In the discussions on the showdown between Punjab and Haryana over the Sutlej Yamuna Link Canal, a recurring theme is the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty, and the division of river waters between India and Pakistan. Under this treaty, still held up as the only India-Pakistan problem that got resolved — with the help of the World Bank — and has endured wars and terrorism, Pakistan got the two western rivers, Jhelum and Chenab (aside from the Indus), and India got “unrestricted use” of the three eastern rivers, Ravi, Sutlej and Beas.
The point to note is that it was India, not Punjab, that got the three eastern rivers — the IWT was signed by the two countries, not by one state of India with Pakistan. The Indian side was able to get this deal only by making the case that it needed all the waters of the three rivers for the development of an area far larger than the present-day state of Punjab.
But India could hardly make the case, as some are doing in the context of the Punjab-Haryana disagreement over the SYL, that an upper riparian state has proprietary rights over the rivers in its territory. Underlying the spirit of the negotiations was the recognition that both sides needed water to develop, and the waters had to be shared in the best possible way.
Indeed, India’s first “draft outline plan” was a basin-wide plan that, according to Niranjan D Gulhati, India’s chief negotiator for the IWT, “ignored the new political boundaries between India and Pakistan: some Pakistan canals would receive their supplies through India, and some Indian canals through Pakistan”.
Gulhati was a deputy secretary in the Ministry of Irrigation & Power in 1948 when he was asked to devote himself to what had then already become a dispute. His book, Indus Waters Treaty: An Exercise in International Mediation is a detailed exposition of how India built its case, and a riveting account of how the countries resolved “the biggest and the most complicated river dispute in the world, national or international”.
The Treaty itself was Gulhati’s labour of love. He became the chief Indian Representative at the negotiations in 1952, and was involved in it from before that. “My involvement was total: all I could ‘think about, talk about, dream about’ was the Indus waters — the eternal roar of the turbulent waters, the gloom in the wastelands of what was then south-east Punjab, the stillness of the Rajasthan desert waiting to become alive,” he writes.
Published in 1973, a good 13 years after the treaty was concluded, Gulhati’s 460-page tome is now out of print. But it is an invaluable resource on the IWT, the 10-year negotiations towards it, and how an intractable problem can be resolved just by keeping at it with the right attitude. And it puts Punjab’s claim over the three rivers in perspective.
The IWT negotiations were mediated by the World Bank, which played the role of a ‘good officer’. Gulhati wrote that “the Indus diplomacy was neither like the highly stylized diplomacy of the old days nor of the goldfish bowl variety. There was no mass audience to address, no occasion for rhetoric nor for inflammatory debating tactics. Instead the approach was functional and highly professional… The negotiators were not just playing with opinions and views, they were measuring and proving ideas by facts and figures”.
In January 1954, ahead of a study tour by the World Bank and the Pakistanis of the Indian side of the Indus basin, it had become important that Punjab, PEPSU (Patiala and East Punjab States Union, an agglomeration of princely states that subsequently merged into Punjab, out of which Haryana was carved out in 1966), Rajasthan and Jammu and Kashmir urgently reach an agreement on the sharing of waters.
Gulhati wrote to the government from Washington saying this was necessary “to bring home the importance we attached to the full utilisation in India of the waters of the Eastern Rivers”.
Before the month was out, Minister for Irrigation and Power Gulzari Lal Nanda had secured an agreement under which the waters of the Ravi and Beas were divided between the four states, with the largest share reserved for dry Rajasthan. The plan for distribution of the waters of the Sutlej led to the sanction of three projects — the Madhopur-Beas Link, Sirhind Feeder, and Rajasthan Canal.
Gulhati describes the Rajasthan Canal as the “kingpin of India’s case, in the 1950s for additional uses from the Indus rivers, which was the raison d’etre of withdrawing eastern rivers from Pakistan and the principal purpose of underlying several successful battles fought by my colleagues and me.”
India’s case for all the water of the three rivers was based on the argument that the canal, for which construction began in 1958, would bring water from these rivers through Punjab and what later became Haryana into Rajasthan — to irrigate 3.69 million acres of the desert. Gulhati wrote that he visualised “new irrigation colonies emerging in Rajasthan, in lieu of Lyallpur and Montgomery we had lost to Pakistan”. India also agreed to pay 62.06 million pounds for Pakistan to build the water works it needed to make up for the loss from the eastern rivers.
Gulhati also describes how the inter-state problems in the Indus basin in pre-Independence India among the governments of Punjab, Bahawalpur, Bombay (Sind), NWFP, and the states of Bahawalpur, Bikaner and Khairpur, were dealt without “undue emotion”, with “emphasis on equal opportunity to all concerned in the use of a common natural resource”.
Those handling the matter were all engineers with a “highly functional and co-operative approach”. Of course, he adds, the colonial government’s power to settle all such disputes with an executive order tended to keep emotions down.
The book, Gulhati says, has something for every kind of person who picks it up — from the water engineer and student of international relations to the historian and general reader. He could have added politicians.