Kalabagh Dam: Facts about the Indus Water Treaty

Another fiction in regard to Indus Water Treaty (IWT) is that it was engineered by Punjab to deprive Sindh of its waters.

While going through writings on Kalabagh Dam I was astonished to come across some articles in which the authors believe that Punjabis, living on the Eastern and Western divide, after partition started conspiring with each other to deprive Sindh of its share of water. It is an allegation of shocking intensity. A student of history may find the accusation of an alliance between the archenemies living on both sides of Punjab against Sindhis a farfetched idea. This narrative, because of its sheer audacity, may surprise the people living in Punjab but reveals the thinking of those who believe unflinchingly in the unjust and oppressive attitude of Punjab. But the effort to establish the existence of a secret plan in 1947-48 had some flaws. The storyline is totally oblivious of the timing of this unholy conspiracy. It was a painful and testing time for Punjab. Cross border forced migration on the basis of religion across the newly carved boundaries of Punjab was a tragedy of monumental proportion. A million people of Punjab on both sides of the divide had lost their lives; and the blood spilled on the cross-border migration had not fully dried. How in this atmosphere, the two warring sides specially the Muslims on this side could get together with Hindus and Sikhs on the other side to engineer a conspiracy against their brothers in Sindh? This may baffle the mind of any neutral person.

Whether the IWT, which was ultimately signed in 1960, was the result of a conspiracy, cannot be established. The fact is, that the need to cater for a legal arrangement for division of Indus Basin water ultimately led to Indus Water Treaty. In most of Pakistan, it is seen as an India Pakistan water dispute and that is what it was. Here it would be of interest to see the difference in interpretation about the responsibility for signing IWT. Mr. Muhammad Ali Durrani, a Seraiki politician and former Minister for Information in Shaukat Aziz’s Cabinet, who pleads the case of lower riparian Bahawalpur, also consider IWT to be against the interests of Pakistan. But the similarity ends here. Whereas others think it to be handiwork of people belonging to Punjab, Mr. Durrani considers it the handiwork of military leader Ayub Khan.

Was Indus Water Treaty engineered by Punjab? To analyze this allegation it will be useful to see what Ayub Khan himself had to say about the attitude of engineers from Punjab and his own contribution in finalizing this Treaty. In his book, “Friends not Masters”, he writes on page 109:

“But before I write of the negotiations with Eugene Black, I should like to describe the confrontation I had with our own technical experts and administrators. I sensed that they did not fully realize the gravity of the situation and were asking for the moon when we were in a position of weakness all along the line. They were also trying to dictate policy and were taking up extreme positions. Some thirty or forty of them were assembled in Government House, Lahore, where I addressed them. I said:

Gentlemen, this problem is of far-reaching consequences to us. Let me tell you that every factor is against Pakistan. I am not saying that we should surrender our rights but, at the same time, I will say this: that if we can get a solution which we can live with, we shall be very foolish not to accept it. Now when I say that, I am in fact saying it to myself because I shall have to take the responsibility for the solution.”

Ayub Khan was obviously showing a touch of realism because India in between 1947 and 1960 had either developed or was fast developing 16 major water use projects including Bakhra Dam and Nangal Dam. These projects were developed unilaterally by India on Sutlej, Ravi and Beas and Pakistan was just a silent spectator – the details about the Indian projects at that time are available on WAPDA website. In view of India’s unilateral action, Ayub Khan in the same meeting warned the water experts gathered in Governor House Lahore in the following words:

“The responsibility does not lie on any of you, so let me tell you very plainly that the policy is going to be mine. I shall consult you whenever I am in doubt regarding technical details, but if anyone of you interferes with my policy, I shall deal with him myself.”

This clear threat to the engineers and water experts mainly from Punjab by Ayub Khan came in the wake of his draconian action against the Civil Servants (most of them from all powerful ICS/CSP cadre) who were unceremoniously removed from service under Martial Law Regulations.

The threat silenced water experts. It was from the Army Chief who hailed from Hazara Division of the then NWFP. To a neutral observer, the indictment by some writers against Punjab seems the most unkindest cut of all; just as hurtful as the general belief in Punjab that those opposing Kalabagh Dam are on the pay roll of RAW.

The trouble with most treaties which are negotiated to settle contentious issues is that hardliners on both sides are unhappy and consider it as a sell-out. The water experts from Punjab consider it harmful to Pakistan and Sindhi nationalists ardently believe that IWT served the interests of India and damaged the rights of Sindh. They are mostly oblivious to the thinking of Indian public opinion. Not surprisingly hardliners in India are also un-happy. A former IAS Officer Mr. PR Chari sums up the situation in the following words, “However, the IWT has its critics in India who argue that India needlessly surrendered 80% of the Indus waters by agreeing to reserve the three western rivers for the exclusive use of Pakistan. As the upper riparian state, India had a preemptive right to these waters. In consequence, the remaining 20 % of the Indus river waters has proven inadequate to meet the needs of the growing population in India that subsists on these waters.”

After signing the IWT, Nehru faced a hostile reaction in Lok Sabha on November 30, 1960. Mr. Arvind Lavakare, a senior writer on Indian issues, mentions in his article (Recalling the Indus Water Treaty or Nehru’s Sixth Blunder), “Members of Parliament belonging to the Congress, PSP and Jana Sangh pointed to the glaring mistakes committed in conclusion of this Treaty.” He further states that within Nehru’s own ruling party, “Congress MPs from Punjab and Rajasthan, Iqbal Singh and H.C. Mathur called the treaty disadvantageous to India stating that both their home states “had been badly let down”. He further mentions, “Ashok Mehta, leader of the PSP in the Lok Sabha described it as a “peculiar treaty under which Pakistan, already a surplus area, would be unable to make full use of her share of the Indus Water and would have to allow it to flow into the sea.”

Arvind recalls the comments of Mr. N.D. Gulhati who led the Indian delegation during the negotiations over Indus waters. Gulhati states: “When I called on the Prime Minister on 28th February 1961, my last day in office, in a sad tone he said, “Gulhati, I had hoped that this agreement would open the way to settlement on other problems, but we are where we were”. Arvind further comments, “Thus, while Nehru believed that the IWT was “a good thing for the country” it has actually become a blinder.” He finally concludes, “What he signed 55 years ago was a Treaty of a suicidal trap from which Indians are unable to escape.”

This narrative, because of its sheer audacity, may surprise the people living in Punjab but reveals the thinking of those who believe unflinchingly in the unjust and oppressive attitude of Punjab.

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