Six decades of Indus Water Treaty: No more place for India’s flip flop

Rivers are geography that create history. And Indus is a phenomenal river that spans a wide geography and comes with a great history, ancient and recent. Trouble starts when political boundaries intersect with the river’s natural flow and the Indo-Pak binary weighs heavy over the interest of the entire basin. 

India and Pakistan have a water sharing agreement – the Indus Water Treaty (IWT) of 1960 – that has withstood the many years of hostility between the two neighbours. From India’s side, the recent goings on have been a cause of worry for number of reasons. From chest-thumping announcements on how ‘blood and water cannot flow together’ to releasing excess water when we cannot store it, India has continued its flip flop on this important aspect. 

The Indus Water Treaty (IWT) was signed on September 19, 1960 at Karachi, Pakistan. India has complete rights over Sutlej, Beas and Ravi, identified as three eastern rivers, while Pakistan uses Chenab, Jhelhum and Indus waters, almost 80 % of the available in the basin, from the three western rivers. 

Indus River Basin

Of the total 168 million acre-feet, India’s share of water from the three allotted rivers is 33 million acre-feet, which constitutes nearly 20 per cent. India uses nearly 93-94 per cent of this share as per the IWT.  

India’s changing stand frequently in recent times

In recent times, the IWT came into limelight primarily in September 2016. About 10 days after the dastardly terror attack in Uri in Jammu & Kashmir, Prime Minister Narendra Modi thundered: “Blood and water cannot flow together.”

The government announced an inter-ministerial group will investigate India’s rights on its share “apart from taking steps to increase/expedite its water storage infrastructure and carrying out ‘non-consumptive’ use for its as yet grossly underutilised, under-exploited share as per the treaty.”

Then India went out of its way and accommodated a meeting of the Permanent Indus Commission. The meeting, which was due in March 2019, was held in August 2018 itself. 

Meanwhile, India did clear Bursar project and in December 2018, started construction of the Shahpur-Kandi dam on Ravi river. The Ujh project in Jammu and Kashmir will store its share of water for use in Jammu and Kashmir with the balance water flowing from a Ravi-Beas Link to provide water to other basin states, it was also announced. 

Around the time it was announced, there were some grumbling noises across the border.

Most surprising was the India visit of the Pakistan team, that is mandated to visit India once in five years. Between January 28-31, 2019 Pakistan’s Indus Commissioner Syed Mohammad Mehar Ali Shah and Indian Indus Commissioner Pradeep Kumar Saxena along with their respective advisers undertook the tour in Chenab basin of Jammu and Kashmir.  

And then yet another flip flop. In February 2019, a terror attack on the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) convoy at Pulwama in Jammu and Kashmir left 46 dead and several injured. Possibly with the general elections barely a few weeks away and a clamour on the social media for abrogation of the treaty, the then Water Resources Minister of India Nitin Gadkari had announced – actually tweeted and then announced – “Under the leadership of Hon’ble PM Sri @narendramodi ji, Our Govt. has decided to stop our share of water which used to flow to Pakistan. We will divert water from Eastern rivers and supply it to our people in Jammu and Kashmir and Punjab.” (sic)

But then, election bravado over, come rains and heavy snowfall, it was time for yet another u-turn. In July, India released around 7,700 cusecs of water from Ferozepur barrage and 2,300 cusecs of water from Madhopur barrage on the Ravi river to be flowed to Pakistan between May 21 and June 20 this year.

“Due to high rainfall during September 2018, frequent rainfall during January and February 2019 and the historically high snow accumulation in the catchments, the water in Bhakra, Pong and Ranjit Sagar (Thein) dams reached higher levels this year in comparison to average years,” Union Minister of State for Jal Shakti Rattan Lal Kataria told Rajya Sabha on July 8, 2019.

The IWT has survived two wars between the two nations but twice during the last four years came a situation where many Indians were led to believe that India can turn the tap off and choke Pakistan to thirst by declining to send waters across the border. Nothing such happened nor can happen so soon. India does not have enough storage capacity for its share of water from the three eastern rivers as the fragile Himalayan ecology puts a lot of restrictions.

De-linking with Kashmir: IWT should not be only about Kashmir 

The flip flop has a reason, of course. Linking the stoppage or continued implementation of the IWT with the ground situation in the Kashmir valley has prompted some quick, almost impromptu sounding, reactions followed by cold inactions.

But why should the implementation of the IWT, applicable to a much larger area, be in jeopardy over a relatively small piece of land? Kashmir valley is a much smaller area compared to other areas that are part of Indus basin in India – Ladakh, Jammu, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana. Plus, there are enough disputes – both interstate and intra-state among these states over water sharing, the Sutluj-Yamuna Link canal being a prime example.   

It is the political pressures that have defined New Delhi’s approach in recent times. It does not augur well for India to change its stand frequently and moreover, not act accordingly. 

Also, not just within India, Kashmir valley is but a minor geographical area of the entire Indus basin. The Indus drainage basin stretches over 1.1 million sq kms area across Afghanistan (9%), China (8%), India (38%) and Pakistan (46%) (all approximate percentages). Afghanistan is part of the basin as the Kabul river meets Indus and China because both Indus and Sutlej originate in Tibet, now part of China.

In such a scenario, it does not bode well for India to hinge its approach on what happens in the Kashmir valley. In fact, it only gives credence to Pakistan’s claims about India violating the IWT in Kashmir as is evident from the umpteenth attempts by the neighbour to involve a third party to arbitrate on the matters related to dam construction in Jammu and Kashmir. 

Nivedita Khandekar

Nivedita Khandekar is an independent journalist based in Delhi. She writes about environmental and developmental issues. She loves to capture images of people and landscapes as and when she is out in the field.

The views and opinions expressed in the article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Tilak Chronicle and TTC Media Pvt Ltd.


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