Mamata Banerjee may have a point on Teesta, after all. Indeed, why must India rush into river water agreements with other countries that it rues afterwards? The Ganga accord with Bangladesh has led to worrying rise in silt on the Indian side, and the Indus Waters Treaty must be the only example in the world where the upper riparian state has chosen to deny itself 80% of the water that flows into Pakistan through the Indus system’s six rivers. India gets just about 20% of the waters!
Banerjee must have gone by the available evidence when she urged caution on signing an accord on Teesta with Bangladesh. There are 57 transnational river basins in Asia. Only four of them have treaties covering water sharing; and two of these were signed by India. Other countries are zealously protective of their waters. Even otherwise, the world has yet to come up with an accepted formula for sharing waters between states. One reason for this is the assertion by countries like China, Turkey and others that they have sovereign rights over rivers that flow through their territory. What then is the difference in their approach to sharing waters? Well, like Banerjee, they are putting their interests first. The niceties of protocol take a distant second place in their calculations.
As a matter of fact, when in July 1947, Radcliff suggested to Nehru and Jinnah joint management of the vast network of canals in west Punjab (present day Pakistan), Jinnah replied that ‘he would rather have deserts in Pakistan than fertile fields watered by the courtesy of Hindus.’
Later in the autumn of 1947, India and Pakistan decided to have a ‘standstill agreement’ that allowed a specified water flow into Pakistan up to April 1, 1948. On that date, India stopped water flow from two canals into Pakistan, only to resume it after Pakistani entreaties. Therefore, even as Pakistan was committing aggression in Kashmir, we got taken in by its appeal to our large heartedness as a bigger neighbour. This tactic has been successfully employed by Pakistan ever since.
Another complicating factor was the geopolitical situation then. America needed allies in its fight against the Soviet Union. And Pakistan was of use to it by providing man power and an airbase. Non-aligned India was not amenable to a strategic function. This influenced later American policies on both the Kashmir issue and Indus. For example, in 1958, Langley, the American Ambassador to Pakistan, advised Washington, ‘Both Pakistan and India are edging closer and closer to bankruptcy. India in particular was in financial terms becoming more desperate daily… Persuasion alone had failed and will continue to fail unless some facts of international life are impressed upon Nehru.’
Pakistan was quick to sense an opportunity in this turn and exploited it to the maximum. At times it threatened to take the waters issue to the Security Council sending the Americans into a panic. Consequently, the World Bank negotiator in close consultations with the Americans came up with the Indus Water Treaty of 1960 which was and remains highly favourable to Pakistan. That wasn’t all; as a part of that agreement the Americans and its allies paid nearly $1 bn. To Pakistan to construct dams on the Indus rivers, and a nearly bankrupt India was made to cough up £62 million to Pakistan to improve its canals, even as it continues to deny us our right to any works in our territory.
Experts recognise the unfairness of this treaty, but the public at large remains ignorant of it. No treaty in the world can bind a state, especially if it is against its interests. Moreover we have not even utilised the facilities that were ours under this treaty. Thus:
India is allowed 13.43 maf (million acre feet) of the three western rivers waters but uses only 7.9 maf.
India is allowed to tap all 33maf of the three eastern rivers but allows 3 maf to flow into Pakistan.
India can store up to 3.5maf from western rivers. It hasn’t touched a drop yet.
More worryingly, and to take up the line of thinking that may have compelled Banerjee to hold up the Teesta agreement, we have not taken up the issue of changed circumstances. Over the last 60 years our population has expanded, agricultural needs have increased vastly and the manufacturing sector has grown. All these need and demand vastly more water than was allowed to us in 1960.
While that agreement may provide for some of these progressions, we need to assert our case and get those waters.
Moreover, must we be bound by an unequal agreement which our economic woes of the time had squeezed us into? Let’s also consider a final twist of the knife, isn’t it a historical fact that ever since signing the Indus Agreement of 1960, Pakistan has been pursuing an aggressive policy of wars, conflicts and terrorism against India!
Now, once again Pakistan is using persistence, propaganda and America to get its way on Siachen and Sir Creek. We may have moved on from the non-aligned ways,
but have we got out of the trap of repeating history?