As differences can be dealt with within the ambit of the Indus Waters Treaty, there is no case for raising them in a different forum.

Pakistan wishes to bring water on to the agenda for future talks. Siddharth Varadarajan (“Water as the carrier of concord with Pakistan,” The Hindu, February 25) takes a benign view of this development and sees in it a positive potential for cooperation. I should like to put forward a different perspective.

The Indus Waters Treaty 1960, which settled the sharing of the Indus waters, is internationally regarded as an example of successful conflict-resolution between two countries otherwise locked in a bad relationship. The Treaty contains provisions for dealing with any ‘questions' or ‘differences' or ‘disputes' that might arise in the course of operation. (These can arise not over water-sharing but over technical features of Indian projects on the western rivers.) The arbitration clause was actually used to settle the differences that arose over the Baglihar Project. Questions or differences on other projects can be similarly dealt with. Why then is Pakistan raising ‘water' as a subject for India-Pakistan talks, and why is it giving it considerable salience?

India is reported to have told Pakistan that there is no case for including water in the agenda for the ‘composite dialogue' (as and when resumed) because there is another forum for talking about it; but Pakistan is likely to persist in its efforts. It is therefore necessary to understand why it is doing so. There are three possible explanations.

The first and most obvious one is that Pakistan wants to deflect attention from the Indian focus on terrorism, and unsettle India by accusing it of wrongdoing on water. The second explanation is that an attempt is being made to shift attention away from inter-provincial conflicts within Pakistan over water and other matters by portraying India as the cause of water-shortages in Pakistan, and bringing the disputing provinces together by rousing national anger against the national enemy, India. The third explanation is that Pakistan is indeed dissatisfied with the working of the Indus Treaty and feels that it must be on the agenda for any serious India-Pakistan talks. Possibly, a combination of all three factors lies behind Pakistan's move to raise the subject of water.

This seems to me a dubious and dangerous move. The inclusion of water in the India-Pakistan talks might give the world the impression that water is an unresolved issue between the two countries and, worse still, that India implicitly accepts that it has given Pakistan cause for complaints about water.

Even more important is the fact that water is a highly sensitive issue over which passions are easily roused. After the attack on Mumbai, when there was some uneasiness in Pakistan, the Pakistan army was able to rally the entire country behind it (the army) by raising the bogey of war and causing the spirit of nationalism to surge and drown all other feelings. Water is an issue that has similar potential. A feeling of insecurity over this life-sustaining substance, and the further feeling that it can be used as a weapon of war by an enemy country, can be used to mobilise the whole country against India. On this subject, as on the Kashmir issue, even members of ‘civil society' (including intellectuals, academics and others who advocate good relations with India) are likely to echo the government/army view (or the view that these cynically put forward), and anger against India will blaze across Pakistan.

(It may be recalled that in October 2008, the Pakistani media and general public were led to believe that India had stopped the flow of the Chenab, when all that had happened was that India was doing the initial one-time filling of the reservoir of the newly constructed — and arbitrated — Baglihar Project, and it took a day or two for the water to reach the spillway gates, placed high as required by the Treaty, and flow to the other side. If the gates had been still higher as Pakistan wanted, it would have taken some more time for the water to reach them.)

If water does come on to the agenda of India-Pakistan talks, even international opinion may be tilted towards Pakistan because the sympathy of the world is generally with the lower riparian rather than the upper riparian.

Let us consider the possibility that Pakistan has genuine concerns over water. Two kinds of arguments are often heard. The first is that the Indus treaty was unfair to Pakistan and gave India too much water. This is a widespread belief in Pakistan. The other argument is that Pakistan as the lower riparian is vulnerable because India as the upper riparian will acquire a measure of control over the waters through the structures that it builds on the western rivers, and can use those structures either to stop the waters from flowing to Pakistan or to store the waters and then release them in a flood.

Insofar as the feeling of unfair division of the waters is concerned, it exists in India too, and is quite strong. If both India and Pakistan feel that the division of waters is unfair, then it is perhaps quite a fair division. In any case, when a Treaty is negotiated over a period of ten years or more and is then approved and signed at the highest level, we have to assume that it represented the best agreement that could be reached at that time. Thereafter either side is precluded from talking about unfairness. If a feeling of dissatisfaction develops in time, the Treaty can of course be re-negotiated. However, in any such re-negotiation, either side would want to change the Treaty to its own advantage; and it is clearly impossible for both sides to succeed in that effort. The best course, therefore, would be to leave the Treaty alone and try and operate it in a spirit of constructive cooperation.

As for apprehensions of harm, it is the Indian view that there is no ground for them. However, it is a fact that lower riparians do feel a visceral anxiety about upper riparian control. That is why the Indus Treaty 1960 contains elaborate provisions to safeguard the interests of Pakistan. These include various aspects of design, engineering and operation of the proposed projects. The provisions are very stringent and, further, India is required to communicate its plans and designs in advance to Pakistan to enable that country to satisfy itself that these conform to the Treaty stipulations.

Pakistan would of course be happy if there were no Indian projects at all on the western rivers; but that is not what the Treaty says. It allocates the western rivers to Pakistan but allows some limited Indian use of those rivers, subject to certain conditions. It follows that what Pakistan can ask for is strict adherence to the Treaty. If it has doubts on this score it can take recourse to the Treaty provisions for dealing with differences. As differences can be dealt with within the ambit of the Treaty, there is no case for raising them in a different forum.

Finally, is there a scope for ‘cooperation' or for joint projects under the Treaty? There is hardly any ground for such a ‘positive' view. The ideal course of joint integrated management of the Indus basin as a whole by the two countries was ruled out by the circumstances of Partition and the bitter hostility of the two countries. Instead, a division of the waters was agreed upon, with stringent restrictions on Indian use to safeguard the interests of Pakistan. The Treaty is thus a partitioning Treaty. The land was partitioned in 1947, and the waters were partitioned in 1960. There is indeed an article on cooperation (art. VII), but the kind of cooperation that it envisages is extremely limited. It is hardly possible to base any large visions of cooperation on that article.

The relationship between the two countries which was very bad for years seemed to improve recently, but it has deteriorated again. Besides, if the raising of water as a subject for discussion is in fact a disingenuous tactical move, how can that provide a basis for a constructive new relationship?

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