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Home / Analysis / The Nehruvian imprint on Indus Waters Treaty

The Nehruvian imprint on Indus Waters Treaty

The Indus Waters Treaty may have prevented “another Korea”, as the World Bank had anxiously observed, but it did not fundamentally change Pakistan’s lower riparian angst nor in its perception of the upper riparian dominance of India.

analysis Updated: Sep 19, 2020, 05:56 IST
Uttam Kumar Sinha
Uttam Kumar Sinha
As a military dictator, Khan’s diktat overrode public opinion, while the democratic Nehru had to contend with domestic opposition.
As a military dictator, Khan’s diktat overrode public opinion, while the democratic Nehru had to contend with domestic opposition. (Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

Exactly 60 years ago, on September 19, 1960, the Indus Waters Treaty between Pakistan and India was signed. Despite the energy and voluminous paperwork that marked eight long years of negotiations, under the aegis of the World Bank (WB), the Treaty was largely viewed by both parties as one which gave away their respective water interests. The two leaders — Jawaharlal Nehru and Ayub Khan — for different reasons felt otherwise and soaked in the historic moment of the signing ceremony in Karachi on September 19, 1960. As a military dictator, Khan’s diktat overrode public opinion, while the democratic Nehru had to contend with domestic opposition.

The Treaty partitioned the Indus system of rivers. The three eastern rivers (Beas, Ravi and Sutlej) with a mean annual flow of 33 million-acre feet (maf) went to India while the control of over 80 maf of waters of the western rivers (Indus, Chenab and Jhelum) was granted to Pakistan. In terms of volume, however, 80.52% of water went to Pakistan and only 19.48% came to India. The ratio of 4:1 favoured Pakistan and India’s initial demand for 25% was raised in the Lok Sabha as a failure of its negotiations.

Many newspapers in India castigated the government for giving in to Pakistan and making “concessions after concessions”. Some parliamentarians felt that had India conceded to Pakistan’s water requirements in 1948, as a “human consideration”, the Treaty would possibly not have been required. As things developed, Pakistan’s demand became bigger and bolder. “I wish,” said Harish Mathur, a Congressman from Rajasthan, in the Lok Sabha, “our government takes note of the feeling in this country. It is not that our over-generousness should be at the cost of the development of this country.”

As the debate grew, Nehru was presented with some uncomfortable facts. First, the unfairness of the terms; second, the cost of the replacement of canal works; and, third, the overall context of India-Pakistan relations. Of the cultivable land in India, only 19% had irrigation facilities while in Pakistan it was 54%. Fundamentally, therefore, India was left with less-irrigated land and even fewer irrigation facilities. This could hardly be justified as fair to India. “It is a kind of second partition which we are experiencing...this is being done again with the signature of our honourable prime minister,” argued Ashok Mehta of the Praja Socialist Party.

The money allocated was equally disadvantageous. Pakistan was to get grants and not loans of about ₹400 crore of the Rs 450 crore required to build its link canals; India would get Rs 27 crore of the overall requirement of Rs 100 crore to build infrastructure. The money was to be given as loans and not grants — Rs 15 crore from the United States (US) and Rs 12 crore from WB. But this was not all. India’s commitment to pay Rs 83 crore to Pakistan in pound sterling, without settling earlier financial dues with that country was incomprehensible to the Lok Sabha. Considering the desperate foreign exchange position in India, it was foolhardy to agree to this. In terms of adjustment of debts that Pakistan owed India, only Rs 6 crore as dues for the waters that India spared over the years was adjusted.

Despite all this, Nehru had a different take. He felt he was looking at the larger foreign policy picture. He emphasised, “It is the context that we have to consider, not a particular bit.” In the political environment of the 1950s, Nehru was not averse to reaching out for peace and tranquillity. These were requisites, he strongly felt, for the stability and development that India desired. It was not that he was blinded by reconciliation with Pakistan. After all, in 1959, when Ayub Khan advocated a “common defence” in which both India and Pakistan would come together to guard the subcontinent, Indian leaders such as Jayaprakash Narayan and C Rajagopalachari welcomed the idea. Even General KM Cariappa was not entirely opposed to this. It was Nehru who cold-shouldered it by famously retorting “defence against whom?”. In the case of the Treaty, however, he felt it was a price worth paying and expressed his disappointment that the House treated it with such “a narrow-minded spirit” and tactfully praised the engineers “who fought for India’s interest strenuously” to take the heat off the debate.

However much Nehru tried to separate himself as the proponent of a broad perspective from the nitty-gritty of negotiations, there was an undeniable Nehruvian internationalist mindset to the whole water issue with Pakistan. His ideals of oneness though clashed with the realities of power politics and interest-oriented relations which he understood, but adamantly refused to accept. The goodwill and friendship that India hoped to gain from the generosity and sacrifice it had shown to Pakistan were belied by Khan’s statements. Soon after signing the Treaty, he talked about the physical possession of the upper reaches of the Indus basin rivers. The Indus Waters Treaty may have prevented “another Korea”, as WB had anxiously observed, but it did not fundamentally change Pakistan’s lower riparian angst nor in its perception of the upper riparian dominance of India.

Uttam Kumar Sinha is fellow, Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi

The views expressed are personal

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