After a lot of sabre-rattling and muscle-flexing, Narendra Modi’s government is returning to the negotiating table to discuss water-sharing disputes with Pakistan.
It is quite interesting to see the Indian water officials and experts sit across the table with their Pakistani counterparts to discuss the Indus Water Treaty (IWT) which Modi, incensed over Uri attack, had threatened to scrap.
Under the 1960 water sharing accord, it is mandatory that officials and experts of both countries meet once in a year to discuss and resolve issues relating to implementation of the pact.
The meeting between the water commissioners and other officials was due in September last year, but India cancelled the talks following the attack on the Indian military camp in Uri in held Kashmir, blaming it on Pakistan-based insurgents which Islamabad vehemently denied.
The IWT meeting does not mean resumption of formal talks between the two countries. Dubbed as a composite dialogue since water-sharing talks are not part of this process, it is a welcome development, and proves that the crucial water sharing accord is still intact.
The water commissioners would meet today and tomorrow in Lahore to see progress in the implementation of the accord.
“The meeting is a positive step, as a few months ago Narendra Modi was threatening to rescind the Indus Water Treaty. At least these talks would show that the treaty is alive,” Pakistan’s former Indus water commissioner Jamaat Ali Shah said.
However, he tried to play down undue hopes being attached with the meeting and said, “no breakthrough” is expected.
According to Shah, the water issues between Pakistan and India are far more serious and these can’t be resolved at the level of water commissioners or secretary water and power.
“It needs political intervention at the highest level and this issue should be taken seriously.”
Shah said the reports leaked just before the resumption of IWT talks that India is fast tracking six hydro-power projects in held Kashmir shows the Indian mindset of wanting to create water trouble for Pakistan in future.
These projects aimed at producing 8,000 megawatt of electricity were floated many years ago, but had been put in cold storage by the Indian authorities. The swift approval of the projects by the Modi government surprised many and raised concerns that New Delhi might not rescind the IWT altogether but could create hurdles in the free flow of water to Pakistan.
Pakistan has previously disputed some of the projects and said they violate IWT.
Shah said under IWT it is mandatory on both countries to notify the other about any hydropower projects on the rivers covered by the treaty six months before the start of construction on them.
He said though the construction work on these projects may take up to ten years they would be problematic for Pakistan in future.
A few months back, India blocked Pakistan’s move to resolve dispute over the two other hydro projects Kishanganga and Ratle through the World Bank’s international court of arbitration, by saying that Pakistan’s objections were “technical” in nature and could be resolved bilaterally or through a neutral expert.
Much of Pakistan’s agriculture, particularly in its food basket – Punjab – depends on Indus River and its tributaries.
The comments by Indian officials about these projects – the largest of which is the 1,856 megawatt Sawalkote plant, have highlighted the real intensions of the Indian establishment behind the swift approval of these projects
“I say the way you look at these projects; it is not purely a hydro project. Broaden it to a strategic water management, border management problem, and then you put in money,” Pradeep Kumar Pujari, a senior official in India’s water and power ministry was quoted as saying by the Reuters.
Observers say Punjari’s comments have shown Modi’s intension of linking water sharing with the political disputes between the two countries.
After blaming Pakistan-based insurgents for the Uri attacks, Modi had threatened last year that “water and blood cannot flow together”.
Just weeks after the attack, the Indian prime minister chaired a high level meeting of his military and water ministry officials to discuss ways to use water as an instrument of pressure against Islamabad.
Pakistan at the time had warned that the rescinding water accord would be taken an “act of war” by India.
The timely warning by Islamabad stopped New Delhi from taking a drastic step, but analysts say Pakistan needs to handle the matter more seriously.
During the two days of talks in Islamabad, the water commissioners are expected to exchange their annual reports as well as flood forewarning reports.
The two sides might discuss technical aspects of some of the hydropower projects being built on the Indus River and its tributaries but no tangible decisions are expected.
Analysts say Pakistan should pursue the water issue more vigorously, particularly after India refused to accept even the World Bank’s arbitration. “After India’s refusal to accept international court of arbitration, we don’t know the fate of our case on Kishanganga and Ratle. Is it a dead case now? We don’t know,” Shah said.
The Indus Water Treaty has been considered the most successful water sharing accord in the world which has survived even wars between the two South Asia enemies.
However, things are getting serious with the installation of a Modi-led Hindu radical government in New Delhi.
Bharatiya Janata Party has scored landslide victory in the recently held elections in Uttar Pradesh – India’s most populous and politically the most important state – making Modi the most powerful prime minister of the country in the past three decades. But it is to be seen whether the shrewd politician would use his new political strength to mend ties and make peace with neighbours, particularly Pakistan or exploit these gains to make him more powerful internally by expanding his Hindu vote bank.
Regardless of what Modi does, Pakistan needs to do its homework properly to deal with any eventuality as far as the Indus Water Treaty is concerned.
“Our leaders need to take the issue seriously and holistically,” the former IWT commissioner Shah said. “Our leaders should divert some of their attention from Panama case and give some time to the water issue, which is becoming very serious,” he added.
The writer is a senior journalist based in Islamabad