Brahma Chellaney, The Times of India, March 20, 2017
At a time when India is haunted by a deepening water crisis, the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) hangs like the proverbial albatross from its neck. In 1960, in the naïve hope that water largesse would yield peace, India entered into a treaty that gave away the Indus system’s largest rivers as gifts to Pakistan.
Since then, that congenitally hostile neighbour, while drawing the full benefits from the treaty, has waged overt or covert aggression almost continuously and is now using the IWT itself as a stick to beat India with, including by contriving water disputes and internationalizing them.
A partisan World Bank, meanwhile, has compounded matters further. Breaching the IWT’s terms under which an arbitral tribunal cannot be established while the parties’ disagreement “is being dealt with by a neutral expert,” the Bank proceeded in November to appoint both a court of arbitration (as demanded by Pakistan) and a neutral expert (as suggested by India). It did so while admitting that the two concurrent processes could make the treaty “unworkable over time”.
World Bank partisanship, however, is not new: The IWT was the product of the Bank’s activism, with US government support, in making India embrace an unparalleled treaty that parcelled out the largest three of the six rivers to Pakistan and made the Bank effectively a guarantor in the treaty’s initial phase. With much of its meat in its voluminous annexes, this is an exhaustive, book-length treaty with a patently neo-colonial structure that limits India’s sovereignty to the basin of the three smaller rivers.
The Bank’s recent decision was made more bizarre by the fact that while the treaty explicitly permits either party to seek a neutral expert’s appointment, it specifies no such unilateral right for a court of arbitration. In 2010, such an arbitral tribunal was appointed with both parties’ consent. The neutral expert, however, is empowered to refer the parties’ disagreement, if need be, to a court of arbitration.
The uproar that followed the World Bank’s initiation of the dual processes forced it to “pause,” but not terminate, its legally untenable decision. Stuck with a mess of its own making, it is now prodding India to bail it out by compromising with Pakistan over the two moderate-sized Indian hydropower projects. But what Pakistan wants are design changes of the type it enforced years ago in the Salal project, resulting in that plant silting up. It is threatening to target other Indian projects as well.
Yet Indian policy appears adrift. Indeed, India is backsliding even on its tentative moves to deter Pakistani terrorism. For example, after last September’s Uri attack, it suspended the Permanent Indus Commission (PIC) with Pakistan. Now the suspension has been lifted, allowing the PIC to meet in the aftermath of the state elections.
In truth, the suspension was just a charade, with the PIC missing no meeting. Prime Minister Narendra Modi reversed course in time for the PIC, which meets at least once every financial year, to meet before the current year ended on March 31 in order to prepare its annual report by the treaty-stipulated June 1 deadline. But while the suspension was widely publicized for political ends, the reversal happened quietly.
Much of the media also fell for another charade that Modi sought to play to the hilt in the Punjab elections: He promised to end Punjab’s water stress by utilizing India’s full IWT-allocated share of the waters. His government, however, has initiated not a single new project to correct India’s abysmal failure to tap its meagre 19.48% share of the Indus waters.
Instead, Modi has engaged in little more than eyewash: He has appointed a committee of secretaries, not to find ways to fashion the Indus card to reform Pakistan’s conduct, but farcically to examine India’s own rights under the IWT over 56 years after it was signed. The answer to India’s serious under-utilization of its share, which has resulted in Pakistan getting more than 10 billion cubic meters (BCM) yearly in bonus waters on top of its staggering 167.2 BCM allocation, is not a bureaucratic rigmarole but political direction to speedily build storage and other structures.
Despite Modi’s declaration that “blood and water cannot flow together,” India is reluctant to hold Pakistan to account by linking the IWT’s future to that renegade state’s cessation of its unconventional war. It is past time India shed its reticence.
Pakistan’s interest lies in sustaining a unique treaty that incorporates water generosity to the lower riparian on a scale unmatched by any other pact in the world. Yet it is undermining its own interest by dredging up disputes with India and running down the IWT as ineffective for resolving them. By insisting that India must not ask what it is getting in return but bear only the IWT’s burdens, even as it suffers Pakistan’s proxy war, Islamabad itself highlights the treaty’s one-sided character.
In effect, Pakistan is offering India a significant opening to remake the terms of the Indus engagement. This is an opportunity that India should not let go. The Indus potentially represents the most potent instrument in India’s arsenal — more powerful than the nuclear option, which essentially is for deterrence.
The writer is a geostrategist and author.