We need a more robust debate on damming the Indus water tributaries in India, but we should also try to keep the international debate in perspective.
Professor John Briscoe, an expert on water issues at Harvard, published a somewhat provocative piece in The News (Pakistan) on Monday. He argued that Pakistan was woefully vulnerable to Indian manipulation of the timing of water flows of the Jhelum and Chenab; that the Indian press—unlike the Pakistani media—never noted the other country’s views on the issue, and was instructed on what to say by the Ministry of External Affairs; and that India lacked the leadership of a regional power, as Brazil had been magnanimous in similar disputes with Bolivia and Paraguay.
One should not doubt Prof. Briscoe’s intentions, and it is true that water disputes certainly do not get their fair share of attention in Indian public discourse. But at the same time, it remains easy to blame India, as the larger, democratic and upper riparian owning power, and overlook the other side of the story. Pakistan may be vulnerable, but that does not also make it guiltless. There were several other reasons to be concerned with Briscoe’s argument.
First, as someone who wrote news reports on the Baglihar dam negotiations, I do not think Prof. Briscoe’s portrayal of the media coverage in India is entirely fair. Certainly, mainstream Indian journalists do not appear to have made a good enough effort at independently ascertaining facts about the water dispute with Pakistan, which largely explains similar figures in different news reports. Briscoe links to several reports in the Indian media as proof of the major Indian newspapers speaking in one voice. But if one reads the stories, it is quite clear that the tone is different in each. The Hindu, which is perhaps the least strident in its treatment of Pakistan actually gives a fairly sympathetic account. In sum, Briscoe’s argument that a democratic India spews nothing but biased propaganda is something of a stretch. The similarities in Indian media responses to the water dispute can be explained in other ways too. It is not surprising, for example, that significant international incidents are often depicted similarly in all the major U.S. newspapers. But that does not mean that they are all fed the same line. Even in democracies, there is still such a thing as a consensus.
Second, while India cannot afford to pretend that Pakistan does not have concerns about its water supply, this does not mean the opposite: that Pakistan is not using the water issue to drum up hysteria over Indian regional hegemony. In fact, there is evidence that points to this being a deliberate tactic. Water issues made it into a dossier presented to the United States that accused India of, among other things, fomenting insurgency in Baluchistan, and not accepting Pakistan’s sovereignty as an independent state. The rumours have reached such a fever pitch, that India’s High Commissioner had to make this speech in Karachi to put to rest some of the accusations against India. I have it on good authority that sections of the Pakistan leadership believe that water issues provide a “back door” for getting the United States involved once again in the Jammu and Kashmir dispute. This is one reason why it has long featured prominently in the statements and writings of Pakistan’s leaders. This tactic appears to have failed, at least temporarily, as Hillary Clinton recently stated firmly that water disputes were a bilateral issue for India and Pakistan to resolve.
Third, despite the thrust of Briscoe’s article, India has, in fact, made concessions to Pakistan on the water issue. India acquiesced to World Bank mediation on the Baglihar dam. After a neutral Swiss expert, Raymond Laffite, was appointed and conducted a study, he upheld a few Pakistani objections, but declared that the dam project did not violate the Treaty. India also offered a number of minor concessions to Pakistan prior to the World Bank verdict. India initially acquiesced to changing the design of the Kishanganga dam following Pakistani protestations after a significant delay, but discussions did not end satisfactorily (in fact, the Indian Express carried a rather unbiased report which outlined the Pakistani government’s objections to the project). Again, it should not be said that India has always been correct and fair and Pakistan incorrect and unfair in the matter, just that Prof. Briscoe’s picture is incomplete.
Fourth, Prof. Briscoe’s assessments that India has not de-linked the water issue with the Kashmir territorial dispute and has not demonstrated regional leadership is somewhat misplaced. India has been far more open to talks and concessions on water than on territory, and it has stuck by the terms of the Indus Waters Treaty despite flaring territorial disputes. And while many of us, myself included, may disagree with the propensity of the Manmohan Singh government to ‘delink’ various issues on the bilateral agenda, it is clearly a credit to his statesmanship and demonstrative of his willingness to rise above historical grievances and political calculations (almost to a fault) in a bid to secure long-term goals.
Fifth, India has very similar problems with a much more vulnerable Bangladesh. India has often been unfair in this matter as well. But Indian and Bangladeshi scientists and political leaders appear to have a good enough relationship that they have found ways to overcome some of these problems, and are negotiating others in a civil manner. Water disputes, in other words, may still be disputes, but they have not soured the overall political relationship between the two countries. For someone who lived in Bangladesh, it is surprising that Prof. Briscoe does not consider why India’s relationship with Pakistan has not followed this relatively benign trajectory. Political factors come into play, yet it is worth considering that India is the common denominator.
We need a more robust expert debate on the issue in India, but we should also try to keep the international debate in perspective. Pakistan is indeed vulnerable, and India should be—and arguably has been—understanding of this. At the same time, we should not delude ourselves into believing that this is not a deliberate tactic for continuing to portray India as the cause of all of Pakistan’s ills.