Home / Opinion / Views /  Indus Waters Treaty: Balancing national interests and global image

The Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) has survived the several vicissitudes of India-Pakistan ties. Apart from the wars the two countries fought, Pakistan has been regular in its complaints against Indian actions as an upper riparian state. There has also historically been great dissatisfaction within Jammu and Kashmir on the grounds that the Treaty directly restricted its right to use the waters – the state legislature even passed a resolution in the early 2000s calling for abandoning the Treaty and later for at least revising it. Last week, New Delhi finally served notice to Pakistan, asking for modifications as the Treaty itself allows.

What explains the Indian move?

For one, Pakistan has since 2015 been objecting to two Indian hydroelectric projects, one on the Jhelum and the Chenab rivers, without explaining to India at any of their Permanent Indus Commission meetings exactly what its reasons were. Further, after first requesting the World Bank, also a party to the Treaty, to appoint a Neutral Expert, it switched to asking for a Court of Arbitration. For its part, last year, the World Bank inexplicably decided to launch both Neutral Expert and the Court of Arbitration processes. New Delhi has argued that the two mechanisms running simultaneously create the potential for contradictory judgements and undermining the Treaty itself; its move to amend the Treaty came two days before the latter body met for the first time.

Two, the Treaty is outdated in terms of the technical specifics it covers or caters for – Indian interlocutors themselves have been arguing thus, for years.

Three, the technical and political merge in that Pakistan has become adept at using the provisions of the Treaty to delay or obstruct Indian development activities on the rivers under the purview of the IWT. The spirit of the law is, it would appear, being undermined by the letter of the law.

Four, the World Bank itself appears incompetent, partisan or both in the process, given its decision last year. Not only does New Delhi find this unacceptable, but it is also today in a stronger position to counter.

Five, and also related to India’s stronger weight and standing in international politics, is the possibility that its government is no longer minded to give Pakistan the leeway to do as it wishes. The Indian government could well be taking advantage of its neighbour’s domestic preoccupations, including economic crisis and major internal security concerns in both its northwest and southwest.

Naturally, this is an approach that has one eye on India’s own domestic political dynamics as much as it has on the bilateral.

Domestic politics continues to be possibly a consideration for a sixth reason. The dilution of Art 370 has not led to the degree of political capital for New Delhi in Jammu & Kashmir or Ladakh that it had imagined it would. Initiating a process of change in the provisions of the Treaty might be one way to address historical disaffection over the IWT and earn some respite from other political pressures.

However, India will have to tread carefully.

For one, while both India and Pakistan confront climate change-related issues, including melting glaciers, for the moment, it is the latter that faces the greater challenges. It is both severely water-scarce and has flood management problems, and any suggestion India is abandoning the IWT could be seen as a national security issue in Islamabad and Rawalpindi. It might even serve to unite the disparate political forces and power centres in Pakistan that are otherwise at loggerheads in that political system.

For another, while India holds most of the cards as an upper riparian state on the Indus, it has to consider the consequences in its east with respect to the Brahmaputra, where it is China that holds all the advantages as an upper riparian. Data-sharing agreements on the river between India and China have been piecemeal and affected by bilateral tensions. India’s record with the IWT has, however, always been a model that allowed the rest of the world to see more clearly China’s hegemonic use of its status as the upper riparian state. If the IWT crumbles, that is one less mirror to hold up to China.

More broadly, there is also its global image that India will need to worry about. As the world’s attention remains focused on the Russia-Ukraine crisis and a general consensus holds that China is the aggressor in the current tensions on the India-China boundary, New Delhi is in a geopolitical sweet spot, seen as being responsible, patient and standing up to bullies. To fail to work out the kinks in the IWT or, worse, to appear like a bully itself in the process might reverse this impression that India has developed so assiduously after much work at home and diplomacy abroad.

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