Indian and Pakistani negotiators ended another round of talks as a part of the Indus Water Treaty on “cordial” terms, said the Ministry of External Affairs, describing the 118th meeting of the Permanent Indus Commission that took place in Delhi on May 30-31. The MEA did not give any details on the issues that were on the agenda for discussion, including Pakistan’s request for flood-flow data sharing and objections to hydropower projects planned on “western rivers” in Jammu & Kashmir. However, it said that the annual report of the Commission for the previous year had been finalised and signed, indicating some consensus on the way forward on a number of issues that come up each year. A statement from Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs also added that India had assured a response to its objections.
“The meeting was held in a cordial manner. The Commission appreciated the commitment of the two sides to interact frequently and resolve issues through bilateral discussions under the Indus Water Treaty,” the MEA said after the meetings between six-member delegations on either side led by the new Indian Commissioner for Indus Waters A.K. Pal, and Syed Muhammad Mehar Ali Shah, the Pakistan Commissioner for Indus Waters, adding that they had agreed to hold the next meeting in Pakistan at convenient dates. According to the Indus Water agreement, Commissioners meet twice each year, alternately in India and Pakistan, a practice that was put in abeyance between 2019-2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and scheduling issues.
The MEA’s statement comes in contrast to previous, more acrimonious statements issued by both India and Pakistan, which had detailed areas of dispute between the two sides. In March this year, after a meeting of the Commissioners held in Islamabad, Pakistan had raised objections to Indian hydro electric power (HEP) projects, including the Kiru, Pakal Dul and Lower Kalnai HEPs in Jammu & Kashmir on the Chenab river. Pakistan has also asked India to reinstate the practice of providing it with advance flood flow information as per the treaty, which it says India stopped doing in 2018.
A statement issued by the Pakistani Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) in Islamabad on Tuesday said that the Indian side had assured it would “arrange tours/inspections after the coming flood season”, and that Pakistan’s “outstanding objections” would be discussed at the next meeting.
“Both sides reiterated their commitment to implement the Indus Waters Treaty in its true spirit,” the Pakistan MFA statement said.
The statements on Tuesday are also significant as the Indus Water talks, mandated by the water sharing treaty of 1960 that was facilitated by the World Bank, are amongst the rare dialogues that continue to held between India and Pakistan, as their relations have hit new lows in the last few years.
The talks have taken place regularly despite the two neighbours cutting off all trade and travel ties, and having pulled out High Commissioners in each other’s capitals. Since December 2015, the two countries have also not held any bilateral talks under the composite dialogue process (now called the comprehensive dialogue), and there have been no political meetings between the two governments. In September 2016, after the Uri terror attack in Jammu & Kashmir, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was quoted as telling a review meeting that “blood and water cannot flow together”, indicating a possible rupture in the water sharing talks. Subsequently, the government clarified that it had no intention of abrogating the treaty, but would seek to utilise waters allocated to India under the treaty more fully, setting up a special new committee to do so.
The Indus talks, which followed just two months since the last round of the Permanent Indus Commission talks in Islamabad, also came a few weeks after another Pakistan delegation crossed over Wagah for multilateral talks on terrorism as part of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation’s Regional Anti Terror Structure, leading to some speculation that ties between New Delhi and Islamabad may ease on other issues as well, given a change in government in Pakistan in April, as well as security-level back-channel talks that have been ongoing for some years, and are believed to have led to the military ceasefire agreement at the Line of Control last February.