his earlier soft theme of ‘attackers will be avenged’. This is Modi’s style of putting Pakistan on notice.
While the inter-ministerial commission that the government said would look into the issues related to water utilisation would take time to do that job, the announcement that India will work speedily on the Pakal Dul, Bursar and Sawalkot projects seemed to be categorical.
India will, of course, claim that it’s only using up its share of 20 per cent waters allocated to it by the treaty, a claim that will, no doubt, be hotly contested by Pakistan. Under the 1960 treaty signed between Jawaharlal Nehru and Pakistan President Ayub Khan, India conceded, as a “goodwill” gesture, 80 per cent of the water to Pakistan.
Both the 1,000 MW Pakal Dul hydel project on the Marusadar river, a tributary of the Chenab, and the 1,020 MW Bursar project on the Chenab that India spoke about on Monday will raise Pakistani hackles. These two are among the projects that Pakistan has been dead set against.
And the 1,200 MW Sawalkot project, much bigger than these two, will drive the Pakistanis up the wall even more. Pakistan has been saying that the proposed Sawalkot dam falls within the seismic zone of the Himalayas and would be highly vulnerable to earthquakes. Some experts across the border argue that Sawalkot would pose the threat of a huge environmental disaster for Pakistan.
And the Tulbul navigation project, which India had suspended and which it said on Monday would review, is designed to drive the Pakistanis into a state of paranoia. Pakistanis have been claiming that this project, apart from depriving them of water, would pose a serious security risk to them. According to them, the Tulbul project would help Indians manipulate the water level in the Jhelum, making it easy for them to cross the river in times of war. That also means, they claim, Indians can make it tough for the Pakistani soldiers to cross the river if they choose to.
So this is a water war by India—or at least the notice for waging one.
But what India’s own war hawks must understand now is that Modi’s well-thought-out water offensive, if carried out, will not produce quick results but will wreak unspeakable havoc on Pakistan in the long term.
And what the world in general and Pakistan in particular must understand is that India is not kicking off this war unilaterally. It’s only responding to a ruthless water war that Pakistan is already waging. As this Firstpost article argues, Pakistan has been raising one silly objection after another to India’s hydel projects in the Jammu and Kashmir part of the Indus basin.
The most recent outburst from Pakistan came from its Minister of Defence, Water and Power Khawaja Muhammad Asif, who said on July 15 that his country would drag India’s two hydel projects, Kishanganga and Ratle in Jammu and Kashmir, for international arbitration.
India must convince the world that the 1960 treaty was not based on any equitable distribution of water but guided by political “goodwill”. The treaty practically gave away the Indus, Jhelum and Chenab flowing through Jammu and Kashmir for Pakistan’s exclusive use, while India could utilise waters from the Beas, Sutlej and Ravi coursing through Punjab in a limited way.
What India must drive home to the world is that the goodwill disappeared once Pakistan turned itself into a haven for terrorists launching stealth attacks on India.
If India carries out its threats, it will still have two imponderables. One, any dams that Pakistan perceives to be against its interests may become terror targets. Two, China could retaliate by impounding water of the Indus and the Sutlej, which originate in that country, by building dams there. But like the Indian plans, any Chinese threat too would take time to materialise.
One thing that is clear now is that, short of scrapping the Indus treaty, India has done enough for now to rattle Pakistan. Now India must begin—or should be seen to be beginning—the long process of translating these threats into realities.