Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Can India keep river waters away from Pakistan?

by Ratnakar Tripathy

Footbridge on the Indus River in Pakistan
It took our Prime Minister Narendra Modi very little time to shift from the casual to the catastrophic in his policy towards Pakistan. Not long ago the Indian PM made a stop in Pakistan to greet the Pakistani premier on his birthday in the manner of a chummy neighbour, a status that Pakistan at its warmest best has never really deserved. Now it turns out India is using the rhetoric of sulk and anger to complain about Pakistan’s reactions to all the warm gestures emanating from India. While it is difficult to take seriously Pakistan’s continued concern with Kashmir given its own conduct in Pak Occupied Kashmir [POK], India’s growing concern with Baluchistan may be equally specious. Unlike Pakistan’s contiguity with Kashmir, India’s borders do not even directly touch the Baluchistan areas. In the meantime the people of all these areas suffer at the hands of the security forces of both these countries. This can only be seen as a case of continental ventriloquism resounding all over South Asia where the voices of the two significant populations go unheard, exposing the tenuous moral fibre of both the states. In this India as a democracy is definitely expected by the world community to talk and act more maturely and responsibly.  Instead we seem to be fast losing the taller moral pedestal generally accorded to a democratic nation with a stable leadership.

All this is the broad context for a new kind of rhetoric by our PM who has threatened to retaliate against Pakistan for the terrorist attacks on Pathankot and more recently Uri by rewriting the spirit of the Indus Water Treaty of long standing which was signed after long drawn negotiations between the two countries on sharing the waters of Indus and its tributaries.  The question is can India really do that? Anyone with common sense and some school physics will easily understand the point that if you obstruct a river from flowing it will flood your own homes. But of course India could reduce or even decimate the amount of water it releases by using it up in its own fields. But here again you do not need to be an expert to see the obvious limitation – you need to build dams to check the water flows and dams take decades to construct. It is indeed possible to hurt Pakistan even without breaking rules and guidelines of the Indus Treaty and by simply insisting on full usage of the entitled amount which India has failed to do in the past.  
Map of the Indus River basin

But there are other reasons why India will find it difficult to hurt Pakistan with water. As usual the Pakistani press has been prompt in listing the entire set of reasons that make it confident to the point of being smug. Even if one takes all these reasons with a pinch of salt, the fact remains that using water as a weapon may cause a grave shift in the sub-continental terms of relationship. Both China and Nepal have rivers flowing into India and India in turn empties its rivers into Bangladesh. What if the neighbouring countries begin to create trouble in the foreseeable future? India will only be left with its own bad precedent on the matter and will have little argument to offer at the international forums. As a columnist pointed out it is not surprising therefore that despite their fraught relationship and occasional wars the two countries have adhered to the water sharing treaty showing restraint in this one unique aspect of their relationship. To use water as weapon is thus like opening up one more battlefront and perhaps complicating the Indo-Pakistan story rather than resolving it. India’s Pakistan problem is indeed a vexed one and I am afraid I have failed to find a simple and workable solution suggested by any authority or politician. India has to live with this drag as even trying to isolate Pakistan is really of no avail. The international community is probably interested in the very opposite – namely keeping Pakistan as engaged as possible hoping that china will keep some kind of a leash on it. Even a supposedly rogue nation like North Korea is not shunned and it is the North Koreans themselves who have inflicted their shunning on their neighbours and the world in general. In brief, if Pakistan is able to hurt India mainly through its manipulations in Kashmir, it is the Kashmir problem that we need to address with greater maturity and generosity, a task that is also quite doable. Once we begin to do that, the Pakistan wolf will stop howling at our doorsteps. The fact remains that Pakistan needs India far more badly including reasons such as its own legitimacy, than India needs Pakistan.   

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