Six Decades of Indus Water Treaty: No More Place for India’s Flip Flop

(Part I of a two-part series.) 

When it comes to implementation of the IWT, India must stop its somersaults while dealing with Pakistan and de-link its actions with the Kashmir situation. 

Rivers are geography that create history. The Indus is a phenomenal river that spans a wide geography and comes with 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 interests of the entire basin. 

Earlier this week, the Centre abrogated Article 370 that gave special status to the erstwhile state of Jammu & Kashmir and after bifurcation, turned Jammu & Kashmir areas into one Union Territory while Ladakh was made another Union Territory. One of the ‘developments’ promised by the Prime Minister is completing and increasing hydropower projects in the Valley. This move is likely to evoke strong reactions from within the Kashmir Valley and from across the border; either which way, can have ramifications for the water security scenario in the Indus 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, recent events have been a cause of worry for a 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 the three Eastern rivers, while Pakistan uses the Chenab, Jhelum and Indus, known as the Western rivers, accounting for almost 80 % of the available water in the basin. 

The Indus River Basin. Source: Wikimedia Commons

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

India’s frequently changing stand

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 to 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 cleared the Bursar project and in December 2018, started construction of the Shahpur-Kandi dam on the Ravi river. It was also announced that the Ujh project in Jammu & Kashmir will store its share of water for the state’s use and the balance water will flow from the Ravi-Beas Link to provide water to other basin states.

Around the time of this announcement, there were some grumbling noises across the border.

More surprising was the visit of the Pakistani delegation to India. 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 of the Chenab basin in Jammu & Kashmir. 

This was followed by yet another flip flop. In February 2019, a terror attack on the Central Reserve Police Forces (CRPF) convoy at Pulwama in Jammu & 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 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)

However, once the election bravado was over and rains and heavy snowfall ensued, it was time for yet another U-turn. India released around 7,700 cusecs of water from Ferozepur barrage and 2,300 cusecs of water from Madhopur barrage on the Ravi river and let it flow 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 of this sort happened nor can happen so soon. 

India simply does not have enough capacity to store the entire share of water it receives 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

India’s continual 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, seemingly  impromptu reactions, followed by cold inactions.

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

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

Also, by extension, Kashmir valley is but a minor geographical area of the entire Indus basin which stretches over 1.1 million sq kms area across Afghanistan (9%), China (8%), India (38%) and Pakistan (46%) (all approximate percentages). 

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 that India is violating the IWT in Kashmir, which is evident from its numerous attempts to involve a third party to arbitrate on matters related to dam construction in Jammu & Kashmir. 

(Read Part II of the two-part series here)

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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