Asia-Pacific, Environment, Headlines

POLITICS: India, Pakistan Need Bridge over Himalayan Waters

Ranjit Devraj

NEW DELHI, May 27 2003 (IPS) - When Indian and Pakistani members of a commission on the sharing of the Indus waters meet in the Indian capital this week, it will be with the knowledge that the outcome of their talks on sharing glacier-fed waters have a bearing on subcontinental peace.

When the Permanent Commission on Indus Water (PCIW) met early February in Islamabad, it failed to sort out differences over the design details of a 450-megawatt hydroelectric dam that India is constructing at Baglihar village on the Chenab river.

This week’s meeting will be from May 28-31. The sensitivity of this issue to Pakistan can also be seen from the fact that Pakistan’s foreign ministry recently advised the Ministry of Water and Power not to talk to the media about it.

The Chenab is one of the five tributaries of the shared Indus river, whose headwaters lie in the disputed Himalayan territory of Kashmir. Under the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty, Pakistan is supposed to get exclusive use of the Chenab.

The February meeting, an unscheduled one, was called by Pakistan, the lower riparian state, to express apprehensions that the design of the Baglihar dam’s spillway violated the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty and would allow India to partially divert the waters of the Chenab.

But on Apr. 8, Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee extended his hand in peace to Pakistan, offering to settle all issues outstanding between the quarrelsome neighbours through a resumption of dialogue.

Since then, the two countries have moved to build trade ties, restore full diplomatic relations and resume transport links that were suspended as a consequence of an armed attack against the Indian Parliament in December 2001, one that New Delhi blamed Islamabad for.

After that, the ensuing tensions between India and Pakistan led to the nuclear-armed neighbours massing a million troops on their common border. War was prevented only by intense international shuttle-diplomacy led by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell.

At the height of the hostilities, Pakistan President Gen Pervez Musharraf let it be known that his country’s ”nuclear threshold” would be crossed if India attempted to block the water resources the two countries have shared for decades.

Musharraf’s fears were not unfounded as there have been calls here for abrogating the Indus water treaty.

”The incongruity of unabated terrorist killings by Pakistani ‘jihadists’ while the water lifeline flows uninterrupted to Pakistan from India stares us in the face,” said Jasjit Singh, former director of the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), a think tank.

But there are contrary voices too. Ramaswamy Iyer, a former top bureaucrat and authority on water resources, said an interview with IPS that asking for abrogation of the treaty was a bad move since it was ”negotiated over several years and agreed upon by all sides”.

However, both Singh and Iyer say that the treaty should be renegotiated since the lion’s share of the Indus waters now goes to Pakistan.

Under the Indus Waters Treaty, Pakistan got exclusive use of waters from the Indus and its westward flowing tributaries, the Jhelum and Chenab, while the Ravi, Beas and Sutlej rivers were allocated for India’s use.

Negotiated and signed under World Bank mediation, the Indus Water Treaty was necessitated by the carving out of Pakistan in 1947 as a homeland for Muslims on the subcontinent, following the decolonisation of British India.

The treaty has survived the severest of diplomatic rows and three conflicts that have broken out between the two neighbours, a fact held up by the World Bank as an example of waters being peacefully shared by countries that are bitter rivals in other respects.

Still, decades of hostility and mistrust between the two countries have made Pakistan uncomfortable with its status as the lower riparian state and with having to live with the idea of its main water resources flowing through Indian territory.

Following the failure of the February talks on the Baglihar dam, Pakistan issued notice to India that it was asking for a neutral expert to resolve the dispute under the provisions of the Indus Water Treaty. Islamabad prefers to have a World Bank official as this mediator, and this promises to be a key issue in this week’s talks.

This is the first time since the treaty was signed that a dispute looks set to get referred to a neutral expert.

”They have refused our requests for on-site inspections (of the Baglihar project), and once when they allowed such inspection, they (Indians) made it clear that they would not be incorporating any Pakistani proposals for a change in design,” said an official at the Pakistani water and power ministry.

Because efforts to settle the issue bilaterally have not borne fruit, Islamabad is left with little choice but to seek outside mediation, he added. This move has not gone down well with Indian experts. ”The demand for international arbitration will only spoil the mood for peace especially at this juncture,” Iyer said.

Iyer said India had refrained from seeking international arbitration to sort out a round-the-year navigation project at Tulbul on the river Jhelum, permissible under the treaty but held up since 1987 as result of Pakistani objections.

Pakistan’s fears are visible in a paper published by its Institute of Strategic Studies, which said the Tulbul navigation project would give India ”a strategic edge during a military confrontation enabling it to control the mobility and retreat of Pakistani troops and enhancing the manoeuvrability of Indian troops”.

Earlier this month, the prime minister of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK), Sikandar Hayat Khan, openly supported the revival of a proposal for the formal partition of Kashmir between India and Kashmir along the Chenab river as a practical solution to the long-standing dispute over the territory.

Khan was quoted as saying that such a division would result in the Muslim-majority areas of the territory going to Pakistan and the Hindu-majority parts going to India, satisfying the basic principle on which the 1947 partition of British India was carried out.

It would also result in Pakistan gaining full control over the Chenab, on which the Baglihar dam is now coming up, and expanding the territory it holds to cover Srinagar, the capital of Indian-controlled Kashmir state, which lies west of the river.

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