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#3243, 27 September 2010
Indus Waters Governance-V: One River, Three Dialogues
D Suba Chandran
Deputy Director, IPCS

On 19 September 2010, the Indus Waters Treaty completed fifty years. Signed in September 1960, between India and Pakistan, the IWT is considered the most successful treaty between India and Pakistan. The Treaty has survived the 1965, 1971 and 1991 wars between the two countries; proxy wars and numerous terrorist attacks. Despite minor problems, there was never a major issue until the 1990s. However, today there are serious issues and complaints by numerous actors of water theft, blocking projects, biasness etc, creating an environment of mutual mistrust, resulting in hysteria of ‘Water War’. What can be done, to counter this hysteria, and ensure that the communities understand each other’s needs?

There is an immediate need to have societal dialogue, at three distinct levels, between the various communities that are living along the Indus river basin. Until today, the primary interaction has been at the state level, between India and Pakistan. The Indus Waters Treaty provides for an Indus Water Commissioner on both sides; these commissioners meet regularly to assess the situation and reach an understanding, if there is an issue. Unfortunately, today, these meetings between the two commissioners are not sufficient, because the issue has become political, due to a deliberate creation of water hysteria, by a section within Pakistan. Led by certain media groups and fanned by other actors, a section within Pakistan has succeeded in creating hysteria; unfortunately, Pakistan government also plays along, to shift the blame on problems relating to the sharing of water between the provinces. 

A track-II dialogue amongst the primary stakeholders (not necessarily the governments and their water departments alone) at four levels is pertinent at this juncture. Such a dialogue at non-governmental levels, will bring together the various communities of the Indus Basin, and make them understand the real issues, concerns and threats. 

The first set of dialogue should be internal – to be held within India and Pakistan. Numerous states and provinces share the Indus waters in India and Pakistan. On the Indian side, J&K, Himachal Pradesh and Punjab live along the Indus Rivers, while on the Pakistani side, two Kashmiri formations and four provinces share the Indus basin. There are multiple problems within the states/provinces in India and Pakistan, eliciting different responses. For example in India, Punjab, Himachal and Punjab do have certain problems in sharing the waters of Ravi River. On the Pakistani side, Punjab province has problem with other three provinces over sharing the waters and construction of dams. Construction of the Kalabagh dam has been the single most  controversial issue. Besides, Muzaffarabad and Gilgit have serious problems over the sharing of waters and the construction of Mangala and Bhasha dams.

Until today, the primary dialogue has been held between the states/provinces in resolving the problem. There is a need to initiate a track-II dialogue and bring the various stakeholders, primarily the farmers inside the dialogue. Unfortunately, the agenda of internal water dialogue is hijacked by political parties and media groups, who have their own vested interests. Given a chance, the primary stakeholders may view the problems differently, and come with a different solution!

The second level of track-II dialogue should be held between Indus Basin stakeholders in India and Pakistan. While the present dialogue is primarily led by the Indus Water Commissioners, there has hardly been any meeting even between the two Punjabs; there is a need for the entire community comprising Himachali, Punjabi, Kashmiri, Sindhi, Pashtun and Balochi to come together as the Indus Basin Community, perhaps one of the oldest communities in the world. Until 1947, there have been regular interactions at multiple levels within this community; unfortunately, in the post-1947 period, they have almost forgotten their ‘Indus’ identity. Such a track-II dialogue between various societies living along the Indus Basin will create an ‘Indus’ identity, which will further make them understand each other’s needs, in terms of sharing the Indus waters. Today, the Mekong River is creating such an identity for different societies living across China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. Though established only in 1995, the Mekong River Commission has become a symbol of cooperation at track-I and track-II levels. 

Third level of track-II dialogue should be held at intra-Kashmiri level. Today there is a bus service and trade – both functional for the last couple of years between the two parts of J&K. While J&K on the Indian side has passed a resolution in the Legislative Assembly calling for the scrapping of the treaty, both the political entities under Pakistan’s control has no representation in the Indus River System Authority (IRSA). Emotionally, Kashmiris on both sides of the LoC feel that the Indus Waters is theirs and is being colonized by India and Pakistan.

It is important for the societies living on the Indus Basin to meet and understand each other, if the Indus Waters Treaty has to perform better. Such track-II initiatives will remove mistrust and make them understand each other’s concerns. 

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