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The Indus Waters Treaty

 The Indus Waters Treaty

India’s Bargaining Chip?

‘Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting over’, thus goes the oft-quoted line of Mark Twain, underscoring the momentousness of the water exigency that can foment messy warfare between and among the nation states. NASA’s satellite data in 2015 revealed that out of 37 large aquifers of the world, 21 are already moving past their tipping points. The state of the conflict particularly seems likely to worsen between the two hostile neighbours: India and Pakistan.

Pakistan, a single basin country, depends for its survival, on the sole source, that is, the Indus; the two other sources i.e. groundwater and rainfall, are neither quantitatively and qualitatively sufficient nor are they evenly distributed for Pakistan to pivot to. Essentially an agrarian economy, Pakistan sees an existential threat to its very life in India’s tampering with waters of the Indus. The Indus Waters Treaty, an engineering-cum-diplomatic feat of 1960, provides for a comprehensive framework for water-sharing and conflict-resolution mechanism between the two states. However, the Treaty is claimed by many to be soon bruised and finally jettisoned in the historical Indo-Pakistani melee. Indian analysts argue and press ‘to punish the troublesome neighbour to make it mend its ways.’ How far there is likelihood for India to throw the baby – the most-loved baby – out with the bathwater merits a critical scrutiny. This article addresses this question.

The genesis of the water conflict

Like most of the issues between India and Pakistan, the water conflict dates back to the partition of the Indian Subcontinent. Water emerged as a major fault line following the partition and subsequent splitting up of the Indus Basin. As a result, India emerged as an upper riparian with head-works such as Madhopur and Ferozepur, previously irrigating around 1.7 million acres of land in West Punjab, in its hands. Pakistan was now a lower riparian of India and the latter did not shy away from terrorizing the former with the help of water manipulation to force it into giving it concessions. The Arbitral Tribunal set up to ensure the resolution of the conflicts arising out of the division of assets, etc., was to last up to March 31, 1948. As long as it was alive, water flowed uninterrupted to Western Punjab. However, on April 1, 1948, the day the tribunal ceased to exist, water was stopped quite brazenly, thus wreaking an unimaginable havoc to the crops, and human and wildlife. However, after a rushed round of talks, the Communiqué, a joint statement known as “Inter-Dominion Agreement” was effected on May 4, 1948, according to which East Punjab (of India) was to progressively diminish supply to West Punjab (of Pakistan) in order to give it reasonable time to tap alternative sources. In return, India claimed the proprietary rights to all the eastern rivers. Against the backdrop of the dispute, David Lilienthal, former head of both the Tennessee Valley Authority and the US Atomic Energy Commission, having extensively toured India and Pakistan, wrote an article, which appeared in the August 4, 1951, issue of Collier’s, wherein he drew the attention of the world to the most sensitive transnational conflict. Among many other suggestions, the one of considerable importance was that the Indus Basin be treated, exploited and developed as a single unit. Another one, on whose basis the IWT was later concluded, was an engineering solution which called for the division of the basin between the two states.

The Indus Waters Treaty

The World Bank intervened, and extensive talks continued till September 19, 1960 when the Treaty was formally signed. According to the Treaty, waters of the three western rivers i.e. the Indus, the Jhelum and the Chenab, were allocated to Pakistan, and the three eastern rivers i.e. the Ravi, the Sutlej and the Beas, were given in perpetuity to India. Pakistan was also given a hefty amount of aid to help tap alternative sources in the form of dams and reservoirs to supply water to the areas irrigated by the three eastern rivers.

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