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Book Review

Tapping Indus Waters Treaty

G Sreedathan

G SreedathanSep 28, 2021, 12:34 PM IST

Tapping Indus  Waters Treaty
Indus Waters Story: Issues, Concerns, Perspectives

The book, Indus Waters Story, by Ashok Motwani and Sant Kumar Sharma highlights the contentious issue of Indus waters sharing between India and Pakistan 

Indus Waters Story: Issues, Concerns, Perspectives; Bloomsbury India Publications, pp 236, Rs 699.00

It is often said that Bharat has won all wars against Pakistan on battle front but invariably lost on the publicity front.  This is true in the case of the Indus Water Treaty (IWT), too, which was signed between India and Pakistan in 1960. According to the treaty, the control of three Eastern rivers – the Beas, Ravi and Sutlej – was given to India, while the water flowing in three Western rivers – the Indus, Chenab and the Jhelum – was controlled by Pakistan. The Western rivers contribute about 80 per cent of annual flows in the Indus basin flows. This disparity in water sharing has left many wonder why India settled for such a disadvantageous arrangement. However, it must be mentioned here that the general awareness about the Treaty has been woefully low in India. Only after the Pulwama terrorist attack that there was a demand for cancellation of the Treaty to “teach Pakistan a lesson”. 

Pak’s Hostility Apparent

Despite the perception among political classes in India as Pakistan has walked away with lion’s share of water resources from the Indus Water Systems through the Treaty, the narrative within the Islamic republic is very hostile to India. The general level of awareness in Pakistan is pretty high. Pakistani media is replete with articles on the Treaty critical of India. Terrorists like Hafiz Saeed had pledged to wage war against India over “water terrorism” unleashed by it. It is  their narratives that have been flooding  the cyberspace so far and domestic perceptions in Pakistan.

There are a lot of misgivings about the Treaty among the masses. There aren’t adequate literature which articulate India’s perspectives on the issue. The book, Indus Waters Story: Issues, Concerns, Perspectives, by Ashok Motwani and Sant Kumar Sharma, is a laudable attempt to bridge the gap and put the issue in right perspective. 

One of the questions that one encounters in discussions on the Treaty is: ‘Can India unilaterally cancel the Treaty?’ Another oft-repeated question is: ‘Can India stop the rivers from flowing into Pakistan?’To these questions, the authors write: “Trying to punish Pakistan through the stoppage of the flow of waters is too easy to conjure up for many. It seems to them like a very easy and catchy option but it is way too difficult when it comes to the implementation part. International riparian laws in vogue now, division of river waters under the IWT and many other factors will come into play, if at all India tries to use water as a weapon against Pakistan and bring it to heel. In short, it is easier said than done.” 

Evaluating Success of Treaty

Further, one needs to bear in mind that goodwill is a must if a treaty between two countries must work. In that way, the Treaty has survived many a tumultuous period in the past six decades. Arguably, it is one of the most successful water-sharing treaties in the world. 

The book examines what, within the scope of the Treaty, can be done by India to exercise its rights. What is required for that is an understanding of the nuances of the Treaty, the political will to go ahead with exercising India’s rights to the fullest and the enterprise to ask engineers to design projects aimed at doing so

It is wrong to perceive that the Treaty was a total sellout of India’s interests. As Niranjan D. Gulhati, the chief Indian negotiator, wrote in Indus Waters Treaty: An Exercise in International Mediation:  “The dispute over the waters of the Indus, between India and Pakistan, is notable not only for its size, significance and complexity, but also in that it was brought to conclusion by a comprehensive Treaty that benefits both sides enormously.” 

Similarly on the 80:20 division of waters, some experts say that the Eastern Rivers travel significant distances in the plains of India. As such, in the plains, they offer India a significant potential for developing storage dams and these dams were indeed built once the Treaty was signed. “The signing of the Treaty also led to a significant enhancement of the potential of the Bhakra dam, then under construction, as the treaty was being negotiated.” 

All three Western rivers, which have been allotted to Pakistan, remain mountainous in most of their journey on the Indian side. “There are very few sites on them available while they traverse through Indian territories for creating any significant storage for irrigation. It needs to be borne in mind that the conditions prevailing when the IWT was negotiated made it imperative for India to try to maximise its irrigation potential to ensure food security.” 

Thus, the book–a well-researched and balanced one at that — brings to the fore the sensitive issue of water sharing between two perennially hostile nuclear nations. There are some sticky issues which need to be resolved in the larger interest of peace in the region. 

Furthermore, the book examines what, within the scope of the Treaty, can be done by India to exercise its rights. What is required for that is an understanding of the nuances of the Treaty, the political will to go ahead with exercising India’s rights to the fullest and the enterprise to ask engineers to design projects aimed at  doing so. 


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