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Indus Water Treaty: Dispute lies in the interpretation of Treaty

India argues construction of dams within the rights of treaty

Indus water treaty The treaty sets out a mechanism for cooperation and information exchange between the two countries regarding their use of the rivers

It is certainly not water under the bridge. The Indus Water Treaty, brokered by the World Bank, withstood over five decades of hostility including the wars between India and Pakistan has now run into rough weather. 

On January 25, India sent a notice to Islamabad seeking the modification of the 1960 treaty. The dispute is over two hydroelectric power projects—Kishenganga on the Jhelum and Ratle on the Chenab. Pakistan continues to object even after the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled in favour of India allowing the construction of Kishenganga project. The dam on the Chenab too forms part of Pakistan’s objection. The notice was sent to Pakistan in view of the "intransigence" in complying with the dispute redressal mechanism of the pact. 

It took nine years to negotiate the treaty under the aegis of the World Bank. American President Dwight Eisenhower referred to it "one bright spot ... in a very depressing world picture that we see so often." As a mechanism, the IWT has survived conflict on both sides. 

The treaty allocates the division of the rivers, Pakistan got Indus, Jhelum, and Chenab, while India was allotted Ravi, Beas, and Sutlej. Under the treaty, India could use the water of the western rivers allotted to Pakistan for “non-consumptive’’ use—storage, irrigation and including run-of-the-river hydel project. This is where the seeds of the disputes lie—in the interpretation of the treaty. “The disagreement between India and Pakistan concerns the design features of the Kishenganga (330 megawatts) and Ratle (850 megawatts) hydroelectric power plants,’’ according to the fact sheet put out by the World Bank on the dispute. While Pakistan insists that this is a violation of the treaty, India has stressed that the construction of the dam and the power project is within the rights of the treaty.

“They are habitual of creating disturbances without any reason. The concerned ministry has already taken up the issue with Pakistan,’’ Union Minister Jitendra Singh has been quoted as telling reporters on the sidelines of a function in the Valley. The government will resolve the issue in the national interest, he added.

The resumption of the conversation of the permanent representatives on the Indus Water Treaty last year in March, described as “cordial’’ by the ministry of external affairs was considered to be the first baby step towards a less hostile atmosphere between the two neighbours. 

However, as with everything in India and Pakistan, the pendulum rarely stays static. The frosty relations between the two countries swing wildly. And if there is Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif’s overture recently, there is also the new battleground over water. 

The dispute has to be read within the larger context of politics. The idea of using renegotiating the pact—and finding newer pressure points on Pakistan—has been debated by the Modi government. The dispute has been simmering on the backburner since 2016. Pakistan asked the World Bank to facilitate the setting up of a Court of Arbitration to look into the design issues of the power project. 

These are not the only disputes that have come up. Pakistan had raised objections to the Salal hydro project in 1970. Over the years, the objections to projects have continued. However, this time, it has come at a time when India is determined to engage with Pakistan on new terms. With Pakistan, crippled by an economic crisis and facing the impact of climate change, it might be an effective tool.

The need to renegotiate the terms of the IWT has been backed by Parliament too. In 2021, a parliamentary committee had asked for renegotiation especially due to climate change and the amount of water in the Indus Basin. But the reason goes deeper than just climate change. It is about terrorism.

The shift came around in 2016 with the Uri attack. Prime Minister Modi made it clear that “blood and water cannot flow together.’’ Water is an emotive issue. In 2016, when he addressed a rally in Bathinda he said: "Indus Water Treaty — Sutlej, Beas, Ravi — the waters in these rivers belong to India and our farmers. It is not being used in the fields of Pakistan but flowing into the sea,’’ he said. He was committed that “every drop of this water will be stopped” and given to farmers in Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir.” He announced the setting up of a task force to ensure that each drop is used. It was his 'not to let even a drop goes waste.' Prime Minister Modi is a master at using emotive issues to his advantage. Water, rights of water and Pakistan have been a winning formula for elections before too. It is potent enough to work again.


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