During a high-level meeting to review the Indus Water Treaty, an agreement with Pakistan over the use of waters from the Indus and its five tributaries, Prime Minister Narendra Modi reportedly said, “Blood and water can’t flow at the same time”. Amidst heightened tensions between the two countries, following the dastardly attack on an Indian Army camp in Uri, there have been calls from certain policy circles that India should use water as its most potent tool of leverage to mend Pakistan’s behavior.
Under the treaty, which was signed by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Pakistan President Ayub Khan in September 1960, the main rivers in Jammu Kashmir—the Chenab, Jhelum, and Indus—and their tributaries are controlled by Pakistan. Meanwhile, India’s control is limited to the three rivers of the Indus basin flowing south of Jammu and Kashmir—the Beas, Ravi, and Sutlej. Certain experts have contended that the IWT is one of the world’s most inequitable water pacts, with India controlling just 19.48 percent of the total waters of the six-river Indus system. Reports indicate that at the meeting on Monday, it was decided that India could exploit the capacity of three Pakistan-controlled rivers.
There have been consistent calls in India that New Delhi should scrap the water distribution pact to mount pressure on Pakistan in the aftermath of the Uri terror attack. Noted commentators like Brahma Chellaney and former Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha have pressed New Delhi to follow this strategy. In a recent column on the subject, Chellaney writes, “A balance between rights and obligations is at the heart of how to achieve harmonious, rules-based cooperation between co-riparian states. In the Indus basin, however, Pakistan wants rights without responsibilities: It expects eternal Indian water munificence, even as its military generals export terrorists to India and its civilian government wages a constant propaganda campaign against India’s water "hegemony" and seeks to internationalise every dispute.”
In other words, the noted commentator has suggested that if Islamabad fails to honour its anti-terror commitments, New Delhi could abrogate this treaty and starve Pakistan of its share of the Indus waters. The rationale often used here is that Pakistan has often failed to honour its bilateral commitments—from the Simla Agreement to preventing the use of its territory for terror-related activities. Why should India honour the IWT if Pakistan cannot follow through on its commitments? Despite years of mounting tensions between the co-riparian states, the IWT has been remarkably resilient. It has survived three full-scale wars between India and Pakistan and decades of heightened standoffs across the border.
There are other experts who believe that abrogating the IWT could have negative strategic consequences for India. The rationale presented by them is that such a move could seriously hamper India’s international standing and attract sympathy for a nation that New Delhi wants to isolate as a sponsor of terrorism. What’s worse, it could endanger India’s share of other rivers, notably the Brahmaputra, which are dependent on Pakistan’s ally China.
In an interview to a news website, Dr. Shakil Ahmad Romshoo, a respected scholar from the University of Kashmir, explained that geography also stands in the way of attempts to abrogate the IWT and divert the Indus waters away from Pakistan. “We do not have the infrastructure to store this water. We have not built dams in Jammu and Kashmir where we can store the water,” said Ramshoo. “And being a mountainous state, unlike Tamil Nadu or Karnataka, you cannot move water to another state. So you cannot stop water technically.”
If water is to be utilised in other Indian states it has to be stored and then pumped over the Pir Panjal range. Pumping over heights of over 15-18000 ft and over hundreds of kilometers is an unaffordable proposition. As Ramshoo goes on to add: “We never developed diversion canals which could have taken this water to some other state. In Kashmir, you do not need too much water for irrigation purposes. If you look at the Indus Waters Treaty, India is entitled to store water, but has failed to develop that infrastructure in Jammu and Kashmir.” The essential argument here is that reneging on the treaty could hurt India as much it does Pakistan. The best possible solution lies in renegotiating the terms of the water-sharing pact. To abrogate the IWT as a means of countering Pakistan’s terror apparatus is both unfeasible and immoral.
Security experts contend that the best possible strategy is to strengthen covert capabilities in Balochistan and Gilgit-Baltistan. This has to be a long-term effort, backed by an unflinching political will to see these efforts through. Foreign policy mandarins in India have long advocated a harder line on using Balochistan as a “pressure point” on Pakistan. This should be backed by action on the ground and extensive diplomatic efforts. If New Delhi decides to expand its presence in Balochistan, it must bring Iran on board. Unlike India, Iran shares border with Balochistan.
Globally, New Delhi and Tehran are on the same page in their opposition towards Sunni extremist groups in the region. India must also convince China that its decision to heavily invest in Pakistan, especially in the Balochistan and Gilgit-Baltistan region, comes at a significant cost to its own internal security. There have been reports of a growing tide of fighters from its troubled Xinjiang province to jihadist groups in the Middle East and Central Asia. Pakistan’s track record of using “non-state actors” to fulfill their strategic goals will come back to haunt the Chinese.
They should ask the Americans. China will get the message when Uighur fighters in the Xinjiang province start arming themselves actively. Without boots on the ground, India could also open up a second front against Pakistan, from Afghanistan, using covert networks of the restive tribal populace against the Afghan Taliban, besides material and logistical support. This is where India also requires concrete commitments from the Americans, who continue to back Pakistan in their bid to conclude the civil war in Afghanistan.