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Home > News > Columnists > Ramananda Sengupta


Water as a weapon

July 20, 2005

'Who is the strongest, who is the best?

Who holds the aces, the east or the west?

This is the crap our children are learning....'

So sang former Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters in his solo album Radio KAOS

Let's face it, we are neither the strongest, nor the best.

Nor do we hold all the aces.

But does that mean we fold our hands and wait for deliverance?

That is precisely what we seem to be doing in this so-called peace process which we are pursuing with our neighbor.

I've often heard the argument that India, being a bigger nation (geographically, economically), must perforce be more accommodating and generous in its dealings with its smaller neighbors. (Never mind if these neighbors use violence and mayhem against us as a means of expressing their anger, angst and agony.)

We did just that when we agreed that terrorist acts in Kashmir would not derail the peace process launched by former Prime Minister AB Vajpayee. In other words, barring a replay of the attack on India's Parliament or something similar, the daily carnage in Kashmir would no longer be an issue in the dialogue between the two nations.

Of course, Pervez Musharraf has consistently denied Pakistani involvement in such activities. These are 'freedom fighters', over whom he has no control, he avers.

Leave alone the message going out to the troops engaged -- nay, giving their lives -- in countering the continuing violence in the valley, I wonder what the message going out to Pakistan is.

One, obviously, is that terrorism, or the policy of a 'thousand cuts', has worked, because it forced New Delhi to finally acknowledge that Kashmir was a disputed territory.

I, for one, would not be surprised if the status of some of the northeastern states also became 'officially' disputed soon. Sauce for the goose and all that.

Two, that India, despite its size and economy, is mortally afraid of Pakistan, particularly after it became a nuclear weapons state. And thus, by rattling its nuclear saber every time India gets uppity, like in Kargil, (let's face it, the so-called American intervention was a face-saving straw which both sides grabbed before it escalated into something far far more serious), Islamabad believes that New Delhi will continue to blink first.

Indus Water Treaty not under threat: Pakistan   

But having brought Kashmir on to the negotiating table, where do we go from here?

Here's where the aces come in.

In a brilliant exposition of the India-Pakistan crisis titled The final Settlement -- Restructuring India Pakistan Relations -- the Strategic Foresight Group, a Mumbai based think tank, asserts that the main reason behind Pakistan's demand for Kashmir has very little to do with sympathy for a political cause, and a lot more to do with water.

'In order to prevent a conflict between Punjab and Sindh, and to prevent a possible secession of Sindh and Balochistan, Pakistan needs physical control over the Chenab catchment region in Jammu and Kashmir. It needs sites to build dams, to store, divert and regulate water flows. It also needs additional fertile land. Thus, Jammu and Kashmir is a source of Pakistan's water and food security. It is a real estate dispute for strategic reasons,' it says.

The Indus System of Rivers comprises three Eastern Rivers --the Sutlej, the Beas and the Ravi-- and three Western Rivers (the Indus, the Jhelum and the Chenab).

Under the Indus waters treaty -- signed at Karachi by then prime ministers, Mohammad Ayub Khan and Jawaharlal Nehru, and W A B Illif of the World Bank on September 19, 1960 -- the waters of the eastern rivers were allocated to India and those of western rivers largely to Pakistan.

But though the treaty has survived all the wars since then, the fact remains that India controls the headwaters.

'The thought of the 'big brother' in control of our vital water resources has never been comforting,' the book quotes former ISI chief Asad Durrani as saying in the Indian Express, July 10, 2003.

Using water as a weapon is a totally repugnant notion, which no civilised country should endorse.

Besides, unlike in April 1948, when India stopped the supply of water to Pakistan from every canal flowing into Pakistan for a month, the Geneva Conventions and the Indus Water Treaty make such an action illegal today. And the water treaty does not allow either country to opt out unilaterally. In fact, it also explicitly prohibits linkage between the water issue and the general position of both parties on the Kashmir issue.

The Neelam Plan   

Even if it didn't, apart from international condemnation, such a step would draw howls of protest from our other neighbours like Bangladesh and Nepal, who have longstanding water treaties with us.

But that is obviously not enough for Pakistan, which needs to have physical control over these headwaters to ease its fears about India's potential ability to turn a huge chunk of its land into desert.

For Pakistan, the fact that the treaty has withstood three wars and periods when all diplomatic and other ties were severed, is not a guarantee that it will endure forever.

Which is why Pakistan is opposed to the Line of Control becoming the formal border, because then the headwaters would continue to remain with India.

Pak MPs want to buy water from India   

Of course, we cannot just stop the flow of water into Pakistan overnight, and both sides know this. Nor can we suddenly divert water from these rivers without building the necessary infrastructure.

Pakistan's belligerent position on the Baglihar project in Kashmir should perhaps be seen from this perspective. They believe that it could be the thin end of the wedge.

Which brings me back to the original question: after making it the main issue for so many years, should we have agreed that terrorist acts will not disrupt the peace process?

Should we believe that Musharraf indeed has no control over these jihadis, who think that violence will eventually force India to concede Kashmir? Conversely, if Musharraf indeed has no control, why are we negotiating with him over Kashmir?

Should we play upon Pakistan's intense insecurity on this issue of water, and leverage it to our advantage? If so, how?

External link: The Indus Water Treaty

Here's a chilling paragraph from the book mentioned above:

'...At a seminar in Karachi in the last week of December 2001 (after India had severed all ties with Pakistan following the attack on its Parliament) attended by the International Centre for Peace Initiatives, the only occasion when tension arose was when someone alleged that that the Indian government had plans to use the water weapon. A participant warned that any conflict over water would lead to Pakistan using nuclear weapons on a first strike basis against India.

'A month and a half later, on February 8, 2002, the editorial of Jang, a moderate Urdu daily, said that Pakistan's water scarcity could threaten relations between provinces and lead to a nuclear war against India…'

I think it's time someone called their bluff.

Ramananda Sengupta


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Number of User Comments: 17




Sub: water as a weapon

under the rule of foreign invaders of 1700 years we forget the basic principles of relationship between the independent sovereing states. Pakistan, when came into ...


Posted by anupam





Sub: Nothing New Here

I don't understand what is new here. It has been clear all along to those who bothered to think as to what real interest of ...


Posted by Sudhanshu Mittal





Sub: water as a weapon

hi raaman , with in 10 years form now india would be a biggest n richest economy in the world ,but pakisthan remains poorer than ...


Posted by ravikasi





Sub: Water Wars

Do it! There is no question of honour when fighting those without any.


Posted by Manosij





Sub: Re: Water as a weapon

So while calling their bluff, which corner of India are we willing to sacrifice? Whci city, village or Hamlet are we willing to let go ...


Posted by VT




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