India and Pakistan

An Atlantic report

The signing of the Indus Water Treaty in Karachi in September was, as President Eisenhower so correctly put it at his press conference, "One bright spot… in a very depressing world picture." The treaty marks the end of a twelve-year fight between India and Pakistan over the division of the waters of the immense Indus River basin, a parched and hilly region which overlaps northwest India and a major section of West Pakistan. The Indus treaty is the first real rapprochement India and Pakistan have had since the bloody partition of the Asian subcontinent in August, 1947. And inasmuch as the fight over the waters was considered by many to be the most explosive of the many disputes between the two countries, there now is at least hope that India and Pakistan can become more neighborly.

When the British raj pulled out of the subcontinent two years after the end of World War II, Muslim Pakistan also pulled out of predominantly Hindu India. In partitioning the land on a religious basis, the peculiarities of the Indus momentarily were ignored. This 1800-mile-long river rises in the Himalayas of Tibet, is fed by six tributaries, and now forms a sort of unwieldy international fire hose with India, at the headwaters, controlling the spigot, and Pakistan, down-country, at the unpredictable nozzle. Further complicating this, the canals and barrages built under British rule to serve a unified area were, under partition, left pretty much on the Pakistani side of the border.

It was not until eight months after partition that India decided to cut off the flow of some of these waters from the Pakistani canals in order to divert them into its own parched areas. And it was then, in 1948, that the two nations realized they had real trouble on their hands.

India temporarily restored the flow - at a price. But basic negotiations between India and Pakistan had little success until August, 1951, when David E. Lilienthal, former head of both the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Atomic Energy Commission, did an on-the-spot article for Collier's magazine. Lilienthal noted that almost half the Indus waters, with a flow equal to that of the Nile and four times that of the Colorado, are wasted during the summer months, either through evaporation or flow into the Arabian Sea. He suggested that the problem was economic, not political, and that it should be settled by engineers agreeing on a unified development of the basin. He thought it conceivable that the World Bank might help.

The World Bank thought so too. Within a month of the article's publication, Eugene R. Black, the Bank president, made a "good offices" proposal to both India and Pakistan, and it was accepted. But as negotiations continued, it became apparent that Lilienthal's unified development idea had ignored the deep enmity of India and Pakistan. The waters would have to be split.

Dividing the waters

The Bank proposed that India be given the waters of the Indus' three eastern tributaries –the Sutlej, Beas, and Ravi - and Pakistan the waters of the three western rivers - the Chenab, Jhelum, and the Indus proper. The Kabul, which rises in Afghanistan and flows into Pakistan, was excluded. Pakistan's share was, and is, the larger - 80 per cent of the flow. But unlike India's, its land is only marginal desert right now. India's gain was to be in increased development, in Punjab in the north and in parched Rajasthan, south of Delhi. In addition, India was to foot the bill in diverting the waters, so that the existing Pakistani canals and irrigation works would be fed from the three western rivers and left independent of India's three eastern ones.

But negotiations were delayed. Pakistan, beset by changing governments and political opportunists, was unable to commit itself. India, growing impatient, delivered an ultimatum that it would divert what water it needed by 1962, settlement or no settlement. Border incidents arose. Pakistan prepared to take the case to the United Nations. Then, last year, the Bank suggested foreign loans and grants to help India with the financial burden. The program grew more ambitious.  Pakistan, with outside help, could now look to water storage and hydroelectric development, instead of mere replacement of what it once had.

Coincident with this, two outside factors came into play. Communist China began its incursions, first into Tibet, and then into the Indian border regions themselves, causing Prime Minister Nehru to realize he now had more than the Pakistani boundary to defend. And in Pakistan, Field Marshal Ayub Khan became a strong-man President, fully as much a popular master of his country as Nehru was in India. As one Pakistani official in Washington put it, "Ayub no longer had to do the political truckling his predecessors did."

In the midst of these rosy prospects for settling the Indus dispute, negotiations all but stopped last July in a very deep disagreement over water which India needed to retain from Pakistan's three western rivers in order to irrigate and develop some isolated areas in the Indian hill land.

Agreement by cajolery

William A. B. Iliff, the British-born vice president of the World Bank, who has nursed negotiations along for a good many years, left Washington immediately for more face-to-face conferences with Nehru and Ayub. "One had to use cajolery," he explained. "An international treaty where each side gets what it wanted must be a bad treaty. And certainly, in this instance, each side is not getting all it wanted."

Iliff's "cajolery" was successful. After some final compromises at the Bank's Washington headquarters at the end of August, the treaty was dispatched to the printers in preparation for signing by Nehru and Ayub in Karachi in September.

Ghulam Mueenuddin, Pakistan's chief negotiator, later explained: "The biggest factor was the moral pressure of the Bank. Both of us were terribly reluctant to appear before the world and say we were not prepared to accept the Bank's advice."

Niranjan D. Gulhati, India's chief negotiator, conceded that his greatest frustration was in having his word as a professional engineer doubted because he happened to be sitting at the negotiating table in a political cause. But, said he, "We had to keep in view the interests of the other side: they must live; we must live. They must have water; we must have water."

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