Indus Waters Treaty: Pakistan is waging ‘water war’, India must cautiously retaliate

Editor's note: This article was originally published on 24 September. It is being republished in light of the fact that Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be receiving a briefing from the Ministry of Water Resources and Ministry of External Affairs on the Indus Water Treaty on Monday

There is a man called Khawaja Muhammad Asif in Pakistan. He hates India from the very bottom of his heart. You wouldn’t take Asif too seriously, if he wasn’t Pakistan’s Minister of Defence, Water and Power (a curious combination even for a terror-exporting country). And he is also one of the closest political lackeys of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

And Asif has no qualms about occasionally putting his foot in his mouth and embarrassing his government, but Sharif lets his blue-eyed boy get away. Three months ago, Asif called a woman politician of Pakistan a "tractor trolley", and outraged Pakistanis called him a "joker" on social media. But leave that aside.

Asif, 67, uses Twitter to spout venom on anything Indian almost on a daily basis. If his tweets were bullets, all Indians would have been corpses by now. His 3.4 lakh Twitter followers include some Indians who hit back at him, and not very politely too. So he has blocked some of them. Usually, his tweets are taken no more seriously than the patriotic rants of a rabid Pakistani.

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

But the 15 July tweet by this India-hater was different. It raised hackles in the Indian establishment.

Coming two months before the Uri attack, this tweet meant that Pakistan would once again take India’s two hydroelectric projects in Jammu and Kashmir on the tributaries of the Indus to international arbitration.

Pakistan had gone to the International Court of Arbitration at The Hague earlier with silly objections to the Kishanganga Hydroelectric project in north Kashmir and the Ratle Hydroelectric plant in Jammu. In 2013, the court gave the go-ahead to India on some conditions. But even the reduced scope of these projects has apparently not made Pakistan happy. That’s because Pakistan doesn’t want to be happy.

If Pakistan is able to raise one ridiculous objection after another to India’s projects, blame the very one-sided nature of the Indus Waters Treaty, which Jawaharlal Nehru signed in 1960 with Pakistan President Ayub Khan to buy peace at a time when tension between India and China was going out of hand.

Nehru virtually gifted to Pakistan 80 percent of the water, amounting to some 5,900 tmcft every year. You can imagine how huge a quantity this is, if you see that the Supreme Court’s order to Karnataka to release 3.8 tmcft of Cauvery water to Tamil Nadu has created ruckus.

World leaders gave Nehru a standing ovation for his "generosity". A demure Nehru called it a "goodwill" gesture. But over time, Nehru’s thoughtless action has hurt the economic interests of the country in general, and Jammu and Kashmir in particular.

And worse, Nehru supplied Pakistan a chance to kill two birds with one stone.

While reaping maximum benefits from the river system for its own people, Pakistan keeps Jammu and Kashmir short of electricity and industrial development — in other words, it keeps the Kashmiris frustrated with the Indian government. The feeling of the average Kashmiri is that India had made his state a "sacrificial goat" in signing the treaty.

That’s because the treaty practically gives 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 running through Punjab.

Besides its one-sided nature, there are two good reasons why India must announce its exit from the treaty. One, the goodwill that prompted Nehru to sign it is conspicuous by its absence now. Two, China has stealthily built a dam on the Indus at Demchok in Ladakh.

An alleged treaty between two countries over a river loses all relevance and meaning if a third country builds a dam as it wishes.

If India goes back on the Indus treaty now, the country isn’t starting a water war against Pakistan. It would only be responding to a war which Pakistan has already launched in a not too subtle a fashion. Respond India must. But it’s preposterous to even imagine that India can stop water from flowing into Pakistan overnight. That kind of a thing is the stuff science fiction and mythology are made of.

Representational image. AFP

Representational image. AFP

Reducing the water flow into Pakistan, leave alone stopping it, would mean that India must build dams on the Indus and its tributaries, and store water. And dams aren’t built in a jiffy.

And dams that are inimical to Pakistan’s interests can become easy terror targets, and India must go ahead with them with abundant caution. Silence is not an option.

On its part, Pakistan has been going ahead with impunity with much bigger projects in its part of the Indus basin, some of them with Chinese help.

Look at what Asif tweeted last month:

The Neelum-Jheelum hydel project that the India-basher is gloating about in this 19 August tweet is thrice as big as the Kishnaganga project in North Kashmir in terms of power production. Pakistan’s baseless stand has been that Kishnaganga would deny water for Neelum-Jheelum.

If you don’t call this a ruthless ‘water war’ by Pakistan, what do you call it then?

And it has been going on for a while now, and the all-talk-no-action Indian leadership has been doing nothing about it. India has threatened to abrogate the treaty when tensions rose before, and such talk was always followed by amnesia.

But what can India do now?

I spoke to a couple of senior engineers working at dams on Ravi, Beas and Sutlej rivers. They are not warmongers. Yet they are unanimous in their view that "too much water" goes into Pakistan and it is high time India did something about it.

"Uri or no Uri, water going to Pakistan must be stopped. The Indus treaty was signed at a time when we didn’t have many projects, but times have changed. Population has grown, so have our needs. There is tremendous scope for projects especially across the Chenab and the Jheelum," said one of them.

"We have been," pointed out another engineer, "adhering to the treaty faithfully all these years, but at what cost? We have no option now other than to make an exit from this unfair agreement purely from an economic point of view."

SK Sharma, an eminent irrigation engineer and chairman of the Chandigarh-based Bhakra-Beas Management Board that manages the waters and power from Ravi, Beas and Sutlej rivers, told Firstpost: "Linking all the six rivers in the Indus basin can be a long-term solution for India. It should be given a serious thought, though it’s expensive and time-consuming."

If India goes back on the Indus treaty now, the country isn’t starting a water war against Pakistan.

Without doubt, resentment against the Indus treaty is deepest in Jammu and Kashmir. This is what an average Kashmiri asks: "Why did India agree to give away to Pakistan the Chenab, Jheelum and Indus rivers flowing through Kashmir but not any of the other rivers that flow through Punjab?"

Kashmir’s anger against the Indus treaty is not new, says a senior Srinagar journalist, who tells me: "This issue has been coming up regularly but the Centre doesn’t take it seriously."

National Conference leader Nazir Gurezi once called the treaty an agreement of "slavery" for Kashmiris. And many Kashmiris want monetary compensation for the loss that the state has suffered on account of Nehru’s folly.

In 2002, when Mufti Mohammed Sayeed was the chief minister of J&K, the state assembly passed a unanimous resolution demanding the abrogation of the pact. He took the stand that economic self-reliance was a key to putting an end to the state’s problems. His daughter Mehbooba Mufti Sayeed, who is the chief minister now, made the right noises about it earlier this year. Leaders of her People’s Democratic Party blame their alliance partner BJP for doing little to mitigate the state’s power problem.

If India now wants to go back on the Indus treaty, which Nehru signed out of so-called goodwill, it would be 51 years late in doing it. India should have walked out of it in 1965, when Pakistan returned the goodwill by waging war against India.

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Updated Date: Sep 26, 2016 08:57:20 IST

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