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August - September 2005


Political News

Linking Hydro-power & Water Sharing of the Himalayan Rivers with South Asian Regional Energy Strate

by Sashanka Sekhar Banerjee


The initiative to develop a regional energy strategy in South Asia has to come from India. As the biggest energy consumer in the region, pursuing a growth rate of 8 to 10 percent per annum India has much to gain from jointly developing projects for the generation of electricity and linking the power grids of the 7-nation South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC). Such a move has the potential of creating a co-prosperity zone in the entire region producing significant economic benefits equitably for each individual nation.

The decade-old brutal Maoist insurgency in Nepal is the consequence of the desperate poverty of its people. Condition in the North Eastern States of India are only slightly better. Bangladesh has acquired the reputation of being one of the poorest nations on earth. Bhutan is not far behind. It is therefore time that a joint action plan is evolved to eradicate poverty on a war footing not only by India but also by all the remaining members of the SAARC.

Generation and distribution of electricity to fuel fast track industrial development of the whole region should constitute the most critical step towards capacity building in the development of infrastructure. What is needed is political will and trust. An eminent Bangladeshi economist Farooq Shobhan has been quoted as saying that: Energy is an area where all the countries of South Asia have much to gain through co-operation.

Nepal has to get over its hesitation and promote closer economic ties with India focussing on hydroelectric power generation. Nepal’s most bountiful natural resources are the mighty Himalayan rivers. They have remained un-harnessed, which is why Kathmandu is left with no alternative but to import electricity from India. Bangladesh will have to give up its aggressive nationalism, which prevents the export of natural gas to India. It is denying itself the huge revenues that the gas exports could have earned and contributed to its prosperity.

To quote Stanley Weiss an American columnist “ For Bhutan and Nepal exporting hydroelectricity to energy hungry India would generate wealth beyond their dreams. Water to us, said King Wangchuck of Bhutan, is what is oil to the Arabs. For Nepal using hydro-dollars to bring roads, electricity, drinking water, health clinics and schools to the countryside would be the best way to fight poverty – and the Maoists ”.

The need to create both energy and water security of the South Asian region can not be overemphasised. Water sharing of the Himalayan Rivers and exploitation the hydroelectric potential of the gushing rivers linking the power-grids must therefore engage the attention of the SAARC nations as urgently as sharing the resources of natural gas and developing the supply lines of fossil fuels, LNG and so on.

Let us get down to specifics. The India- Pakistan Indus River water-sharing arrangements and power generation were an important milestone in this direction. What was it?

Indus Water Treaty 1960
Sovereignty over the State of Jammu and Kashmir has given India control and the ability to regulate the raging icy waters of the Himalayan rivers that sustain agriculture, food production and generation of hydro-power in the north western part of India and most of Pakistan.

The irrigation systems and the network of canals that made the green revolution possible in the Punjab on either side of the international border are dependent on the flows of the river waters of the Indus and its tributaries. The Himalayan rivers also feed the extended irrigation canals of Rajasthan and Haryana in India and Sind in Pakistan. Pakistan sees the Indus as critical a lifeline to its agriculture and hydropower generation as the Nile is to Egypt. To India the river waters are vital for its food security as well as its energy needs.

India and Pakistan signed the Indus Water Treaty in 1960. The Treaty allocated Pakistan 56 percent of the down stream flows of the river waters while India retains the remaining 44 percent.
The headwaters of the river systems being located in India, the long-running adversarial relationship between the two nations makes Pakistan uneasy and nervous about India’s intentions. India’s ground level activities in regard to the regulation of the water flows down stream are also suspect in the eyes of Pakistan. On its part on the other hand, India has shown signs of responsibility and awareness of the concerns of Pakistan on this issue on which depends the livelihood of millions of people across the borders.

Within 5 years of the signing of the Indus Water Treaty, Pakistan invaded Kashmir in 1965 that led to the outbreak of a full-scale war. India ensured that the water flows to Pakistan, during and after the war, were not disrupted. One western commentator described the survival of the Treaty, under such onerous circumstances, as a “wonder” in India Pakistan relations of the last 45 years. It is this “wonder” that creates the potential for future bridge building over the troubled waters of the two feuding neighbours.

India’s humanitarian concerns over water-sharing with Pakistan, made it possible for the Indus Water Treaty to survive not only the ravages of full scale conventional wars but also Pakistan’s long-running cross-border terrorism against India, the continuing sub-conventional low-intensity warfare and other border crises, like Kargill, of the past 45 years.

Both countries, Pakistan more than India, however have kept debating, ever since the treaty was signed, about who benefited from the deal more than the other. The debates intensified and sowed the seeds of disputes over time.

A critical element of the Treaty was that it permitted both India and Pakistan to build hydroelectric power projects to produce and supply electricity to the increasing needs of a power hungry region. One condition that constrained reckless exploitation of electricity was that these power projects must not result in altering the course of the rivers.

Baglihar Dam and Kishanganga hydro-power projects
Not unexpectedly, the atmosphere of distrust generated over the Kashmir conflict gave whatever differences that arose out of a purely economic arrangement of water sharing, the colour of political disputes. Thus for example when India undertook to build two hydroelectric projects, one at a place called Baglihar and another at Kishanganga in the Gurez Valley in Kashmir, Pakistan objected to the construction of these power plants and wanted them to be stopped. The Permanent Indus Water Commission was convened and bilateral talks were held on the issues. Meanwhile the issue of the Baglihar Dam at Pakistan’s request was referred for arbitration to the World Bank. The 330 mw Kishanganga hydro-power project is also waiting to be placed under scrutiny by neutral experts.

India sees in these objections the signs of a formal policy adopted by Pakistan of blocking any major power project that it undertakes in the State of Jammu and Kashmir. Fifteen years ago the construction work on the Tulbul project was stopped under the pressure of Pakistani objections. This time round, India decided not to stop work on Baglihar. New Delhi may even go to the extent of disappointing the World Bank if such a request is made.

Both Baglihar and Kishanganga projects became emotive issues in the Pakistani media. India was described as a “villain” with evil designs on Pakistan’s water resources. Hostile write-ups coming out in regular frequency put pressure on the Government not to concede ground on these projects. India, as the argument goes, could use the river valley projects to either restrict or let loose the water flows to Pakistan at will using them to starve or inundate parts of Pakistan. One editorial maintained that the Indian Government should realise that no CBMs and people-to-people contacts could succeed unless New Delhi guarantees not to erect barriers in the peace process by building projects like the Baglihar Dam and Kishanganga hydro-power.

India sees the Pakistan’s support of the Jihadis in the so-called “freedom struggle” against Indian rule in Kashmir as feeding the fears about the river waters. On the other hand, the quantum of water-flows has an impact on the canal systems in Sind and Balochistan in Pakistan. During the lean season when the river waters diminish, acrimonious disputes raise their ugly heads between the dominant Punjab Province and the minority provinces of Sind and Balochistan. India gets the blame for fomenting separatist tendencies and causing instability. India too accuses Pakistan of involvement in the secessionist movements in its North Eastern States and the Maoist insurgency in Nepal apart from Kashmir.

The increasing water and power shortages in both India and Pakistan, will place the Indus Water Treaty under stress. According to Philp Bowring, the US columnist writing in The International Herald Tribune, unless the two countries could move toward enhanced co-operation on water issues, the Treaty may end up with one side abrogating it setting the scene for turmoil. Co-operation would make the usage of the waters more efficient but it would require a much higher level of trust.

Uday Bhaskar of India’s Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses talking to Stanley A Weiss of the International Herald Tribune in May 2005 broadened the argument by saying that the real problem is the lack of political trust between the nations and the reluctance to deal with energy as a shared opportunity.

The Bombay-based Strategic Foresight Group ( SFG ) published a paper in April 2005 in which it raised the question if there can be peace between India and Pakistan without a much broader settlement of issues like that of the waters of the Indus and its tributaries ? In the background of Pakistan’s identity as an Islamic State and for reasons of its domestic politics, Muslim majority Kashmir became a cause for the Pakistani Jihadis. Although an ideological clash with secular India had become unavoidable in the past, one could envisage the majority Muslim population in the Indian State of J & K living in peace enjoying autonomy under an elected government. This pre-supposes a successful sub-continental peace accord in which Pakistan either keeps its Jihadis under control or better still disbands them completely. Two questions however remain : Will Pakistan do such a thing happily or alternatively is it capable of doing it given that the Jihadis might have gone out of the control of Pakistan ?

The SFG argues that the bilateral bickering has kept the arms race going, and worse, it has diminished India’s regional leadership role and limited its global aspirations. India has not sought its destiny by rising above regional rivalries. The paper suggests that India should refrain from equating itself as a nuclear rival but see Pakistan as a smaller state with a sense of vulnerability to a large neighbour and dependent on waters beyond its control. How such a scheme of things will work has not been explained. Is Pakistan incapable of upping the ante when the need arises? Not to be forgotten is that Islamabad has not yet given up using terrorism as an instrument of state policy.

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