Indus Waters Treaty: A historical perspective

The Indus waters treaty was the outcome of eight years of discussions and negotiations between the Government of India and Pakistan. The Indus is the river of north-west India and Pakistan. It is one of the most important river systems of the world. The extensive irrigation developments in the Indus basin and those in the adjoining parts of the Ganga basin, which gave birth to the science of canal engineering, were not without inter-state and inter-provincial rivalries between the political units of the basins. The main Indus rivers was fed by the Himalayan snow and the five main tributaries from the east.

The partition of India was not the creation of two states, it also involved the split of Punjab in the north-west and Bengal in the north-east. Under the new international boundary the rivers water flowed from India to Pakistan. Projects which were to be taken up, in the future in the Indus basin in the Indian territory could seriously affect and restrict development s in Pakistan, thus the partition of the subcontinent had posed a serious threat to the subcontinent. Sir Cyril Radcliffe, chairman of the Punjab boundary commission was given the task of demarcating the boundary between East Punjab and West Punjab. Joint control by East Punjab and West Punjab was not possible after Partition. The one canal system, U.B.D.C. (Upper Bari Doab Canal) with headworks at Madhopur in East Punjab and the Dipalpur canal with head works at Ferozpore. The lower portions of channels of UBDC which were in West Punjab (were called CBDC) were to receive water supply through the upper portions in East Punjab. Irrigation headworks and canals were to be divide territorially between East Punjab and West Punjab. The arrangement made by the Punjab Partition Committee to assure continued water supplies lasted till 31st March 1948, in the absence of any subsisting “stand-still agreements, East Punjab discontinued on 1st April 1948, with arrangement was made in 18th result that some irrigation channels near Lahore became dry, and soon a new April 1948. On the 3 and 4th May 1948, the question of the supply of water from Upper Bari Doab and Dipalpur Canals was discussed and on 4th may an inter-dominion agreement was signed by which India agreed to give Pakistan all the water she needed in return for Rs.1.2 million. In July, the same year Pakistan was allowed seven years to develop alternative sources of water supply. However Pakistan suggested in June 1949 that India should refer the matter to the International Court of Justice, as bilateral conferences and negotiations between the two countries brought to the fore front the dispute between India and Pakistan over possession of Kashmir. The matter was then transferred to the International Bank of Reconstruction and Development, The World Bank. W. A. B. Illif , the Vice President of IBRD, G. Mueenudin from Pakistan and Niranjan D. Gulhati from India were representatives and India and Pakistan were ranged on opposite sided till the treaty was signed at Karachi in 1960.

The Nehru years

Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was a statesman, but he was also a romantic. He felt for India with a romantic’s intensity, as is so evident in his ‘Tryst With Destiny.’ Thus feeling as he did for India and her people, it is no surprise that Nehru more than anyone else stands for post independence India. The India that we know today was birthed by him. Nehru looms like a colossus upon the contemporary history of post independence India. And as Indira Gandhi said at one place, Nehru grew through the “storm and stresses”, having been a part of the first general elections and the second general elections in 1951-1952 and 1957 respectively. In Pakistan, Liaquat Ali Khan, took over as Prime Minister, after Mohammad Ali Jinnah in September 1948, only to be assassinated in October 1951. By mid 1951 the state of the country was deteriorating over the anti-Ahmadiya and other issues, the situation deteriorated further and a new constitution was proclaimed by 1956. The dominion of Pakistan now became the Islamic republic of Pakistan. President Iskandar Mirza took over. No elections could take place however, like in India and the Prime-Minister-ship changed hands frequently. President Mirza declared a coup d’etat in 1958 and Ayub Khan took over as President. Martial law was imposed and a new constitution promulgated in Pakistan which came into force by 1962. In India the Congress party ruled over the period of negotiations (1947-1960), the Muslim Legaue ruled in Pakistan till 1954.

The Indus-waters dispute: Post partition

The real problem of the Indus waters had arisen out of the fact that out of 26 million acre of land irrigated annually by the Indus canals post-partition, only 5 million acres of land fell in India and 21 million acres of land in Pakistan. India’s concern was to develop new uses from the Indus rivers to increase her irrigated agricultural area from 5 million acres. All these problems had to be resolved in an atmosphere of migration, displacement of millions with no employment. This was not an easy thing to do.

Eugene Black, the then Vice President of IBRD visited New Delhi to talk to the Prime Minister, Nehru. B.K.Nehru, the director on the World Bank from India was also present. An agreement was reached in 1952 during separate discussions with Prime Minister of Pakistan, Nizammudin and Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru. Both governments had agreed to participate in a meeting of engineers, however the working party reached a deadlock. The bank had rejected the Lilienthal plan (David E.Liliental, former chairman of the Tennessee valley authority and of the atomic energy Commission, USA). The World Bank proposed for a division of waters allocating the eastern rivers (Sutlej, Beas and Ravi) to India and the Western rivers (Chenab, Jhelum and Indus) to Pakistan. This required a new system of canals to transfer the water from the Western rivers in the areas of Pakistan which depended on irrigation supplies from the Eastern rivers. The banks proposal had received a negative response from Pakistan. Indian however felt, that the cost of link canals in Pakistan would be detrimental to the economic development of India but was even prepared to accept the bank’s proposal as the basis to an agreement which would thereby protect the uses of water within Jammu and Kashmir by allocating a small volume from the Jhelum for Kashmir. However no provision was to be made for any new irrigation development from the river in the Indian territory.

Bhakra- Nangal opens

In a letter dated 25 September 1951, to Eugene Black Nehru had stated that the Bhakra-Nangal project, which was under construction in India would not discontinue work on the project as was suggested by Pakistan. By mid 1954, India had given further indications of her opening the Bhakra-Nangal canals and on 8th July 1954, India opened the Bhakra canals. The Pakistan Times of Lahore and other dailies referred to it as a fatal blow and an act of aggression. Nehru in his speech at Nangal however made it clear that the opening of the Bhakra canal would not lead to any reduction of supplies to Pakistan. Till the end of 1957 they did not come about any way of finding a settlement on the basis of the bank proposal. Pakistan presented its plan on 7th July 1958 in London in a meeting with the Bank. The plan provided for irrigation uses for the western rivers in Pakistan. The irrigation uses however were in excess to what had been proposed by Pakistan earlier at Rome. India soon came up with an alternative plan. The Bank continued to hold meeting with India and Pakistan representatives through 1958 and by May 1959 the negotiation on the Indus waters seem to be ending. With the third draft done by mid 1960, the treaty was concluded was concluded by 19th September 1960. The Indus waters treaty was a division of the system into parts, Western and Eastern. The Western part (the Indus, Jhelum and Chenab) and the Eastern part (Sutlej, Beas and Ravi) was allocated to India. The Indus waters treaty functioned satisfactorily under the prevalent conditions. The two countries were partitioned in 1947 and their waters in 1960.

Dr. Etee Bahadur teaches Development Studies at Jamia Millia Islamia

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