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Unquiet flow the rivers between India and Pakistan

Uttam Kumar Sinha’s book 'Indus Basin Uninterrupted' breaks down the India-Pakistan dispute over water sharing in the Indus basin with clarity and rigour

The Indus in Rohri city, Sindh, Pakistan.
The Indus in Rohri city, Sindh, Pakistan. (Getty Images)

The Indus basin and the system of rivers that water it weigh heavily on the consciousness of the north and north-west of the subcontinent. In his new book, Indus Basin Uninterrupted, Uttam Kumar Sinha shows how significant a political and identity marker the Indus basin has been. Harnessing the potential of its rivers through a network of channels was an ever-present theme across the many dynasties that ruled its different parts over two millennia.

This long history—compressed in the first chapter—sets the stage for Sinha to narrate the more modern history of the basin. Hydraulic interventions by the colonial state through an extensive system of canals and headworks centring on the Punjab lent the Indus basin and the system of rivers that defined it even greater and stronger ecological and agro-economic unity.

In his readable book, Sinha narrates with zest this 19th and early 20th century story, emphasising the extent to which the British empire was an engineering and knowledge enterprise. This was represented by the hydraulic redesign of the Punjab, taking water from the eastern rivers (Ravi, Satluj, Beas) through the newly built canal colonies to the western districts. The irony is that while the empire in its formative phase gave the Indus basin added coherence with this network of canals, the end of empire meant the fragmentation of the basin into two entities.

A little over half of the book details the consequences of Partition on the Indus basin, and in particular the sharing of its waters between the two entities that had emerged. This is a story that has received a fair amount of specialist attention over the years. Sinha has delved deep into the subject and offers the general reader an animated and even-handed analysis of the Indus Waters Treaty and the different interests and forces that moulded it to its final form.

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As Sinha brings out, almost every aspect of the waters issue had been contentious since August 1947, when India and Pakistan found they occupied the fault line of being upper and lower riparian in the basin. This was not entirely unanticipated. Upper and lower riparian issues had been intense even when the colonial state embarked on expanding the canal network. Thus, in the late 19th century, proposals to take waters from the Satluj to the princely state of Bikaner were resisted strongly by British Punjab and princely Bahawalpur. It took two decades of lobbying by the Bikaner maharaja Ganga Singh before an agreement could be reached in 1920 between the three parties. This may have been possible only because of Ganga Singh’s formidable reputation as a member of the imperial war cabinet and a signatory to the Treaty of Versailles, and because of the role the Bikaner contingents had played in World War I.

Indus Basin Uninterrupted—A History Of Territory & Politics From Alexander To Nehru: By Uttam Kumar Sinha, Penguin Random House India, 368 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>799.
Indus Basin Uninterrupted—A History Of Territory & Politics From Alexander To Nehru: By Uttam Kumar Sinha, Penguin Random House India, 368 pages, 799.

As Sinha perceptively points out: “The Punjab, which had historically enjoined priority in water development, found itself in an unaccustomed situation in which the lower riparian concerns were contesting and impeding its projects.” When Punjab sought to expand irrigated areas by sinking new canals, the provincial authorities had to contend with constant objections about downstream Sindh being adversely affected.

A Sindh-Punjab draft agreement of September 1945 laid down that Punjab could not construct any dam on the Indus or its tributaries without the former’s consent. The agreement never came into effect owing to Partition but it underlines the point Sinha makes: “The inter-provincial disputes over water were highly emotive and endangered peace between the provinces on the Indus basin.”

This history is often forgotten because Partition gave contestations over the Indus rivers added intensity and an international character. For many in India, the upper riparian advantage was a lever to be used to restore some balance in the post-1947 situation, given Pakistan’s actions in Kashmir and other provocations. In Pakistan, however, this readiness to use water as an instrument of coercion was only one more in a long list of Indian perfidies. The Radcliffe Line (which had become the international boundary between India and Pakistan) meant much of the irrigated area in the canal colonies was now in Pakistan, in west Punjab. These were fed by the eastern rivers that flowed through India and the headworks of these canals were, in many cases, in India.

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India, in the meantime, had its own plans to expand irrigation and hydropower development using the eastern rivers. The engineering solution was to find alternative sources of supply for the Pakistan canals in the western rivers (Jhelum, Chenab, Indus) and build the infrastructure to connect the two. Thus, squaring the circle of the division of the Indus basin meant assuring India of its right to utilise the eastern rivers while giving Pakistan a substantive claim on the waters of the western rivers and financing the cost of the infrastructure it needed to put in place.

Sinha details how this was achieved between India and Pakistan, with the World Bank acting as a principal mediator. “Selling” the agreement domestically in India was not easy; in Pakistan, the military had no real accountability as far as public opinion was concerned. The debates about the wisdom or otherwise of the Indus Water Treaty that began in India even as negotiations were taking place have continued since. As the upper riparian, it was inevitable that obligations on India would be greater in any settlement. Thus the accusation against prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru that too much was given away was articulated with some intensity and has never really disappeared.

This debate is fuelled by the state of India-Pakistan relations at any given time. Specific provisions of the Indus Water Treaty, when not fully contextualised, provide useful ammunition to those who view any kind of a treaty arrangement with Pakistan as a flawed approach. Thus, use of the western rivers by Pakistan means an 80:20 distribution of the total quantum of water in the Indus rivers. This is, obviously, a useful argument against the treaty but fails to take into account the natural hydrological flow of the rivers into the Arabian Sea.

What also irked critics was the fact that India too had to contribute to the cost of replacement works in Pakistan—hard to swallow given the extent of Pakistan’s provocations, but it has to be seen against the immediate advantages that unfettered use of the eastern rivers brought to India. The allotment of the western rivers to Pakistan caused much angst in India and does so still. The fact remains, however, that provisions guaranteeing certain entitlements for India on the western rivers have remained hugely unutilised.

The merit of Sinha’s book is that it presents a vast amount of detail—historical and otherwise—on the intricacies of this sensitive dimension of India-Pakistan relations and enables a more sensible understanding of the waters issue. His conclusion too merits highlighting: “replacing the treaty with another or even abrogating it does not stand to logic”.

The challenges of water scarcity and climate change may well mean that new horizons have to be looked for but that will require a larger reset of India-Pakistan relations. For an introduction to the wider context of water disputes between India and Pakistan, this book is an excellent place to begin. The absence of an index is a drawback the publishers will presumably address at some stage.

T.C.A. Raghavan is a former high commissioner to Pakistan.

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