The two-day secretary-level talks between India and Pakistan, under the auspices of the World Bank, on the issues of Kishenganga and Ratle hydro-electric power plants within the framework of Indus Water Treaty, ended without producing any result. However, the World Bank, which is a signatory to the water sharing treaty between the two countries, has assured its continued assistance in resolving the issue peacefully.
Pakistan and India had been involved in intractable discussions to resolve the dispute regarding construction of two hydro electric power plants namely Kishenganga and Ralte being built by the latter in violation of the provisions of the Indus Water Treaty. This issue arose last year too, when Pakistan requested the World Bank to establish a court of Arbitration to resolve the differences between the two countries. India simultaneously requested the World Bank for the appointment of a neutral expert.
The World Bank initially agreed to set up both the Arbitration Court and the appointment of the neutral expert. However in response to the Indian objection on two parallel processes not being legally tenable, the World Bank decided to announce a ‘pause’ and asked both the parties to resolve the issue through bilateral avenues. Giving reasons for this action, the President of the Bank, in a letter written to finance ministers of both the countries, said “We are announcing this pause to protect the Indus Water Treaty and to help India and Pakistan to consider alternative approaches to resolving conflicting interests under the treaty and its application to two hydro electric power plants. This is an opportunity for the two countries to begin to resolve the issue in an amicable manner and in line with the spirit of the treaty rather than pursuing concurrent processes that could make the treaty unworkable over time. I would hope that the two countries will come to an agreement by the end of January.”
The position taken by the World Bank regrettably was akin to what India had argued. The Indian government welcomed the ‘pause’ announced by the World Bank. A spokesman of the Indian Ministry of External Affairs said “By temporarily halting both processes, World Bank has confirmed that pursuing two concurrent processes can render the treaty unworkable over time. India remains fully conscious of her international obligations and is ready to engage in further consulting on the matter of resolving current differences regarding the two projects”
This action of World Bank was tantamount to shirking the responsibility as a guarantor of the accord charged with the responsibility to ensure that both parties stuck to the provisions of the accord and, in case of failure of the two sides to sort out their differences, appoint a court of Arbitration. The arbitration was even more necessary in view of the threats by Modi government to control the flow of water of the western rivers into Pakistan.
Therefore, reacting to the World Bank decision, the Finance Minister in his letter to the President of the World Bank rightly maintained that under the Treaty no party could ‘pause’ performance of the obligations under the Treaty and the position taken by the Bank would only prevent Pakistan from approaching a competent forum and having its grievances addressed.
As these exchanges were in progress, the Indian government tasked the inter-ministerial to enhance storage of western rivers waters, which was a very alarming development. Under the circumstances, the avoidance by the World Bank to take a position in line with its obligations under the Treaty amounted to almost giving up on its own brokered agreement. The hope expressed by the World Bank, that both sides would be able to resolve their differences, represented lack of understanding of the prevailing situation.
India was actually trying to build pressure on Pakistan to back off from the position taken by her on the Kashmir issue, particularly in regards to current uprising in the valley. It was not a technical issue. India had been threatening to review the Indus Water Treaty in the backdrop of Uri attack which it blamed on Pakistan. In an atmosphere loaded with tensions between the two countries, expecting them to show goodwill in resolving the issue was hoping against hope. The World Bank had a role to play as per the Treaty and it failed that role this time.
Under the Indus Water Treaty, the waters of the Eastern rivers Sutlej, Beas, and Ravi had been allocated to India and the Western rivers Indus, Jhelum and Chenab to Pakistan except for certain uses allowed to India including power generation. According to reliable sources, India was contemplating to launch more hydropower projects with a cumulative power generating capacity of 32,000 MW on the rivers allocated to Pakistan and consequently attain the capability of regulating the water flows to Pakistan, especially reducing water flow in the river Chenab which irrigates most of the land in Punjab. Such a situation could lead to serious consequences and may even threaten peace and security in the region in the event of armed conflict over the issue between the two countries.
It is pertinent to point out that the case of Kishanganga has already been considered by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at Hague, which while recognizing the Indian right to build the Dam, did address Pakistan’s concerns about India keeping the level of reservoirs below the Dead Storage Level. The Court also recognized the concept of environmental flows in rivers to ensure that the power generating projects were operated in an environmentally sustainable manner. The Award announced on 20 December 2013 specified that 9m3/s of natural flow of water must be maintained in Kishanganga river at all times to maintain environment downstream. However, India was not even abiding by the award of the Permanent Arbitration Commission.
Pakistan was not asking for something beyond the treaty obligations of the World Bank. The World Bank needs to revisit its decision and set up a court of arbitration as requested by Pakistan, because there is no hope of resolving of this issue through bilateral arrangement as suggested by previous Indian behavior and it ultimately has to be referred for arbitration.
Pakistan is seeking redress of its grievances over non-adherence to the already announced decision of the Arbitration Court on the issue and stands justified in asking the World Bank to again constitute a Court of Arbitration to look into the matter. The credibility of the World Bank as guarantor of the Indus Water Treaty is also at stake.
n The writer is a freelance columnist.