The government is not going to soften its stand on the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT), despite India’s successful surgical offensive across the Line of Control, experts have told The Sunday Guardian. In fact, a possible change in India’s position in honouring the 1960 agreement is conjectured, since Pakistan is likely to continue its asymmetric options for some time, while evading war.

“The government is likely to continue building pressure for IWT. Since Pakistan is saying it is a delusion that we had launched a surgical strike, they would not opt for a military retaliation, which they, in any case, are trying to avoid. But this also means they will keep exercising their asymmetric options and pump in terrorists. Since low intensity conflicts will continue, we also have to keep our diplomatic pressures on. So the water aspect becomes important,” Prabir Chakravorty, who retired as a Major General and Additional Director General, Artillery of the Indian Army, told this newspaper.

A source who is aware of the development in the Ministry of Water Resources confirmed that all options are being weighed and the Centre is likely to “play tough” on the “Indus card”. 


The IWT row made headlines when, following escalation of conflict with Pakistan, including the 18 September attack on Uri by Pakistan based Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorists that claimed the lives of 18 jawans, India announced that the meeting of the Permanent Indus Commission, which had been constituted to overlook implementation of the treaty, stands cancelled till “terror is in the air”. 

It was also reported that the Centre might take a call to abrogate the treaty unilaterally, depending on Pakistan’s position and what it did next. The Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson hinted the same when he said “treaties depend on goodwill”. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “blood and water cannot flow together” comment further built the heat on the neighbouring country. It was indicated by unofficial sources that the government may consider reviving work on the Tulbul water navigation project on the mouth of the Wular Lake in Jammu and Kashmir, which was suspended in 1987 after Pakistan contended that it was in violation of the IWT. India has also decided to fully utilise its legal rights on the westward Jhelum and Chenab rivers, including necessary constructions.

Pakistan’s frustration was on the expected lines as it approached the World Bank, requesting it to prevent India from making any constructions on the Jhelum and Chenab rivers that might reduce water flow to the agriculture-dependent country. A Pakistani delegation that met World Bank officials have requested arbitration under Article IX of the treaty that deals with arbitration of disputes with regards to how the treaty is applied or interpreted by the parties concerned. Pakistan has contended that India’s Kishenganga and Ratle hydroelectric plants are not in consonance with IWT.


Experts in India, however, strongly advocate that India has shown exemplary generosity by reserving for Pakistan the largest three rivers that make up more than four-fifths of the total Indus-system waters. “The partition left the Indus headwaters on the Indian side of the border but the river basin’s larger segment in the newly-created country. This division armed India with formidable water leverage over Pakistan. Yet, after protracted negotiations, India agreed to what still ranks as the world’s most generous water-sharing pact: The 1960 Indus Waters Treaty. The treaty, which kept for India just 19.48% of the total waters, is the only intercountry water agreement embodying the doctrine of restricted sovereignty, which compels the upstream nation to forego major uses of a river system for the benefit of the downstream state, noted strategic thinker Brahma Chellaney told this correspondent.

He further said that while in 1960, India “sought to trade water for peace with Pakistan by signing the treaty”, Pakistan used it as a tool to obstruct water projects in Jammu and Kashmir, hampering development in that state. “Critics see this as part of Pakistan’s strategy to keep unrest in Indian Jammu and Kashmir simmering,” he said. India now is trying to make up for the electricity shortage and under-development in J&K by building modestly sized, run-of-river hydropower plants, a move being criticised by Pakistan. 

Brokered by World Bank and signed on 19 September 1960 by the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Pakistan’s President Ayub Khan, the Indus Waters Treaty lays down terms on how the river Indus and its tributaries will be utilised by the two countries. While Beas, Ravi and Sutlej are governed by India, Indus, Chenab and Jhelum are looked after by Pakistan. India is also allowed to use 20% of Indus’ water for irrigation, power generation and transport purposes.

‘The Indus Waters Treaty, which kept for India just 19.48% of the total waters, is the only intercountry water agreement embodying the doctrine of restricted sovereignty, which compels the upstream nation to forego major uses of a river system for the benefit of the downstream state. It sought to trade water for peace with Pakistan’. 


Pakistani analysts have been claiming that under the International Water Law, India does not enjoy the mandate to stop the water flow to a lower riparian and if India actually exploits the fact that it is the upper riparian and hampers flow of water into Pakistan, it will end up setting precedence for China to suspend water flow from Brahmaputra. But Rajni Bakshi, water expert and commentator on social and political movements, laughs off such claims. “It would be inaccurate to suggest that India will be taking a lead by abrogating the Indus treaty. The Chinese have been making intense plans to take the water (of Brahmaputra) northward… In the case of the Mekong river, where China is the upstream power, they have been using their muscle to deprive many of the tiny southern countries,” she told The Sunday Guardian.

Chellaney supported the view: “China, which enjoys unparalleled dominance over cross-border river flows because of its control over the water-rich Tibetan plateau, has publicly asserted absolute territorial sovereignty over upstream river waters, regardless of the downstream impacts.”

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Chellaney also disproved the Pakistani theory that India cannot initiate work on its power projects if there are objections from the Pakistani government. He said that Pakistan has misinterpreted “prior notification” as “consent”. 

“In keeping with a principle of customary international water law, the treaty requires India to provide Pakistan with prior notification, including design information, of any new project. Although prior notification does not imply that a project needs the other party’s prior consent, Pakistan has construed the condition as arming it with a veto power over Indian works. It has objected to virtually every Indian project. Its obstruction has delayed Indian projects for years, driving up their costs substantially,” he said.


The Centre has indicated there will be an inter-ministerial commission to formulate ways to tap in “maximum benefits” for farmers from the Indus water system, aiming to harvest eight lakh acres more land than the 9.12 lakh hectares of land currently being harvested with these waters. 

India is also looking at ways to reach an 18,000 MW of power that is said to be the full potential of these rivers. India, at present, is way behind with a meagre 3,043 MW power generation. 

At the same time, some experts think that quarrelling over water is short-sighted and there should be an overall regional unity to work and prevent the rapid depletion of many river systems. “Watershed is getting destroyed; we are not doing anything to regenerate the environment. What this controversy is highlighting is that in the medium to long term, relations between countries must be seen through the filter of bio-region and the whole discourse will change then. We would be compelled to work together to regenerate the environment. Eco-system preservation has to be a multi-national effort,” Bakshi summed up, while also adding that “the IWT row is a reflection of how far India has been pushed that its leadership is now compelled to even suspend this treaty, despite being generous with Pakistan for many years”. 

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