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).

Copenhagen gains

No deal is a good deal, but the real deal is geopolitical

Back in October 2007, this blog had argued that because “it requires unprecedented international co-operation at a time of geopolitical flux…we can’t expect meaningful international co-operation on tacking climate change”. Instead “the immediate ray of hope is unilateral domestic action: states may be compelled to adopt sustainable environmental policies driven by a largely domestic cost-benefit analysis.”

This in the end, is what happened at the Copenhagen summit (see Saubhik Chakrabarti’s op-ed). That’s just as well, because it is not in India’s interests at this stage to be straitjacketed by an international treaty binding it not merely to carbon emission targets, but also to accept measurement and verification systems that would allow some unaccountable UN body to sit in judgement over India’s policies.

But the real gains were geopolitical—neither the United States nor China could have their way without India’s support. This fact was neither lost on the United States nor on China. The European Union is likely to realise it as soon as it recovers from its shock and sulk. Copenhagen, more than the G-20 summit earlier this year, provides an indication on how geopolitical decisions of the first half of the twenty-first century are likely to be made. If the UN system can accomodate the shift in geopolitical power, then those decisions are more likely to be made under the UN framework. If it cannot, the UN system will have to contend with faits accompli, much like the one in Copenhagen.

It would be dangerous for India to take this shift for granted—but despite the immensity of its national challenges, it must understand the strength of its own position in the international system and play its cards accordingly. Given the pace of the geopolitical shifts, it is imperative for India to strengthen and reform its diplomatic corps. In his interview with Pragati, Shashi Tharoor suggested that the government has approved an expansion of the foreign service and the implementation is in the hands of the civil service. Well, it had better hurry.

Pragati December 2009: Where India stands on climate change

The image on the cover of this month’s issue of Pragati is a painting by Azmat Ali that expresses the complexities involved in international efforts to address climate change. Climate change negotiations have now fully entered the foreign policy agenda. Our cover story highlights where India stands on this issue.

The other highlight is the first of a two-part interview with Dr Shashi Tharoor, Minister of State for External Affairs where he discusses India’s approach to Africa, the need to strengthen India’s diplomatic corps and his initiative to rejuvenate the policy planning process within the foreign ministry.

In addition to the regular features: this issue examines the prospects of political change in Myanmar & Sri Lanka; Europe’s struggle for strategic relevance in Asia; China’s moves in Afghanistan; what Hillary Clinton achieved in Pakistan and a review of a book on all sorts of maritime crime.

Note: Quill Media, our franchisee, graciously sent out complimentary copies of Pragati to all those who expressed an interest to subscribe to the print edition. They have announced their subscription package (see Page 30 of this month’s issue). Quill Media’s online subscription gateway will be ready in a few days—this will allow you to subscribe using a credit card. We will alert you once the site is ready.

A yearly subscription is really affordable. So please do subscribe.

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Maldivians in any other place

The plan to move a nation

Upon his election, Mohamed Nasheed, the new president of Maldives suggested that his government will “divert a portion of the…annual tourist revenue into buying a new homeland—as an insurance policy against climate change.” While this prompted the Economist to engage in some levity—it proposed that Maldivian government buy Iceland or Wales—Mr Nasheed has something of a good idea.

Investing a portion of short-term revenues to address long-term, inter-generational problems is sound public policy. But there are practical challenges. The principal challenge is whether the destination country will accept a whole nation—even if this is a mere 370,000 people—to set up a homeland within its borders. Three precedents from the previous century come to mind: the Jewish settlement in Palestine, the Nationalist Chinese settlement on Taiwan and the Tibetan settlement in Dharamsala, India. The Jewish settlement became an independent state, and caused a high level of friction with the local population that exists to this day. The Nationalist Chinese settlement became a semi-independent state/renegade province (take your pick) and the local population got marginalised. In the Tibetan case, the refugee settlement is self-governing, but not independent, and there is little friction with the local population.

What this suggests is that if the Maldivians are transplanted into settings more or less similar to the society they leave behind, things might just work out. Such a place could be India, but it is unlikely that the religious factors involved will make this option feasible. It could be Sri Lanka or even one of Gulf states. Even so, resettling an entire nation as a political entity can have destabilising effects on the destination country.

But there is another approach—although it would mean a dissolution of the Maldivian nation-state. Instead of the Maldivian government purchasing land to house its people, it could just assign a fixed portion of the national resettlement fund to each citizen. Maldivians could then—individually or in groups—purchase land wherever they like (and are permitted to). Societies are likely to be more receptive to the idea of accepting Maldivian immigrants rather than importing a whole nation. Perhaps Mr Nasheed could implement Overseas Resettlement Vouchers, redeemable against purchase of real estate in foreign countries.

Yet the most economically efficient approach would be to simply pay the Maldivian citizens hard cash and let them spend it the way they want. Some might buy property in Kochi, Colombo or Reykjavik. Others might spend it on getting a decent education. Still others might drink themselves to death. There still is good reason to say to each his or her own.

Related Link: Over at Global Dashboard Charlie Edwards links to a map of countries buying land in other countries.

Groundwater management and farmers’ suicides

Poor management of groundwater resources contributes to agrarian distress—but is anyone listening?

Over at Reporting on a Revolution, Suvrat Kher throws more light on an angle that is almost entirely missing from the national discourse on farmers’ suicides.

…if the wells themselves are dry then there is no backup for failed rains. A Tata Institute of Social Sciences report on farmer suicides found that farmers had little or no groundwater available to them during times of rain failure. A combination of complex hydrogeology and poor management of groundwater resources has exerted a powerful influence on the lives and livelihoods of Maharashtra farmers.

(Tushaar) Shah makes the following recommendation for complex hydrogeological terrains:

What hard-rock India needs is a new mindset of managing dug wells as dual-purpose structures, for taking out water when needed and putting water into the aquifers when the surplus is running off. Recharging aquifers needs to get the first charge on monsoon run off. Unfortunately, government planners give it the last priority.

Water available for recharge is estimated after allowing for the requirements of existing and planned surface reservoirs. This is absurd in a country where 70 percent of irrigated areas and 90 percent of drinking water needs are met from groundwater.

Is the government listening? The Prime Minister of India’s special relief package for Maharashtra farmers wants to attack the problem on a broad front which includes tinkering with the economics of cotton farming, encouraging a diverse array of crops and reducing dependence on pesticides and fertilizers. But water underlies any successful agricultural strategy. In terms of water it lists irrigation development as the only long term solution to the water problems faced by farmers and doles almost 10 times more money to irrigation development than to watershed development. Irrigation development in the language of the government of India means canal irrigation (read mega infrastructure projects) and not local groundwater irrigation.

This despite the revealing statistic that even though thousands of crores of Rupees have been spent on canals, they irrigate just about 15% of arable areas over the landmass of India and marginal farmers and farmers with small landholding benefit most not from canal networks but through groundwater irrigation. [Reporting on a Revolution/What’s with the Climate]

Mira Kamdar’s confused diatribe

The fastest growing democracy is indeed transforming America and the world.

Mira Kamdar is right about one thing: not “all opponents of the deal (or even those who dare question some of its provisions)” should be smeared as “nonproliferation ayatollahs” and “enemies of India”. Some are merely confused. Like Ms Kamdar herself, for instance.

In her diatribe in the Washington Post she is not even indulging in the flawed guns vs butter argument. Hers is a flawed butter vs butter argument, for “The US-India deal will divert billions of dollars away from India’s real development needs in sustainable agriculture, education, health care, housing, sanitation and roads.” Such a tall claim would have required some logical arguments using facts to connect claim to conclusion. She doesn’t offer any. But just look at some overall numbers and you’ll realise how ridiculous Ms Kamdar is. According to her own figures, the deal will result in US$100 billion of business for US companies over 20 years. That is, on an average, US$5 billion a year. India’s annual GDP is around US$1000 billion. Even if we ignore economic growth, the deal is worth a 0.5% of GDP per year. Even if all of that came from public funds, that still leaves a lot for agriculture, education, health, housing, sanitation and roads. When you consider that the Indian economy is expected to grow between 6-8% per annum and that India could well permit private investment in the power sector, it turns out that it’s not a big deal after all.

Now, money doesn’t mean much to Ms Kamdar. She sees it as a bad thing that the deal will enrich “deep-pocketed” US and Indian corporations. But then at the next moment, money goes from being a bad thing to an invisible thing. For she says “India gets unfettered access to nuclear fuel and technology, and it doesn’t have to do anything in return.” The US$100 billion over 20 years suddenly disappeared. So do “the tens of thousands of jobs”.

She also contends that the deal “will distract India from developing clean energy sources”, for even “under the rosiest of projections, (nuclear contributes) a mere 8 percent of India’s total energy needs—and won’t even do that until 2030.” Now, nuclear energy is clean energy, and it is available now. And it is too presumptive of Ms Kamdar to suggest that other sources will be ignored, not least when India ranks fourth in the world in wind power generation.

Ms Kamdar is even more confused about geopolitics. The deal “risks triggering a new arms race in Asia…a miffed and unstable Pakistan will seek nuclear parity with India, and China will fume at a transparent US ploy to balance Beijing’s rise by building up India as a counterweight next door.” No facts again, but here is one. Pakistan’s arsenal of warheads is estimated to be larger than India’s. It has an opaque deal with China which allows it to continue developing its arsenal. To seek nuclear parity then, Pakistan might have to give up some of its warheads. And why, what’s wrong with China fuming at being balanced? Perhaps Ms Kamdar truly believes narratives of China’s “peaceful rise”. Those who don’t—and India certainly shouldn’t—would do well to buy insurance.

Ms Kamdar’s piece is addressed to the US Congress. She is asking it to give up a lucrative commercial opportunity that could rekindle the United States’ moribund nuclear power industry. She is asking the US not to even attempt to balance the rise of China’s geopolitical power. And she is implicitly asking the US Congress to continue backing a flawed non-proliferation regime that didn’t prevent, apprehend nor punish acts of proliferation when they occurred. Well, that’s for the US Congress to chew on.

The rest of us still have to get back into our chairs, having fallen off after reading that the deal was responsible for corrupting Indian politics.

My essay in The Friday Times: The little revolutions in India’s military affairs

Making India’s defence policy consistent with its emergence as a significant global player.

Here’s a version of my essay that appeared in Pakistan’s The Friday Times July 11-17, 2008 | (Vol. XX, No. 21):

India’s armed forces, according to K Subrahmanyam, have “not modernised their decision-making process ever since Lord Ismay prescribed it in 1947. Command and control have not changed since the Second World War. We are now thinking about buying modern equipment when the force structure and philosophy of it go back to the desert campaign of Rommel and Southeast Asia Command of Mountbatten.”

Mr Subrahmanyam’s words highlight a much broader point—that India’s external and domestic contexts have radically changed, especially since 1991, and a wide-ranging rethink of its defence policy has become an urgent necessity. A comprehensive policy review, however, is yet to take place.

That’s because the country’s leaders—even those with an interest and expertise in defence matters—have been constrained by the diktats of coalition politics, repulsed by the vested interests of the civilian and military bureaucracies, and not least, deterred by the popular media’s enthusiasm for blowing up corruption scandals.

The central challenge is to make India’s defence policy—encompassing doctrine, equipment and manpower—consistent with its emergence as a significant global player. The process of economic liberalisation first initiated by the P V Narasimha Rao government in the early 1990s not only turned India into a trillion dollar economy by early 2008, but also made it an important stakeholder in global economic and strategic affairs. Even as this is placing new demands on the armed forces, the mix of resources available for defence has changed. Budget constraints, for instance, have eased. Manpower constraints, on the other hand, have become tighter. Mindsets and policies, though, hark back to the days when the reverse was true.
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Preparing for global warming wars

The Indian National Interest community launches its first policy brief

Climate Change and National Security: Preparing India for New Conflict Scenarios

Policy Brief No 1 - CoverThe global debate on whether there is indeed a process of anthropogenic climate change in progress has been for the most part settled by the international scientific consensus surrounding the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report. The trajectory of global warming is expected to have a major impact on human society as a whole: calling for a co-ordinated international response towards mitigation and adaptation to a warmer planet.

This policy brief analyses how climate change will affect regional security in the Indian subcontinent and implications for India’s national security. It argues that glacial melt, rising sea levels and extreme weather will exacerbate ongoing conflicts and will require India to develop military capabilities to address a range of new strategic scenarios: from supporting international co-operation, to managing a ‘hot peace’, to outright military conflict.

Get the document from the INI Policy Briefs section.