How civil engineers shaped India’s geography
When India was partitioned in 1947, the Indus Basin was effectively divided into two. Pakistan asserted historical entitlement on water usage, while India emphasised the new geography that Partition presented, and claimed its upper riparian territorial position.
While much of Partition history is about the role of the Congress and Muslim League leaders, the farsightedness of Indian civil engineers — during the process of determining the boundary; their understanding of the seriousness of the asset distribution, particularly the Ferozepur headworks on the Sutlej; and their fear of India being at a disadvantage by the boundary award — is not highlighted.
On August 8, 1947, Sarup Singh in the Punjab irrigation department was a worried man. He had received an urgent message from the deputy commissioner of Ferozepur that the district, with its headworks, was to be awarded to West Punjab.
Perturbed by the outcome, Singh telegraphed Kanwar Sain in the Bikaner irrigation department who quickly briefed Sardar KM Pannikar, the prime minister of Bikaner principality. Pannikar, who as Krishna Menon would say, “…could write a history book in half an hour”, and had served as Hindustan Times founder-editor in 1925, was a close confidant of the Bikaner royal Sadul Singh.
The maharaja was urged to use his contacts with Lord Mountbatten to ensure that the Ferozepur headworks remained in India. Singh, fearing an adverse boundary award, even threatened to join Pakistan if his concerns were not met.
The urgency of the matter soon brought Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Patel into the equation. On August 11, Nehru informed Mountbatten that from the strategic and irrigation point of view, it will be “most dangerous” to let Ferozepur go to Pakistan. No area east of the Sutlej should be part of Pakistan and there should be no joint control of electricity. The same evening, it was made public that the boundary award will be delayed.
That the boundary, before it was awarded, moved a few kilometres west to India’s advantage was because of the intervention of the engineers in Punjab and Bikaner. Had they not intervened, the boundary story would have been different, and possibly, the Indus Waters Treaty would not have been a necessity.
The boundary award with the Ferozepur headworks in India’s hands was viewed in Pakistan as a “territorial injustice”. The headworks were of strategic value. It was the last point on the Sutlej under India’s jurisdiction, and acted as an important defence barrier.
Downstream to the headworks, the river meanders to form a common border. Pakistan’s angst over the Ferozepur headworks being allocated to India remains central to its interpretation of the history of Partition.
After the boundary award, Pakistan could not establish any corridor through India to link its eastern and western territories, and also became increasingly dependent on the canal waters from East Punjab.
The nationalist argument of the civil engineers during the time of Partition was wedded in the political and strategic, and defined India’s right, as an upper riparian country, to establish a claim of the waters in its territory before “. . . downstream utilisation became a prospective right.”
There was also a strong subnationalism as seen through East Punjab. The mood was rooted in the ground reality of water requirements that did not reflect Nehru’s lofty reconciliatory goals.
During the canal dispute with West Punjab, Nehru in one of his letters to the premier of East Punjab, Gopichand Bhargava, expresses his concern over the stoppage of canal water noting, “to stop water for the fields is supposed to be rather an inhuman act…” Nehru was not too taken by the legal and technical merit of water usage that the civil engineers had claimed for, but was far more worried “that this act will injure us greatly in the world’s eyes.”
It is an irony that when the negotiations started on the Indus Basin in 1952 with the prod-and-push of the World Bank, engineers on both sides — protecting their country’s interest — showed remarkable cooperation, emphasising the Indus Basin as a “homogenous physiographic region” and to maximise the available waters, which, otherwise, went unused into the sea.
Uttam Kumar Sinha works at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. He is the author of the book Indus Basin Uninterrupted: A History of Territory and Politics From Alexander to Nehru
The views expressed are personal