By Meenakshi Iyer
New Delhi: Some bilateral relations are never meant to be amicable. In the context of India and Pakistan, they are not even bearable anymore.
Smarting under the latest attacks of Uri and Pathankot, the strategically restrained India has finally stepped on the gas with External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj making the right kind of noises at the UNGA, and back home, Prime Minister Narendra Modi giving one of his strongest statements ever – “Blood and water cannot flow simultaneously”.
With Pakistan trying to wash its hands off terror in Uri, as is its wont, India has taken its offensive a notch up by dropping strong hints to cut off the ‘generous’ supply of Indus water flowing into the terror heartland.
For 56 years, the warring neighbours peacefully shared the water of Indus and its tributaries, ever since the signing of the Indus Water Treaty in 1960.
According to the treaty, Beas, Ravi and Sutlej (eastern rivers) are to be governed by India, and Indus, Chenab and Jhelum (western rivers) are to be taken care of by Pakistan.
But because the Indus flows from India, the country is allowed to use 20 per cent of western waters, which it has not availed so far – much to Pakistan’s delight, which heavily uses the water for irrigation, power generation and drinking.
Experts seem to be divided over the treaty’s abrogation with some arguing that it would put pressure on Pakistan to scale back its proxy war against India and some believing that in doing so, India will burn its own hands, adding that using the treaty in the past (Kargil war and Operation Parakram) to pinch Pakistan has not exactly reaped desired dividends.
Why Pakistan must be worried
A water war with India will permanently push Pakistan’s fragile economy into the black. “About 40 percent of Pakistan’s outstanding debt — both local and foreign — is due to mature in 2016. That’s roughly $45 billion, of which about 4.3 trillion rupees ($41 billion) is in local currency,” says a February 2016 Bloomberg report. And, with an IMF debt of $6.6 billion coming up for repayment by the end of 2016, Pakistan will be doomed.
With agricultural sector being the largest employer, the 195 million people of Pakistan should be worried if the treaty is abrogated. Roughly speaking, the waters of Indus support 90 per cent of Pakistan’s agriculture – the mainstay of its economy, constituting 19.8 percent of the country’s GDP.
The absence of water will fuel unrest among Pakistani people and might lead to violence – an internally disturbed neighbour bodes well for India.
Also, India deciding to commence the Tulbul project will benefit Jammu and Kashmir, which has called out for a greater share of the Indus waters. India had started constructing a 439 feet long barrage at the lake’s mouth but it was halted in 1987 after Pakistan raised an objection.
In favour of Islamabad
China – China’s Himalayan part is the primary source of several rivers which flow into India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Any bid to revoke the treaty might invoke similar actions from Pakistan’s strongest ally China on the Brahmaputra river front. Known as Yarlung Zangbo river on the Chinese side, it supplies water to India’s Assam state. Also, 8 per cent of the Indus river basin is under Chinese territory and if Beijing plays its move, India will have to pay a heavy price.
Strong terror machinery – Pakistan’s strong Jihadist network cannot be taken lightly – no one can understand this better than India. Revoking the treaty might lead to another attack in India as it did in 2008, when India allegedly cut the flow of water to Pakistan to fill up the Baghliar dam’s reservoir, eventually leading to 26/11.
Regional isolation – India is in talks with countries like Nepal, Bangladesh and China to formulate a similar agreement on the lines of Indus Water Treaty. Abrogating the treaty with Pakistan might give a message to these countries that water could be used as a weapon against them.
Environmental threats – Scrapping the treaty will create drought in Pakistan and floods in India because the latter is not in a position to stop or divert the waters of Indus. It would take years to erect dams, reservoirs or canals to change the flow of water. Even if the dams are built, there would be imminent terror threats looming over them, and deployment of security forces there will burn a hole in India’s pocket.
International condemnation – In response to India’s move, Pakistan has threatened to take India to International Court of Justice, which doesn’t augur well for the Hindu majority nation. The Indus Water Treaty is an international agreement brokered by the World Bank. According to international law, India cannot unilaterally separate itself from the treaty. Any such move will invite global backlash and will draw the World Bank into the dispute.
What India should do
India can arm twist Pakistan without abrogating the treaty. All this while, the generous nation has made minimal usage of its rights on the Western rivers, providing Pakistan more than what is mentioned in the treaty. So, it should persuade the world that the 1960 treaty is not based on any equitable distribution of water but guided by political “goodwill”.
India must lose no time in starting the Tulbul navigation project (known as Wullar Barrage in Pakistan) on Jhelum as it has been permitted to construct storage of water on western rivers upto 3.6 million acre feet for various purposes.
With a barrage in place, India gets to control the release of water into Jhelum. Also, the project’s completion can create problems for our warring neighbour’s triple-canal project that connects Jhelum-Chenab with Upper Bari Doab Canal.
Abrogating the treaty is uncalled for. At best, India should use it as a deterrent to keep its unruly neighbour on leash.