The most remarkable instance of India-Pakistan cooperation that has survived two wars and the Kargil conflict, has nothing to do with Bollywood.

At a time when there is talk of war and water war between the two nuclear-armed neighbours, it is time the people of the two countries recognised what a remarkable achievement the Indus Waters Treaty signed in 1960 really is.

World leaders and institutions have lauded the longevity of the treaty between the two nations. Former U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower described it as "one bright spot ... in a very depressing world picture that we see so often". Even today the World Bank describes it as “one of the most successful international treaties, it has survived frequent tensions, including conflict, and has provided a framework for irrigation and hydropower development for more than half a century”.

Most citizens of either country neither recall, nor are reminded, that by the time the Indus Waters Treaty was signed, India and Pakistan had already fought their first war in 1947-1948 and fought their next major war only five years after the treaty was signed in 1965.

This treaty survived the 1965 war which saw the biggest tank battle since the Second World War, then it survived the 1971 war between India and Pakistan which led to the creation of Bangladesh. In this war, more than 90,000 Pakistani soldiers were taken prisoners of war by India. It even survived the so-called proxy war in Kargil in 1999.

Despite the conventional military and economic superiority of India and its military successes against Pakistan, the treaty has never been disturbed. It is incredibly generous because it allots most of the waters of the three largest rivers in the Indus basin—Indus, Jhelum and Chenab—to Pakistan. These three rivers along with the rivers Beas, Ravi and Sutlej make up the basin, though Indus, Jhelum and Chenab account for more than four-fifths of the total Indus-system waters.

The treaty allocates 20% of the available water to India, and the rest to Pakistan, and is that rarest of rare things, an instance of a country signing a treaty handing over waters to a downstream neighbour. China, for instance, does no such thing, as the foreign policy analyst Brahma Chellaney has pointed out, and has no such agreement with its 13 downstream neighbours including India. In fact, there is a rousing campaign against Chinese policies which might check the water flow from major rivers in Tibet upon which nearly two million people across Asia depend.

At its inception, the Indus Waters Treaty peacefully divided one of the great river systems of the world, and at the time the treaty was signed its annual flow was, as the World Bank has noted, “twice that of the Nile and three times that of the Tigris and Euphrates combined; it amounts to almost 170 million acre-feet, or enough water to submerge, to a depth of one foot, the whole area of the State of Texas, or the whole area of France”.

It was signed at Karachi on September 19, 1960, by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru on the Indian side and Field Marshal Mohammad Ayub Khan, the president of Pakistan. At the time waters from this river system supported 40 million people in Pakistan and 10 million in India—about one-tenth of the combined populations of the two countries—and irrigated about 30 million acres, which made it the largest irrigation system in the world, irrigating an area than what the Nile served in Egypt and Sudan.

In 1951, so intractable had the conflict over water-sharing become that the two countries stopped conducting meetings on the subject. That there might be another war over water seemed ominously evident. In 1951, David Lilienthal, formerly the chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority and of the US Atomic Energy Commission, came to South Asia, studied the problem and wrote a set of essays on water sharing in the Collier’smagazine.

He wrote: “India and Pakistan were on the verge of war over Kashmir. There seemed to be no possibility of negotiating this issue until tensions abated. One way to reduce hostility ... would be to concentrate on other important issues where cooperation was possible. Progress in these areas would promote a sense of community between the two nations which might, in time, lead to a Kashmir settlement. Accordingly, I proposed that India and Pakistan work out a program jointly to develop and jointly to operate the Indus Basin river system, upon which both nations were dependent for irrigation water. With new dams and irrigation canals, the Indus and its tributaries could be made to yield the additional water each country needed for increased food production. In the article I had suggested that the World Bank might use its good offices to bring the parties to agreement, and help in the financing of an Indus Development program.”

The World Bank was keen and its then president Eugene R. Black convinced both parties, and especially India, that “it would not adjudicate the conflict, but, instead, work as a conduit for agreement”.

Black took Lilienthal's proposal that the Indus waters issue should be dealt like an engineering problem, to be tackled by engineers. This, he thought, might make things easier because, “all over the world, engineers speak the same language and approach problems with common standards of judgment”.

But the matter was not easily settled and dragged on, as things tend to between India and Pakistan, till 1954, at which point the World Bank stepped in to propose a compromise solution offering India the three eastern tributaries of the basin and Pakistan the three western tributaries. Canals and storage dams were to be constructed to divert waters from the western rivers and replace the eastern rivers supply to Pakistan.

This was unacceptable to the Pakistani side which believed India might be getting a better deal.

The two sides returned to the drawing board by the end of 1954 and negotiations went on for six years. Even at the last step, a hurdle on financing threatened to derail negotiations. But finally, India and Pakistan not only put an agreement in place but also formulated dispute resolution mechanisms and an adjudication process—and a schedule for periodic meetings and on-site checks. The World Bank’s Eugene Black had hoped that the two countries would be able to "treat water development as a common project that is functional, and not political, in nature . . . undertaken separately from the political issues with which India and Pakistan are confronted" and this seems to have come to pass.

From time to time, and especially in the recent past, there have been noises about India’s intentions especially because Pakistan is one of the most water-stressed countries in the world and yet has nearly half its population engaged in agriculture.

Despite the hostility excited by the Pulwama terror attack, all that India is planning to do is use its full share of the waters (now it only takes 93-94% of its share). Another 6% use from one of the rivers designated to it—most likely from the Ravi—makes no difference to Pakistan.

But Pakistani people should be made aware, and Pakistan should publicly acknowledge, that this treaty rests on Indian generosity.

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