Disputed Waters: India, Pakistan and the Transboundary Rivers

Date01 December 2016
AuthorAmit Ranjan
Published date01 December 2016
Subject MatterArticles
/tmp/tmp-17hcj5OM2fRQ3t/input Article
Disputed Waters: India, Pakistan and
Studies in Indian Politics
4(2) 191–205
the Transboundary Rivers
© 2016 Lokniti, Centre for the
Study of Developing Societies
SAGE Publications
DOI: 10.1177/2321023016665529
Amit Ranjan1
Water disputes between India and Pakistan reflect the political relationship between the two countries
since partition of British India in 1947. That partition broke the interdependent hydraulic system. In
following decades, tensions between India and Pakistan have led to emergence of ‘water nationalism’
in both countries. In the past, many groups, in both countries, have made appeals to their respective
government to scrap the Indus Water Treaty (IWT) of 1960, but no steps were taken in such direction
by either of the two states. The IWT has survived two full wars (1965 and 1971), one limited war
(1999) and a series of political-cum-military tensions (1987, 1989–90, 2002 and 2008) between India
and Pakistan.
Cooperation, disputes, India, Indus Water Treaty, Kashmir, multipurpose projects, Pakistan, Punjab
The partition of British India in 1947 also partitioned a well-knitted and interdependent irrigation system
in north India. Since then, the two riparian regions—India and Pakistan—which until 1947 were parts of
a single hydraulic unit, have been fighting over sharing of water resources through a large number of
canals. Initially, incremental measures were adopted to resolve those disputes, but in 1960 the Indus
Water Treaty (IWT) was signed after 8 years of negotiations, and mediation by the World Bank. The IWT
addresses many water-related concerns of the two countries but has not been able to resolve their
disputes. The prime reason for it is the political hostilities over a number of issues because of memories
related to partition and construction of an imagination about the ‘other’ in India and Pakistan, since the
partition of British India in 1947.
To begin with, it is pertinent to know the definitional aspect of a ‘River’. In India, a broader definition
was adopted at the first India Rivers Week held on 24–27 November 2014 in New Delhi:
a river is more than a channel carrying water; it is also a transporter of sediment; it is also the catchment, the river
bed, the banks, the vegetation on both sides, and the floodplain. The totality of these constitutes a river. A river
harbours and interacts with innumerable organisms (plant, animal and microbes). It is a natural, living, organic
The views expressed are personal and do not reflect or represent the views of the institute.
1 Research Fellow at Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi, India.
Corresponding author:
Amit Ranjan, Research Fellow at Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi, India.
E-mail: amitranjan.jnu@gmail.com


Studies in Indian Politics 4(2)
whole, hydrological and ecological system, and part of a larger ecological system. A river is also a network of
tributaries and distributaries spread over its basin and the estuary. (Iyer, 2015, p. 447)
Hence, the water disputes between India and Pakistan are also disputes over the constituent elements of
those rivers. In this article, an attempt is being made to address the following questions: Why water
disputes exist between India and Pakistan? To what extent these water disputes are being affected by
their bilateral political tensions? Can the two countries cooperate over transboundary rivers water issue?
In this article, the author argues that cooperation over transboundary rivers water between India and
Pakistan is dependent on their bilateral relationship, and provisions in the IWT can be explored to reduce
their seasonal tensions over water sharing.
Excluding introduction and conclusion, this article is divided into four parts. The first section discusses
the history of canal system in the region; the second section discusses the signing of IWT; the third
section discusses the existing confrontations over the IWT; and the last section discusses about prospects
for cooperation, if any. In this article, the word ‘region’ is used for catchment areas of Indus River
System (IRS).
In this article, the original document of the IWT has been used as a primary source and to analyze
provisions for cooperation and reasons for disputes over them between India and Pakistan. The newspaper
reports of 1960, when the IWT was signed, have been used to look into the background and the related
‘euphoria’ over it. Face-to-face discussions and interactions on social media and through electronic mails
with a few individuals from both sides of the IRS catchment region have helped the author to build up
his arguments over this issue. As in the past, the author has written and published essays and articles on
this theme, some of the ideas and materials have been unavoidably repeated in this article (see Ranjan,
2011, 2015a, 2015b).
Partition of a Single Irrigation System
The northern part of India and large parts of Pakistan are fed with the IRS which comprises Indus,
Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, Beas and Sutlej and its extended tributaries, Kabul and Khurram, which rise in
Afghanistan. These rivers along with many small tributaries have fed this region through centuries. They
have helped in settlement of human beings and beginning of agricultural practices on the banks of IRS,
which resulted in evolution of the Indus Valley Civilization, one of the most developed civilizations of
ancient world. Even the word ‘Hindu’ (a religious group) has been derived from the River Indus (Thapar,
2014, p. vii). In ancient and medieval India, to promote agriculture activity irrigation structures were
built by the rulers, but canal networks were set up during the Mughal period (1526–1857). During that
period, canals were constructed to facilitate agricultural activities in areas ruled by the Mughal kings. In
Punjab proper, a small system of canals was brought into existence in the Upper Bari Doab. The best
known was the ‘Shahnahr’, excavated during the reign of Shahjahan. It took off from the Ravi at Rajpur
(or Shahpur) close to the hills and carried water up to Lahor (Lahore)—a distance of about 37 kurohs, or
84 miles (Habib, 2014, p. 37). These canal systems helped the Mughals to collect sufficient tax out of
agricultural produce and allied activities.

Ranjan 193
When the British set up their imperial rule in India, an irrigation system was there; they, with their
technology, brought a revolutionary transformation in it. Over a period of time, the British imperialists
constructed, extended the reach and improved the conditions of a series of canals to support production
of primary resources for their industries and extract revenues out of those activities. In Punjab, six
million acres of desert was transformed into one of the richest agricultural regions in Asia (Talbot, 2007).
Agriculture was commercialized and farmers were encouraged to grow ‘cash crops’ (mainly indigo,
cotton, etc.) instead of food grains (Jodhka, 2004), which was a reason for intermittent famines and
starvation deaths in India, including in water-rich areas. Besides economic gains, the construction of
canals was also related to the political imperatives of state building in the Indus Basin region. For the
British, as much as for the earlier Indus Basin states, the link between canal building, agricultural
settlement and political control was central to the construction of state power (Gilmartin, 1994). As Sir
Charles Aitcheson maintained, ‘It is of the greatest importance to secure for these tracts manly peasantry
capable of self-support and of loyal and law-abiding disposition’ (Talbot, 2007, p. 7). In these areas,
canal colonies were situated in tracts designated as crown wasteland. Since the owner of the land was the
state, it controlled the canal system, the water source, and agriculture depended on the will of the ruling
authority (Ali, 1988, p. 10). The state distributed the land in canal colonies to the loyalist castes and loyal
retired soldiers. In the process, a class system was formed where some got land (on lease, not on
hereditary basis), while others were made a part of it to do menial works. This structure helped to bring
prosperity in the region, though a lopsided one (ibid.).
In 1947, the above-mentioned interdependent irrigation unit was partitioned between two sovereign
countries, which were born to remain in perpetual conflicts (Wolpert, 2011, p. 7). As the partition of
British India was ‘claimed’ to be on the basis of religion, the border demarcation was supposed to be on
the basis of religious demography; but there were so many interrelated complexities that Sir Cyril
Radcliffe, head of the Boundary Commission, took into consideration geographical and administrative
determinants too. Those important ‘other factors’, which he took into consideration, were routes of water
canals, railways communication lines and administrative districts.
At the time of drawing the partitioning line, in both Punjab and Bengal award, many times, Radcliffe
discussed canals, canal headworks roads, railways and ports before turning to population factors (Chester,
2009, p. 80). In some cases, explicitly stated in his award, Radcliffe gave these considerations more
importance than what he gave to the contiguous religious minorities (ibid.). Muhammad Munir, one of

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