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Indus Water Treaty at 60: why there is a need to give it a fresh look

The role of India, as a responsible upper riparian abiding by the provisions of the treaty, has been remarkable but the country, of late, is under pressure to rethink the extent to which it can remain committed to the provisions, as its overall political relations with Pakistan becomes intractable.

Written by Uttam Kumar Sinha |
Updated: September 20, 2020 10:21:10 am
Indus Water Treaty, Indus Water Treaty india pakistan, indus river, jhelum, india pakistan water sharing, india pakistan news indian express explainedKishanganga, a tributary of Jhelum in Bandipore district of Jammu and Kashmir in 2012. (Express Archive)

September 19 marks the 60th anniversary of the Indus Water Treaty (IWT) between India and Pakistan, a treaty that is often cited as an example of the possibilities of peaceful coexistence that exist despite the troubled relationship. Well-wishers of the treaty often dub it “uninterrupted and uninterruptible”. The World Bank, which, as the third party, played a pivotal role in crafting the IWT, continues to take particular pride that the treaty functions.

The role of India, as a responsible upper riparian abiding by the provisions of the treaty, has been remarkable but the country, of late, is under pressure to rethink the extent to which it can remain committed to the provisions, as its overall political relations with Pakistan becomes intractable.

Equitable water-sharing

Back in time, partitioning the Indus rivers system was inevitable after the Partition of India in 1947. The sharing formula devised after prolonged negotiations sliced the Indus system into two halves. The three ‘western rivers’ (Indus, Jhelum and Chenab) went to Pakistan and the three ‘eastern rivers’ (Sutlej, Ravi and Beas) were portioned to India. Equitable it may have seemed, but the fact remained that India conceded 80.52 per cent of the aggregate water flows in the Indus system to Pakistan. It also gave Rs 83 crore in pounds sterling to Pakistan to help build replacement canals from the western rivers. Such generosity is unusual of an upper riparian.

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India conceded its upper riparian position on the western rivers for the complete rights on the eastern rivers. Water was critical for India’s development plans. It was vital, therefore, to get the waters of the ‘eastern rivers’ for the proposed Rajasthan canal and the Bhakra Dam without which both Punjab and Rajasthan would be left dry, severely hampering India’s food production. Jawaharlal Nehru, while inaugurating the Bhakra Canals in 1963, described it as “a gigantic achievement and a symbol of the nation’s energy and enterprise”.

In Pakistan, however, it was an occasion of strong resentment, grieving that India got away with the total flow of 33 million acre-feet on the eastern rivers “virtually for a song”. Nehru was always conscious that the Bhakra Canals should not be at the cost of reduced water supplies to Pakistan. However, he was also very clear that India’s interest on the eastern rivers should be protected hoping that the two countries should someday come to live “amicably and cordially as the United States and Canada live in North America”.

Indus Water Treaty at 60: why there is a need to give it a fresh look Jawaharlal Nehru and Choudhary Ranbir Singh with two other collegues looking at Bhakra Dam. (Archives)

Increasing unease

That, of course, has not happened. On the contrary, the Pakistan leadership considers the sharing of the waters with India an unfinished business. What is disputable today has nothing to do with water sharing, which is settled under the IWT, but whether the Indian projects on the western rivers, in particular Jhelum and Chenab, as Pakistan claims, conform to the technical stipulations. Being a lower riparian state, Pakistan’s scepticism of India allows it to increasingly politicise the issue. It is not surprising that it maintains high troop levels and alertness around the canals on the eastern front, fearing that India will try to take control of the western rivers.

Clearly, due to its strategic location and importance, the Indus basin continues to receive considerable international attention. In fact, David Lilienthal, who headed the Tennessee Valley Authority and later the Atomic Energy Commission, after visiting India and Pakistan in 1951, feared that “another Korea is in the making”, prompting the World Bank to mediate the water sharing arrangements.

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Every now and then, there is a clamour in India for abrogating the IWT as a response to Pakistan’s cross-border terrorism and intransigence. Any attempt towards this would require a number of politico-diplomatic and hydrological factors to be determined as also a political consensus. That the treaty has remained “uninterrupted” is because India respects its signatory and values trans-boundary rivers as an important connector in the region in terms of both diplomacy and economic prosperity. There have been several instances of terror attacks — Indian Parliament in 2001, Mumbai in 2008, and the incidents in Uri in 2016 and Pulwama in 2019 — which could have prompted India, within the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, to withdraw from the IWT. However, on each occasion, India chose not to do so.


With abrogation an option that India is hesitant to take, there is a growing debate to modify the existing IWT. While the treaty may have served some purpose at the time it was signed, now with a new set of hydrological realities, advanced engineering methods in dam construction and de-siltation, there is an urgent need to look at it afresh.

Article XII of the IWT says that it “may from time to time be modified” but carefully notes “by a duly ratified treaty concluded for that purpose between the two governments”. Pakistan will see no merit in any modification having already got a good deal in 1960. India’s best option, therefore, would be to optimise the provisions of the treaty.

India has been woefully wanting in not utilising the 3.6 million acre feet (MAF) of “permissible storage capacity” granted by the IWT on the western rivers. Poor water development projects have allowed 2-3 MAF of water to easily flow into Pakistan which needs to be urgently utilised. Further, out of the total estimated capacity of 11406 MW electricity that can be harnessed from the three western rivers in Kashmir, only 3034 MW has been tapped so far.

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Uttam Kumar Sinha is Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.

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First published on: 19-09-2020 at 04:20:11 am
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