After a hiatus of almost a year, during which period relations have been tense, Pakistan and India have at last returned to the negotiating table to discuss water issues.
Two days of talks between the visiting 10-member Indian delegation led by India’s Indus Water Commissioner P K Saxena and Pakistan’s Indus Water Commissioner’s team have reportedly already yielded some progress. Of the three proposed Indian hydropower projects at Pakul Dal, Miyar and Lower Kalnai that Pakistan has disputed as violative of the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT), the Indian side has reportedly agreed to halt work on the design of the Miyar project, revisit its design and share the new design with Pakistan, as required by the IWT.
It has also agreed to review the Lower Kalnai project. This positive development is in sharp contrast to the virtual impasse attending the disputed projects over the last two years, which yielded last year’s IWT annual meeting’s cancellation because of the intransigence of the Indian side. On top of the agenda at secretary-level talks in New Delhi on July 14-15, 2016, were two other disputed hydropower projects, namely Kishanganga and Ratle. The failure of bilateral engagement on these two projects persuaded Pakistan to take its case to international arbitration through the guarantor of the IWT 1960: the World Bank.
However, India’s demand that the issue be referred to neutral experts stymied that process too. Now with the intervention and facilitation of the US and the World Bank, secretary-level talks have been scheduled to discuss Kishanganga and Ratle in Washington on April 11-13, 2017. Water and Power Minister Khawaja Asif welcomed the return to the negotiating table, while vowing to resist any encroachment of Pakistan’s rights under the IWT at the appropriate forum. It may be recalled that the tensions between Pakistan and India after the Uri attack and perhaps the domestic political and (State) electoral considerations of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had resulted in a ratcheting up of aggressive rhetoric on the part of India.
So much so that at one point Modi threatened to tear up the IWT. Saner counsel, and perhaps the passing of the States elections may have tempered New Delhi’s bellicose attitude, lubricated by the quiet efforts of the US and the World Bank. Whatever the factors that brought about this change of heart and openness to engage in bilateral discussions in Islamabad as well as agreement to meet in Washington in April, it can only be welcomed.
The 1960 IWT is one of those rare agreements between Pakistan and India to have stood the test of time, war, tensions, etc, between the two South Asian neighbours. If the reports about progress in the Islamabad talks regarding reviewing the Miyar and Lower Kalnai projects to meet Pakistan’s objections are correct, this represents the first fruit of renewed engagement.
And if the Washington talks point the way forward to a meeting of minds on Kishanganga and Ratle, this will only provide further proof of the same. It is always preferable for the two states to jaw-jaw rather than war-war, which in any case is unthinkable after both have become nuclear-armed powers. With the help of the US, and under the aegis of the World Bank, the scheduled Washington talks may provide a solution to the vexed issues of Kishanganga and Ratle.
Both the Islamabad and impending Washington talks also hold another profound lesson. It is when Pakistan and India sit across the table that excessively aggressive rhetoric meant for political consumption in both countries gives way to rational discussion and positive outcomes. How much more important is it then for both Islamabad and New Delhi to move forward towards resumption of the long stalled composite dialogue. The Islamabad and scheduled Washington talks on water issues are hopeful signs. Both countries need to build on that momentum to re-engage on all issues that bedevil relations.