Leave the Indus treaty alone

It is unwise for New Delhi to play up the water threat

Last week CNN-IBN called me while I was driving back home, and asked if they could put me on live television to comment on what the producer said was “India’s threat to cut off Pakistan’s water supply under the Indus River Water treaty”. Had I not been stationary at the traffic signal when I heard this, my reaction might have harmed innocent motorists on the road. Despite my reluctance—as I had not familiarised with the facts—the producer patched me to the programme. I made three points.

First, the threat of cutting off water targets the Pakistani people and not the military-jihadi complex that is India’s irreconcilable adversary. Further, this mis-targeting strengthens the military-jihadi complex because it strengthens the latter’s position as the defender of the Pakistani people, who will unite around it.

Second, cutting off water is tantamount to an act of war and India will be seen as the aggressor. Even then, it would be unwise for New Delhi to go to war in response to a terrorist attack on a military camp near the Line of Control.

Third, the best that can be said about the hints of cutting off water is if it were “deliberate irrationalism”, calculated to persuade the adversary that New Delhi is not rational and can respond in grossly disproportionate ways.

Upon reaching home, I found out that the producer had taken an almost mischievous hint by the MEA spokesman and framed it into one of New Delhi actually threatening to cut off water to Pakistan. Even so, New Delhi seems to be weighing this option enough to warrant a briefing to the Prime Minister today.

It would be unwise for New Delhi to proceed in the direction of holding out reneging on the Indus Water Treaty as a coercive threat. Mainly because such talk is superfluous. A person holding a gun to your head does not have to declare that he has a gun pointed towards your head.

While the Pakistani people benefit from the Indus Waters Treaty—and India’s scrupulous observance of its terms even during major wars—the Pakistani military establishment and jihadi groups would love for New Delhi to dangle this threat. The establishment would lose no time to play up the threat that India poses to the survival of Pakistan and quickly find a way to turn “differences” into “disputes” (these terms have specific meanings under the Treaty) and take it to the Court of Arbitration. If the Court rules against India—and it is likely to, if India were to “cut off water”—then a reference to the UN Security Council will be the next step. Now, the UNSC might lack enough power to compel India to keep to terms New Delhi does not wish to, but to do all this in the current circumstances would be an overkill (self-overkill, that is).

While all this is happening, the jihadi groups would lose no time in openly mobilising, with official support, and engaging in collecting funds, minds and warm bodies. It makes little sense for New Delhi to energise an industry that is not doing too well in Pakistan.

All this is even before considering the possibility of what might the Pakistani military establishment do should India threaten to cut off water supplies. There is no doubt that India is military prepared to dominate Pakistan at all levels of escalation. The question is: can this be done with relatively lower cost to itself?

Narendra Modi’s words over the weekend inject wisdom into the hysterical jingoism that dominated the public discourse last week. He suggested that India can defeat Pakistan by winning the development race. He also drew the distinction between the Pakistani leadership and the Pakistani people. Readers of this blog will know that this is what I have long advocated. Of course, this must be accompanied by defensive measures, political overtures to close the affective divide in Jammu & Kashmir and tactical military sort of things that are best not spoken about.

As for the Indus treaty, it is in India’s interests to hold out a model where difficult issues can be sorted out as technical matters rather than highly emotive political ones. It is one of the best examples of India’s bona fides. It is not in the national interest to throw away this wicket.

From the archives: Sharing the Indus (January 2005) and the Dam difference is over (February 2007).

On Kaveri

Change the ground, er water rules

This is my response to Mint’s request for comment:

The political and constitution crisis is a direct consequence of the faulty basis on which the decision to allocate Kaveri river waters is being made. Regardless of which court or tribunal and which year, whatever allocation it decides will be wrong; and one or the other side will be dissatisfied enough to contest the decision. This is the reason why this dispute has persisted for more than a century. We cannot blame courts or political leaders, because they are trying to make the best out of a faulty set of ground rules.

The ground rules must change: the principle on which water is allocated cannot be based on an arbitrary historical snapshot of the South Indian economy. Unless we move to principles that acknowledge water is scarce, water use patterns are changing rapidly, have incentives for new technology and allocations need to keep pace with the economic growth, we will be doomed to social acrimony, constitutional crises and political violence.

See Nidheesh’s report in the newspaper, and my Pragati essay on how river water can be better managed.