The struggle for power over Indus


In an article of 1951 David E Lilienthal, former head of Tennessee Valley Authority, and Atomic Energy Commission made an correct observation. This observation initiated efforts towards a treaty between India and Pakistan over sharing the waters of the ‘Indus’ called for the best Pakistani and Indian engineering minds to work together on big mutual projects to arrest the wastage of water flowing unused into the sea and put it to use to irrigate and power the two new countries. Unfortunately, the common engineering project that Lilienthal had envisioned did not materialise. Instead the Indus Water Treaty was drafted to preside over independent rather than common hydrological engineering projects of India and Pakistan.

David R Black, the then President of the World Bank was motivated to act after reading Lilienthal’s article, but despite his dedicated and persistent effort he failed to spit the river for common good. When the Indian Independence Act was passed by the British Parliament in July 1947, the boundary line that was to divide Punjab into two new countries was not decided. Sir Cyril Radcliff, who was appointed to chair the Punjab Boundary Commission, contacted both, prime ministers, Mohammad Jinnah of Pakistan and Jawaharlal Nehru of India with the idea that the Punjab water system should be a joint venture run by both countries. Both the leaders were offended by his suggestion.  Prime Minister Jinnah responded that ‘he would have Pakistan remain a desert rather than a fertile field watered courtesy of the Hindus’ and Prime Minister Nehru observed that ‘what India did with its rivers was its own business’.  The line dividing India and Pakistan thus had to pass right through the Indus canal irrigation system with India in control of the headwaters of the Indus.

On 1 April 1948, India stopped water flows in Pakistan’s canals exactly eight months after independence and the morning after the Arbitral Tribunal, the body convened to adjudicate on partition disputes, closed. The ‘standstill’ arrangement to maintain flows from the Indian head works to Pakistan till 1 April 1948 had been negotiated between East (Indian Punjab) and West Punjab (Pakistani Punjab) but West Punjab had apparently failed to respond to East Punjab’s requests to renew the agreement despite numerous reminders from East Punjab. Though the Indian Prime Minister Nehru openly rebuked East Punjab for acting unilaterally, Pakistan continues to harbour suspicion over India’s true intentions.  It was the start of the sowing season and harvest; Pakistan depended on this water for agriculture.  The moment could not have been worse for Pakistan and it is ‘seared into Pakistani consciousness as evidence of India’s desire to undermine the fragile new country.

The Indus Water Treaty, designed to address these concerns was the unique combination of engineering efficiency, legal accuracy and low cost development finance. The Treaty was signed in 1960 by the Government of Pakistan, the Government of India and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development. The Indus Water Treaty was thus not only a part of the material settlement between India and Pakistan but also a reflection of the geo-political context in that period. The United States was indirectly a party to the Treaty through the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development in which the United States was senior partner.  As an annexure to the Indus Basin Development Fund agreed between Pakistan, the United States, Canada, The United Kingdom, West Germany, Australia and New Zealand which together sought to advance the cause of peace in the Indus basin ‘at the cost one billion dollars’. Recent developments suggest that the over-simplification of the development vision that conceived the Treaty has left it exposed to both use and abuse.

Article III of the Treaty along with Annex D & E regarding the western tributaries of the Indus permits India to use the waters of the Indus, Jhelum and Chenab for domestic use, non-consumptive use, agricultural use and generation of hydro-electric power provided India is under obligation not to ‘interfere’ and ‘let flow all the waters of the Western Rivers’. This provision is said to have been critical to India accepting the treaty as it was disappointing that the treaty assigned about 80 % of the Indus waters to Pakistan. This seemingly contradictory clause that allowed India to build hydro power projects without interfering with the flow of the water in the western tributaries because riparian geography favoured only India.  This clause essentially allowed India to have a say in the flow of water of the tributaries that were given a Pakistani identity.  This imbalance took root at the historic grievances of Pakistan over the Indus Water Treaty.

As if to add to Pakistan’s sense of deprivation, India chose to fill the Baglihar dam by blocking a flow of 23,000 cusecs of water of the Chenab River in August 2008 which ironically also happened to be the height of the planting season in Pakistan. If viewed purely on technical grounds India may be seen to be abiding by the provisions of the Treaty as it is allowed to fill up storage through clause 18 (c) of Annexure E of Article III which states that the annual filling of Conservation Storage and the initial filling below the Dead Storage Level, is permitted between 21st June and 31st August on the Chenab at such rate as not to reduce, on account of this filling, the flow in the Chenab Main above Merala to less than 55,000 cusecs.  Pakistan’s claim that the reduction in water flows extended beyond September 2008 is disputed by India.

The Indus Water Treaty was a product of its time. The global geo-political context was the cold war and the regional context was de-colonisation and partition.  Acrimony and suspicion between the key parties to the Treaty meant that the Treaty had to take refuge in the certainty that engineering efficiency and legal accuracy offered.  Territorial boundaries and sovereign identities were supreme and thus both India and Pakistan sought to meet the demand for water and energy through the control of physical and institutional infrastructure on the tributaries of the Indus which were given sovereign identities. Both countries saw water as a benign resource that must be controlled and managed through the application of technical expertise, authority and material resources.

It is possible that in going against established wisdom of sustaining the unity of a river basin, the Treaty inadvertently embedded the seeds of further conflict between the two nations by allocating territorial identity or sovereignty to the waters of the Indus. The primary conflict of identity that was supposedly resolved through partition has pierced open the supposedly water tight Treaty and is leaking in to other primary domains of conflict between the two countries.

The basin’s hydrological interdependence which was conveniently blocked out times of abundance when the Treaty was signed is becoming visible now, a time of scarcity. Rivers are now seen as organic entities with a life of their own offering ecological service to mankind which have no technological substitutes.  Even straightforward engineering has evolved and changed over the years. The conflict between Pakistan and India over Salal, Baglihar and Kishangangahydro projects on the Indus are essentially conflicts over the insistence that 1960s technology embedded in the Treaty is adhered to despite the fact that technological and ecological knowledge of harnessing river water has advanced considerably in the last forty years. The ecological consequences of exploiting provisions in the Indus Water Treaty, even if permissible, may not only be unsustainable in the long run but also be detrimental to the health of the Indus and the wealth of India.