We’re up the creek
The next round of official talks between India and Pakistan on Sir Creek are on in Islamabad today. Much has been written on the issue as a significant Confidence Building Measure. Keeping in mind the suggestions made to the Godbole Committee on internal security after the Kargil war in 2000 and the resolution of the maritime boundary (MB) — with Pakistan adopting a seaward approach and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) in 2002 — it is essential to note issues that favour Pakistan at this juncture.
In the last three years, Pakistan has shifted its old stand, based on historical documents of the 1914 resolution/1924 agreement between the then Province of Sind and the Government of Bombay, to one based on recent maps that draw on the joint survey around Sir Creek. The reasons for this tactical shift are the publicised reports of the melting of glaciers between 1998 and 2002 by artificial means. The retraining of the Indus River to create geo-morphological changes in Sir Creek has been another factor, especially with regard to the shifting eastwards of the centre of the navigable channel — a crucial principle in any boundary determination of a river.
This has been supported by satellite imageries and hydrographic surveys conducted in the area by either side. It is not hard to understand why the GoI had unwittingly agreed to the joint surveys in 2005. If indeed the river channel has shifted eastwards, we may face the reality of Pakistan deriving more sea areas in Sir Creek. This has serious implications for our fishing rights and national security, as Pakistan is brought closer to Indian installations by almost 20 nautical miles (NM).
A seaward approach based on the Unclos principles, from 200 NM to approx 30 NM using the equidistant principle without involving any disputed baseline points (BLP) in Sir Creek can easily resolve 170 NM of the MB. This will enable both countries to exploit their sea resources for fish, oil, gas and minerals. Once a common BLP is agreed upon, it is easy to determine the MB for the balance 30 NM.
While Pakistan had promulgated their BLP with point ‘K’ in our waters east of Sir Creek — the point has been officially objected to by India — India’s BLPs, demarcated with extensive hydrographic surveys and cleared by State agencies, is pending promulgation since 2003. This further erodes our stand.
Since the BLPs are most important for the enforcement of maritime zones, for determining continental shelf claims, for the exploitation of sea resources and finally to determine the MB, it would be prudent for India to promulgate its BLPs as per Unclos. The cost implications of delays in offshore development projects have run into hundreds of crores of rupees. This naturally impinges upon early food and energy security for India. Any further delay in promulgating India’s BLPs may also result in our negotiating with Pakistan on continental shelf areas, once our submissions are made before the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, under Article 76 of Unclos, before 2009.
While a politically acceptable solution is desirable for durable peace, India must avoid a repeat of what it is going through in Palk Bay along the IBL with Sri Lanka after ceding Kachativu island to Sri Lanka in a MB resolution. This has grave socio-economic consequences for Indian fisherfolk.
It is essential to agree on conflict resolution in the area during the negotiations. It would be prudent to agree on the construction of an offshore platform at the common BLP with an offshore, cable-powered reliable light house with clear arcs of light on either side of the MB that line up to a range of 20 NM. This will guide the fishermen also. This can be augmented by the placement of about six offshore solar-lighted buoys along the agreed MB at intervals of 5NM each which will make it easier for fishermen to remain within their limits and also facilitate the maritime forces on either side to enforce the rule of law. These navigational aids, along with the general lighthouse under construction at the eastern bank of Pir Sanai creek will provide adequate safety to the maritime forces and the fishermen on either side and minimise conflicts.
From the internal security point of view, nations’ borders must be recognised by CS/EEZ limits. In the interests of national security and offshore development, it would be prudent to resolve the Sir Creek issue and an MB with Pakistan up to the EEZ amicably by being flexible in negotiations.
Authenticated clear maps/charts, a dispute resolution mechanism for fishermen, adequate navigational aids, education of fishermen and an agreement monitoring mechanism demand the attention of the negotiators. It would be good if similar efforts are initiated with the Bangladesh government also, to agree on the common baseline point on the eastern sea along the Haribhanga river. This will be a big step towards resolving the maritime boundary as per the October 1993 trijunction point between India, Bangladesh and Myanmar.
Rear Admiral K.R. Srinivasan, AVSM, IN (Retd) is former Chief Hydrographer to the Government of India.