Challenges before India


The recent media reports on leveraging the flexibility in The Indus Waters Treaty 1960 (IWT) to India's advantage and suspending the talks at the Permanent Indus Commission-level, seen in the background of Uri attack, have brought into sharp focus the functioning of the treaty. Since 1960, the oper-ation of the IWT has witnessed ups and downs in dealing with transboundary water issues between India and Pakistan.

The treaty allocates waters of eastern rivers of the Indus (Ravi, Beas, Sutlej and their tributaries) to India, to the extent of about 33 million acre feet (MAF) while allocating those of the western rivers (Indus, Jhelum, Chenab and their tributaries) largely to Pakistan to the extent of about 135 MAF. India is, however, permitted to use water of western rivers for domestic, non-consumptive and agriculture use, besides for power generation.

India is also allowed to construct 3.6 MAF storage of water on the western river system. There also exists under the Treaty, a dispute settlement mechanism such as setting up of a Permanent Indus Commission (consisting of two Commissioners for Indus Waters, one from each country), and a recourse to neutral experts as well as to court of arbitration, if required. Such mechanism has been used by both the parties over many water related issues.

The Commission is the basic institutional mechanism for implementation of the IWT, the members of which may undertake tours to ascertain facts (more than 100 tours undertaken so far), meet at least once a year (more than 100 meetings taken place so far), supply monthly flow data (for 280 sites by India and for 345 by Pakistan), make available annual village/tehsil level statistics for irrigated crop areas (pertaining to western rivers, to Pakistan by India, and for the same in respect of the eastern rivers, to India by Pakistan), and finally, resolve the disputes in a manner as specified under the Treaty.

The role of third parties, such as the World Bank and others, are also recognised under the treaty during selection of neutral experts or members of the court of arbitration. Ever since IWT’s existence, out of eastern rivers, India allocated water to Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, and Delhi; constructed various dams such as Bhakra, Pong, Thein, Pandoh; established network of links such as Beas-Sutlej, Sutlej-Yamuna and also substantially developed various command areas such as Bhakra canal command, and Indira canal command.

In respect of the western rivers, the IWT allowed India to withdraw water over and above what existed in 1960, for an additional irrigated cropped areas (ICA) of about 7 lakh acres. This effectively implies that India can have about 13.4 lakh acres ICA in the drainage areas of the western rivers. Against this, till 2011-12, India was able to achieve a capacity of 8 lakh acre ICA, suggesting a big opportunity for India to further harness the water use.

Regarding hydel power, the estimated potential is about 18,000 MW, against which the completed/under construction capacity is only about 4,000 MW. Several projects on eastern rivers such as Ujh multipurpose project, second Ravi Beas link, Sahapurkandi projects are pending completion, while on the western rivers, Bursar and Gyspa storage projects are also delayed.

For Pakistan, the Indus is the main river contributing about 64% of water supplies, with Jhelum giving 17% and Chenab 19%. Thanks to the IWT, the country built a series of link canals to divert water from western rivers to provide the same to southern Punjab. It also constructed a huge reservoir capacity to cater to the country's needs during periods of scarcity. The financial support received by Pakistan under the IWT helped build many dams, and undertake massive tube well programme in addition to building power transmission system, making the country self sufficient in food production by 1970.

Both India and Pakistan used the basic institution, Permanent Indus Commission (PIC), and others to move forward in resolving many water-related issues during the course of implementation of the treaty. For example, Salal hydro electric project (690 MW) was resolved at the foreign minister's level, the Buglihar project at the level of neutral expert, Kishanganga project (330 MW) at the level of court of arbitration, while Uri-II and Chetak hydroelectric projects were resolved at the level of the PIC.

Tulbul project

In the case of Nimoo Bazgo hydro electric project (45 MW), Pakistan has given notice for taking recourse to neutral expert, and also requested for discussion in the case of lower Kalnai, Miyar, Ratle, and Pakal Dul hydro electric projects after raising objections on various issues. The Tulbul project, essentially meant for navigation from Anantanag to Baramulla, and suspended since 1987, is yet to be resolved as Pakistan has raised several objections.

This analysis clearly shows that India can significantly harness the ICA potential as well as hydro power potential under the IWT framework. However, past experience also leads one to believe that any attempt to construct storage or harness hydro power potential will generate legal challenges under the garb of violating the treaty by using the dispute settlement mechanism. India has to move deftly to handle this likely scenario in case it seeks to maximise the advantage flowing out of the IWT.

The other challenges are domestic. They include speedy clearance of project proposals by various authorities in India, reconciliation of states concerned over sharing of water, speedy resolution to legal cases pending before the Indian courts, allocation of substantial financial resources to build projects, acceptability of projects by local residents etc. With India's recent thinking on maximising the advantages under the treaty, these issues call for a time-bound resolution.

One external challenge, however, may emerge: China's support to Pakistan in the present political scenario, inter alia, through possible interruption of flows of rivers in which it controls the upper riparian section.