A treaty questioned

Published : Apr 27, 2002 00:00 IST

THE chorus calling for a review of the Indus Waters Treaty is growing to operatic proportions. On April 3, the Jammu and Kashmir Legislative Assembly called for a review of the September 1960 India-Pakistan agreement, demanding that the State be compensated for losses it had suffered as a result. Speakers who denounced the Treaty ranged from the National Conference's G.M. Bawan to the Bharatiya Janata Party's Shiv Charan Gupta and Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Mohammad Yusuf Tarigami.

Indeed, discontent over the Treaty has been building up throughout the State. The State government claims that clauses in the treaty cost it some Rs.6,000 crores each year. The treaty limits Jammu and Kashmir's right to use the waters of the Jhelum and the Chenab, in particular its ability to build storage reservoirs on the two river systems. This, the State argues, has meant that it has had to sacrifice an estimated potential power generation of 15,000 MW. Jammu and Kashmir believes that it should have received compensatory access to power and water generated on the Ravi, Sutlej and Beas systems.

Seven years of negotiations went into the making of the 1960 Treaty. When it was signed, newspapers in both India and Pakistan hailed the Treaty as a major achievement. Many hoped that it would redress Pakistan's fears about Indian control of the water that fed its key agricultural areas in west Punjab. In essence, the agreement gave Pakistan principal rights to the Chenab and Jhelum systems, while giving India similar rights to eastern rivers. The Treaty restricted India's rights to use the western rivers for domestic non-consumptive purposes, agriculture, and power generation, and placed curbs on the construction of storage reservoirs.

In effect, the Treaty gave Pakistan the power to veto Indian projects on the river systems it was allotted. In the case of the massive Salal Project, for example, Pakistan successfully objected to plans to build anti-siltation sluices. As a result, siltation levels in the 113-metre-high dam have reached upwards of 90 m, curtailing generation capacity. Alternately, in the case of the Lower Jhelum Hydel Project, because of the absence of a storage reservoir it is able to generate just 35 MW although its installed capacity is 400 MW. The August 1998 Report of the Committee on Economic Reforms in Jammu and Kashmir noted that "on the recently commissioned Uri and Salal Hydro Electric Projects, the energy loss is to the order of 44 per cent and 50 per cent respectively."

APART from the matter of power, farmers in Jammu and Kashmir have been pushing politicians to take an aggressive stand on the Treaty. While the Kashmir Valley has traditionally been considered to be water-surplus, successive droughts in recent years have pointed to severe strains on the irrigation system. Farms have spread to the edges of the Kandi area, creating demands that traditional canals simply cannot meet in years of poor rainfall. To the south, the situation is similar. In 1960 much of Jammu was barren, but water-intensive paddy cultivation has now spread as far south as Samba. Farmers of new lands from Reasi to Sunderbani have also been asking for water from the Salal dam.

Part of the problem is the poor marshalling of resources that do exist. The Ranbir Canal, built in 1870, was intended to feed the areas of Miran Sahib, Vijaypur and Madhopur. Poor maintenance has ensured that it can now carry just 300 cubic feet per second of water, rather than the 1,000 cusecs it was designed for. The Pratap Canal, meant to meet the needs of the Akhnoor-Sunderbani belt, has also silted up. And the Ravi Uplift Canal, meant to service southern Jammu, has gone dry - for the twin reasons that Punjab is unwilling to provide any water and there is no electricity to pump it up.

All of this precipitated a minor crisis in the wake of the post-January Army build-up. Indian defensive positions are protected by a series of ditches against a tank assault. When troops sought to fill them up, farmers dependent on the Ranbir and Pratap canals raised a furore. But officials in Jammu and Kashmir say that these systems in themselves would not address the problem. "The fact is that our needs have grown," says a senior State government official. "The population has exploded as has the area under cultivation. Both our large urban centres face water famines each summer, which is an intolerable situation. And when industry revives in the State, the demands both for power and water will increase manifold."

Legal experts point out that any move by India to abrogate the treaty would fly in the face of international law (see "A treaty to keep", Frontline, April 26, 2002). This position, however, finds few receptive ears in the State. "I'm saying something very simple," says Tarigami. "We are suffering because of Pakistan's water needs. Fine, compensate us for what we have lost. And if you cannot do that, review the situation. After all, people make laws." Others in the defence establishment argue that the Treaty has failed to secure its principal raison d'etre from India's point of view. "The whole idea was to reassure Pakistan that our presence in Jammu and Kashmir would not threaten its vital national interests," argues a senior Army official.

No one believes that any dramatic movement on the issue is likely in the near future, notwithstanding the gathering pace of calls to abrogate the Treaty. But the stage seems set for another festering dispute with Pakistan. Water, not terrorism or the future of Kashmir, might just prove to be the reason for any future India-Pakistan war.

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