How India lost the hydro-disciplining battle against Pakistan – the road from Partition, War, Drought and the signing of the Indus Water Treaty.

(A version of this piece appeared in Firstpost on Apr 06, 2019)

What might have been if India had not been partitioned. If Jinnah had not died. If China had not taken over Tibet. If.

Last time we saw how the Indus Valley was transformed by the British – which was rooted in securing a territory, and prioritizing immediate revenue gains over longer term, local resilience. These changes paled before the partition of the Punjab.

Weaponization of the Indus

Partition. The line drawn across the Indian subcontinent accommodated political and religious pressures, while neglecting water realities. The Indian and Pakistani leadership were too mentally colonised to revert to their pre-British reverence for water. Cyril Radcliffe, a man who had little knowledge and far too little time, drew a line severing a land in days which had stood as one for millennia. When he suggested that perhaps the canals should be treated separately, Jinnah told him to get on with his job and that he would rather have Pakistan deserts than fertile fields watered by the courtesy of Hindus, while Nehru, was said to have replied, what India did with her waters was her business.

Partition and Migration, Image from Wikimedia

Thus when the line was drawn, the bulk of the lauded irrigation canals lay in Pakistan while the headworks were in India. The Indians were unhappy because, as Ashutosh Mishra writes:

Pakistan ended up with 18 million acres of irrigated land for 22 million people in the Indus River system. India received 5 million acres for 20 million people.”

This was worsened by the exodus of partition, where many had to leave their fertile fields and cross the border. Eastern Punjab looked enviously over the line at the rich Pakistani lands, which just days before had been theirs.

The Line; Image from Wikimedia

Pakistan faced a more existential crisis because it was fully vulnerable to India’s ability to ‘turn off the tap’ at the Ferozepur headworks, which lay in Indian hands. Here, we see a potent example of the ‘weaponization of dams’.

Dams, or the temples of modern India, as Nehru called them are powerful, curious things. On the one hand, they help store water and assist in flood control. They generate hydroelectric power, which with very few direct greenhouse gas emissions, is considered a ‘green’ source of power. Dams can provide thousands of jobs during their construction, as the Hoover Dam did during the Great Depression of America, and act as visible symbols of the power of a nation – the ‘temples of modern India’, as Nehru called them.

Dams, however, have their disadvantages. When a river is dammed, the water accumulates behind the dam creating a reservoir and submerging anything that might have existed there before – homes, forests or cities. This is a problem for the former residents. Dams also prevent the movement of silt carried by the rivers to cross the dam with the result that the fertility of the areas downstream is limited. Farmers often talk about the water being ‘thinner’ and less nourishing when a river is dammed. Moreover, dams can trigger seismic activity – especially the truly large ones constructed close to geological fault lines. Think of what millions of tons of pressure exerted by the water held in the reservoir can do to a fault line. Many consider the Great Sichuan Quake of 2008 that killed 70,000 and left millions homeless to be caused by the Zipingpu dam located 5 kilometres from the quake’s epicentre.

Dams are also potent geopolitical weapons. After all, the flow of a river is controlled by the dam. It can be increased or reduced, potentially reducing flooding during peak rainfall and reducing drought by releasing water during lean times. However, if the dam is controlled by another country – the control itself is a potent tool of ensuring the good behaviour of downstream countries, which brings us back to the Indus.

The rivers which flowed from India to Pakistan did not pause for partition. To protect the interests of the downstream population, a standstill agreement was signed on Dec 18, 1947, which provided that the allocation of water in the Indus system would be maintained until March 31st, 1948.

In October of 1947, thousands of raiders (aided and abetted by the Pakistani Army, as many believe) entered Kashmir and proceeded to loot and plunder. This action forced the hand of the indecisive Hindu Maharaja to ask the Indian army for help and sign the Instrument of Accession. Over the winter and the spring, the first war between the newly minted nations continued. Names like “Poonch” and “Uri”, which light up in our minds because of current-day associations were battlefields where boundaries were secured and defended by military action.

Dakotas in Poonch, 1947; Image from Wikimedia

The Standstill Agreement expired on March 31, 1948. India flexed her hydrological muscles by turning off the water flow on April 1st, 1948. As a result of which, 5.5% of the sown area watered by canals dried up just before the critical sowing period in Pakistan. Lahore lost its main source of municipal water. With millions of refugees to be fed, Pakistan had to agree to an agreement that required it to pay for whatever waters it received through the Indus river system. The dam proved to be a potent and strategic weapon indeed as a ceasefire agreement followed shortly thereafter in August 1948. The majority of Kashmir became a formal part of India.

Neutering the weapon – Enter America

This is where the story becomes most interesting. Why did India, who ‘held all the cards’, as A.A. Michel quotes a Pakistani negotiator as saying, move to a situation where it neutered its advantage? Seen in pure negotiating terms, India had the superior in-going negotiating position – upstream, with a functioning tap to compel obedience in an inimical neighbour, with no real need to please that neighbour. How did that transform to a treaty where Pakistan not only got unfettered access to 81% to the waters of the Indus river system, but also got to defang the India’s tap (and got India to pay for part of that privilege)?

To answer that question, we must step back to understand the global zeitgeist at that time. As the 1940s gave way to the 1950s, Britain gave way to America, and the Great Game morphed into the Cold War, pitting American capitalism against Russian communism.

1950 was a momentous year. China occupied Tibet and signed a thirty-year pact with the erstwhile USSR. America needed a foothold in the sub-continent. Pakistan seemed ideal – small, poor, and with a location to die for (adjacent to both Afghanistan and China). America’s wooing of Pakistan began with inviting Pakistan’s Prime Minister Khan for an official 23-day state visit to the United States beginning on May 3, 1950.  During this visit, it is alleged that President Truman requested Pakistan’s premier to let the CIA set up a base in Pakistan (something he was said to have refused). To hedge its bets in the subcontinent, the World Bank advanced a $18.5 Million loan to India for Damodar Valley. America had thus inserted herself into the affairs of the subcontinent. This was a colonialism by commerce and philosophy spread around the world, some argue, by the actions of the World Bank.

File:Eugene R Black.jpg
Eugene Black of the World Bank, Image from Wikimedia

America’s insertion deepened with the visit of David Lilienthal, or Mr. TVA, as he was called. Lilienthal was a member of the Tennessee Valley Authority, a dam system set up during the Great depression, to provide power to several American states. He visited India in 1951 as a personal guest of Nehru and later Pakistan as well and wrote a set of influential articles that characterised the Indus waters as an engineering problem not a political one.

Was this naivete?

After all, Lilienthal’s experience was grounded in the TVA, which was a very different beast. The TVA did not cater to irrigation needs, did not have to deal with two inimical countries – it was an organization created during the Great Depression, to provide power and employment, and not sensitive to politics or timing of water flows. Lilienthal countered this by saying, “plenty of water in the Indus system (in the western rivers to be sure), and two-thirds of it was running waste to sea”. He was sure the answer lay in engineering and finance – (“perhaps with World Bank help”). Certainly, the commercial potential of a giant Indus Water System with the engineering contracts, the orders for steel and concrete, the lucrative consulting contracts was vast. As a fascinating aside, in the construction of the Mangla Dam in PoK, 280 villages were submerged. As per the Institution of Civil Engineers, to which the lead engineer of the project belonged, one of the incentives given to the ‘submergees’ was a UK work permit. Apparently, ‘Around 70% of the Britain’s Pakistani community’ originate from the community displaced by this dam.

Even framed as an engineering problem, was it fair to say there was enough for future needs? To be fair, climate change at that time was not then in anybody’s mind space. Coincidentally, Charles Keeling was soon to head to California to begin his CO2 readings that revolutionized our understanding of how our planet’s climate worked. But was it fair, based on a cursory visit, to say, that for two nations with burgeoning populations and rising economic, an engineering solution was sufficient for managing the waters of the Indus?

Or was it spin?

After all, embedding itself in an Indus water treaty, was a good way for the World Bank (and America) to entrench itself in the affairs of the Indian subcontinent, to guard against Russian incursion.

Eugene Black, the President of the World Bank, and a friend of the well-connected Mr. Lilienthal made a visit to India and Pakistan the subsequent year, and persuaded the two nations – upstream and downstream – agree to World Bank mediation, to agree to a new kind of standstill agreement and to send engineers to sort out the issue independent of the politics, and importantly of Kashmir.

The next few years saw the engineers put forth their estimates of what current and future uses would be that put paid to Lillienthal’s blithe claim that there was water enough for everyone. Meanwhile, around the engineer’s closeted discussions, the world began to change. India began to construct the Bhakra Nangal Dam on the Sutlej, upping Pakistani angst on their share of the waters. Bigger moves were made on the global chess board. Pakistan sank deeper into an American embrace, agreeing to accept American military aid in 1954 and join SEATO (whose stated aim was to prevent communism from gaining ground). The American alliance came with benefits – after all, the World Bank was headquartered in the US.

Bhakra Dam Aug 15 2008.JPG
Bhakra Dam, Image from Wikimedia

Apart from being an impartial, patient, and persuasive mediator, the Bank also politely adopted tough postures in the interests of the negotiations and threatened to pull out if its independent proposals were overlooked. This threat worked on Pakistan, which, being the lower riparian, needed the Bank to be involved. India, too, was keen to keep the Bank in the loop for want of a second five-year plan, which required substantial economic aid that the World Bank could arrange.”

American angst increased with the French loss to communist forces in Vietnam. But the die was perhaps truly case when the Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, visited the Soviet Union in June 1955, and, in return, Nikita Khrushchev visited India later that year with the USSR formally supporting Indian sovereignty in Kashmir. The lines had been drawn: US-Pakistan vs Russia-India.

Ph.Studio/Dec,1955,A10z(iv) Prime Minister, Shri Jawaharlal Nehru and H.E. Mr. Bulganin signing in Agreement, in the presence of distinguished men from diplomatic circles at New Delhi. H.E. Mr. Khrushchev is on extreme right (sitting) on December 13, 1955. Image from Flickr/Public.Resource.Org

1956 saw Pakistan lease space to America in the Peshawar Air Station to US for intelligence gathering. The World Bank meanwhile released its Aide Memoire, acknowledging the timing of water required additional storage facilities and link canals than originally planned for. India, naturally, baulked at the $2.3 Billion bill. It was an uneasy stalemate, as the focus shifted to economics of the issue.

Losing the Battle – Water and Finances

Then Drought struck India. Predicted losses to agriculture in India were 50% during the drought of 1957–58. This partially contributed to the unfolding balance of payments (BOP) crisis in India. The BOP account turned from a surplus of $38 million in 1955-56 to a huge deficit of $620 million in 1957-58. This was due to both heavy imports of capital goods to develop heavy and basic industries as per the Second Plan and food imports to support a growing population. India also became dependent on the wheat imported via the US PL480 programme that allowed for payments in local currency. India had to rely on World Bank good offices to put together a consortium to fund its external currency needs.

Those good offices came with strings attached.

In 1959, when Eugene Black visited India, he got Prime Minister Nehru to agree to the Indus Water Treaty, wherein the three western rivers would go to Pakistan (with a small portion for India to develop for Domestic Use and the generation of Hydroelectric power), and moreover, for India to pay £62,060,000 towards the cost of replacement works that allowed Pakistan to break free of the Indian headworks. Additionally, India would, for a ten-year transition period, continue to supply water to Pakistan. To sweeten this pill, the Bank would sanction a loan towards a Beas Dam. Eugene Black had a busy and productive 1959: he managed to persuagde friendly governments to committed $541 million in grants to Pakistan towards the total bill of $893.5 million of Pakistani infrastructure needed.

Would India have agreed so readily if she had not needed to be in the World Bank’s good books? That’s a question that only history can answer. If there ever was a lesson for fiscal prudence, this is it. But the deed was done. In short order, in September 1960, the Indus Water Treaty was signed, neutering any hydrological disciplining tool that India possessed.

For 12 years, there had been peace between India and Pakistan. Just over 4.5 years after the treaty was signed, the second Indo-Pak war began.

At the start of the series, we asked can the tap be turned off? I think the answer is ‘yes we could’. But we conclude, by asking, is there a point? That’s the next piece.

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