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Indus waters policy shift

  • Category
    World Affairs
  • Published
    28th Feb, 2019
  • From revoking Most Favored nation tag given to Pakistan to working every possible way to utilize its full claim under the Indus Waters Treaty, India is sailing through strained ties with Pakistan.



From revoking Most Favored nation tag given to Pakistan to working every possible way to utilize its full claim under the Indus Waters Treaty, India is sailing through strained ties with Pakistan.


After the Uri terrorist attack (2016), the Government of India signaled that it is mulling over reviving several stalled projects on Indus branch of rivers (Indus, Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, Beas and Sutlej).

In 2016, the matter had escalated to such an extent that India had temporarily suspended regular meetings of the Indus Commissioners of the two countries.


Indus Waters Treaty

The treaty was signed on September 19, 1960, between India and Pakistan. It was brokered by the World Bank. This treaty fixed and delimited the rights and obligations of both countries concerning the use of the waters of the Indus River system.

  • The Indus River rises in the southwestern Tibet Autonomous Region of China and flows through the Kashmir region and then into Pakistan to drain into the Arabian Sea.
  • It is joined by numerous tributaries, notably of those are—the Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, Beas, and Sutlej rivers.
  • The Indus River system has been used for irrigation since time immemorial.
  • During the period of British rule in India, large canal systems were constructed, and old canal systems and inundation channels were revived and modernized.
  • In 1947 British India was partitioned, resulting in the creation of an independent India and West Pakistan (later called Pakistan). The water system was thus bifurcated.
  • After the expiration of the short-term Standstill Agreement of 1947, on April 1, 1948, India began withholding water from canals that flowed into Pakistan.
  • In 1951 David Lilienthal, former head of both the Tennessee Valley Authority and the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, visited the region.
  • He suggested that India and Pakistan should work toward an agreement to jointly develop and administer the Indus River system, possibly with advice and financing from the World Bank.
  • After in principle approval by the World Bank, engineers from each country formed a working group, with engineers from the World Bank offering advice.
  • After six years of intense deliberations, Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Pakistani President Mohammad Ayub Khan signed the Indus Waters Treaty in September 1960.
  • The treaty required the creation of a Permanent Indus Commission, with a commissioner from each country, in order to maintain a channel for communication and to try to resolve questions about implementation of the treaty. In addition, a mechanism for resolving disputes was provided.


What has happened now?

  • India has decided to exert much greater control over the waters of the Indus basin, while continuing to adhere to the provisions of the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty.
  • Under the stewardship of the Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister, a high level task force has been set up to ensure that India makes full use of the waters it is entitled to under the Treaty.

The Indus Waters Treaty gives India full control over the waters (11 cubic km is the annual flow before entering Pakistan) of the three Eastern rivers, Beas, Ravi and Sutlej. Pakistan can use whatever flows into its territory.

Waters of the three Western rivers of Indus, Jhelum and Chenab (232.5 cubic km is the annual flow before entering Pakistan) flow “unrestricted” to Pakistan. India can use about 62.2 cubic km and 170.3 cubic km is reserved for Pakistan.

It is to note that India is allowed to make some use of the waters of the Western rivers as well. It can do for purposes of navigation, power production and irrigation, but this can happen only in accordance with the provisions of the Treaty.

The two countries have permanent Indus Water Commissions that meet regularly to share information and data and also to resolve disputes. So far, most of these disputes were resolved through this bilateral mechanism.

The dispute over the Baglihar dam was the first one that Pakistan referred to the World Bank, which had brokered the Indus Waters Treaty.

Change in socio-economic - strategic- conditions

  • Historically, India has never made full use of its rights available under the treat.
  • On the Western rivers, there was no pressing demand for creation of new infrastructure on the Indus rivers, either for hydroelectricity or irrigation.
  • As a matter of fact, farmers in Jammu and Kashmir moved to horticulture from traditional crops, which further reduced the demand for irrigation.
  • After the devastating floods of 2014, it was argued that storage infrastructure could have been built on these rivers as a flood-control measure.

Why has India not utilized its fair share?

Diplomatic sources who have worked closely on India-Pakistan ties, and experts who deal with water-sharing disputes, indicate that a possible reason for not having done so all these years was to avoid an explosion of new water wars within the country.

Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab and Haryana have already locked horns over access to and use of water from these three rivers, internally.

It took nearly 40 years and the intervention of the Centre for the governments of Jammu and Kashmir and Punjab to finally sign an agreement on the implementation of the Shahpur Kandi dam project in September 2018.

Pakistan's position:

  • More than 95% of Pakistan’s irrigation infrastructure is in the Indus basin which comprises about 15 million hectares of land.
  • Three of Pakistan’s biggest dams, including Mangla, which is one of the largest in the world, is built on the Jhelum river. These dams produce a substantial proportion of Pakistan’s electricity.
  • India’s decision to change the status quo would hurt the interests of Pakistan. Why - because it had become used to the excess water and had built its infrastructure around it.
  • Pakistan has raised objections on many Indian projects, including the Ratle project, the Pakal Dul dam, and Sawalkot - India considers them as mere delay tactics forcing cost escalation and making them economically unviable.

What actions have been taken so far by India?

  • Several projects that were either suspended or had remained on paper for several years were put on fast-track mode and some were even declared national projects.
  • Bursar hydroelectric project (800MW) on the Marusudar River, one of the tributaries of the Chenab, in Kishtwar district of Jammu and Kashmir: India’s first project on the Western rivers to have storage infrastructure.
  • Shahpur-Kandi project in Gurdaspur district of Punjab: work was stalled for several years because of a dispute between the governments of Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir. In March 2017, the Centre summoned the representatives of the two states, brokered a solution, and directed that work be resumed.
  • Sawalkot project on the Chenab: 1,856-MW project in Jammu and Kashmir has received go-ahead.
  • Ujh project (Jammu and Kashmir): Union government has started work on this project as well 

Way forward:

Despite hostile India-Pakistan political climate, the treat has survived all odds since its inception.

However, the current climate paints a different picture with India determined to not let go of its rightful share.

While the media and nationalist throat may condemn the treaty altogether, Indian diplomacy has to rise above and factor in "India's growing stature" and build its image of being a "rightful power".

In other words, while Pakistan’s duplicity on fighting terror is proof that it doesn’t honor its own global obligations, calls to abrogate the Indus Waters Treaty are knee-jerk emotional responses that don’t factor in long-term and wide- ranging consequences for India in the world

The treat is here to stay, albeit in a justifiable manner.

Learning Aid

Practice Question

Indus Waters Treaty between two openly hostile nations is held up as a gold standard globally — an example for other warring nation-states to follow in the interest of civilian populations which suffer the consequences of war. Given high tensions that prevail frequently, what do you think should be India's action? Critically evaluate within the framework of "legal" and "global” implications.


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