Union minister Nitin Gadkari’s statement on Indus river water sharing between India and Pakistan has evoked sharp responses on both sides of the border. But the PM Narendra Modi-led government’s decision should be seen as a positive step rather than as a sequel to the ‘punish Pakistan’ rhetoric after the Pulwama attacks.
While addressing a rally in Baghpat, Gadkari said that the share of water that India is rightfully entitled to use as laid down in the Indus Waters Treaty will be utilised by diverting it to the Yamuna through new projects.
Gadkari’s statement wrongly, albeit deliberately, construed as New Delhi’s attempt to virtually abrogate the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) drew wide criticism, with some international quarters practically terming it as prelude to a ‘catastrophic water war’. Drawing a parallel to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s statement following the Uri attack that “blood and water cannot flow together”, Gadkari’s statement was seen as India’s attempt to punish Pakistan by using its up-river location.
Meanwhile, secretary of Pakistan’s ministry of water resources Khawaja Shumail said that Pakistan has “neither concern nor objection if India diverts water of eastern rivers and supplies it to its people or uses it for other purposes, as the Indus Water Treaty (IWT) allows it to do so”.
At a time when tempers are running high and revenge is the talk of the town, such a response should come as a surprise — and probably relief too — that at least some sections in Pakistan refuse to be drawn into the jingoistic ‘water terrorism’ narrative.
Following India-Pakistan talks on the treaty, the general feeling among a section of strategists and academics in Pakistan is that India has an upper hand in water sharing issue and that the talks have to be upgraded to the ministerial level. Considering the water scarcity in Sindh and Baluchistan, water resource could well become a contentious issue in Pakistan adding to the troubles of Islamabad. Pakistan’s dependence on external water resources is roughly 76 per cent and any tweaking of river flow by India can be disastrous for Islamabad.
After Pulwama, the water sharing issue has assumed greater significance. As expected, Nitin Gadkari’s views are being interpreted as being part of a series of retaliatory steps anticipated of the government. Screaming headlines like ‘India to stop Indus water’ and ‘water wars begin’ coupled with high decibel prime time television debates have totally hijacked the logic and plans of the government, which were initiated long before the Pulwama attack.
In fact, in January this year chief ministers of six states — Delhi, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan — held a meeting in the presence of water resources minister Nitin Gadkari and agreed to bury all past objections and differences and pledged their support to the Renukaji dam project on Giri River on the Upper Yamuna Basin. The project, first envisaged in 1976, had hit series of roadblocks and finally put on cold storage till 2008 when it was almost shelved. Credit goes to the high profile Union minister Gadkari who dusted the project out of oblivion and is making it a reality.
India’s resolve, though belated, to use every drop of water available to it through the Indus Water Treaty is a welcome step. The Indus river occupies a very special place in the collective consciousness of the people in India. However much Pakistan may try, it cannot belittle the significance of the Indus Valley Civilisation nor can it assume an identity different from its moorings. When the British undertook irrigation engineering works sometime around 1850, then British engineers were stunned to unearth parts of the ancient canal systems still intact. The tragic Partition divided the geography and also imposed a heavy penalty on the water utilisation systems. The standstill agreement expired in 1948 necessitating a new water sharing arrangement between India and Pakistan. The untiring efforts of David Lilienthal, former head of the Tennessee Valley Authority and the US Atomic Energy Commission, paid rich dividends and culminated into Indus Water Treaty in 1960.
The IWT demarcated the use of three eastern rivers — Ravi, Beas and Sutlej — by India, and the three western rivers — Indus, Jhelum and Chenab — by Pakistan allowing India to use 20 per cent of the discharged water and the rest of the 80 per cent going to Pakistan’s use. In spite of this skewed arrangement Islamabad continued to crib, taking complaints about Indian infrastructure projects to international forums. Combined with New Delhi’s characteristic nonchalant attitude towards developmental projects, Islamabad’s spokes in the Indian wheel resulted in a number of projects getting delayed or cancelled leading to use of hardly 10-12 per cent of the river waters.
Gadkari’s determination to make use of the un-utilised water of Ravi, Beas and Sutlej rivers by diverting it to storage facilities and then to the Yamuna will be a real game changer, paving way for the development of agriculture and industry.
Economically strong and industrially advanced India can be a role model for other countries in the region and can deal with emerging security and strategic challenges from a position of strength.
The author is former editor of ‘Organiser’.