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Analysis: Indus commissioners talks: first step to composite dialogue?

Updated Mar 20, 2017 08:17am

After months of tensions, India and Pakistan have finally agreed to resume talks of Indus Water Commission, which were threatened by the hawkish Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s aggressive policies towards Pakistan. 

Though Indian authorities have publically downplayed the talks taking place on March 20-21 in Islamabad, saying these are just a regular meeting of the Indus Water Commission, the Pakistani officials concerned have termed it of ‘much importance’.

The significance emanates from a letter by Indian Indus Water Commissioner P.K. Saxena in which he proposed to discuss highly important disputes such as the construction of Kishanganga and Ratle hydro projects on Jhelum and Chenab rivers by India.

Pakistan, however, has rejected this proposal as the matter has already been taken to the World Bank for dispute resolution.

The Indus Water Commission was set up following the Indus Waters Treaty signed by the two countries in 1960 after the World Bank succeeded in getting them reach an agreement on a water-sharing formula.

The commission has to meet at least once every year, alternately in India and Pakistan, and is responsible for the implementation of the treaty.  

“These talks are important because India has come back to the table to discuss the issues after refusing for more than a year,” said Mirza Asif Baig, Pakistan’s Indus Water Commissioner. 

“They were talking about suspension of the waters treaty but now they have come out of that paradigm,” he said, adding that the Indian commissioner wrote to him to include the Ratle and Kishanganga projects in these talks but Pakistan declined the proposal.

The last meeting of the commission took place in New Delhi in May 2015. The officials of the two countries could not meet for the annual meeting in 2016 because of heightened tensions between the two governments as Premier Modi threatened to suspend the treaty, saying ‘blood and water cannot flow together’, following an attack on an Indian military base in held Kashmir.

“The agenda of talks includes projects such as Miyar, Lower Kalnai and Pakal Dul, exchange of data (about flow of water, floods, etc), inspection tours and meetings,” Mr Baig said.  

Syed Jamaat Ali Shah, Pakistan’s former commissioner, termed this meeting a ‘step forward’ from the former position but said it also showed Pakistan’s helplessness on the issue.

“Though it’s a routine meeting and India is trying to use it to drag back the issues already taken to the World Bank for arbitration, it has highlighted the reactionary policy of Pakis­tan government,” Mr Shah said.

“It’s like we say yes when India says yes, and when they say no, we have no option but to say no. We should have a proactive policy and not the reactive.”

“In my view, Modi is successful in his strategy. They have stalled Pakistan’s arbitration efforts at the international level and have started six mega hydro projects on a war footing,” he said.

“On the other hand, we are doing nothing. Our government is struggling for stability and is stuck in Panama issue; they have not devised any strategy to win these water disputes.”   

Pakistan’s former High Com­missioner to India Aziz Ahmed Khan differs.

“It’s not verified that Modi has ever said to suspend the Indus Waters Treaty. Some Indian officials categorically denied this statement to me. So I think these Indus water talks are a regular feature and continuation of an ongoing process,” he said.

Mr Khan said that linking this meeting to the resumption of higher level talks between the two countries was inappropriate. He, however, viewed that some other move can be expected by the Indian prime minister to take the process forward.

“Electioneering is over in India and Modi may take any other dramatic step to normalise the relations, but we should not link this water commissioners’ meeting to the resumption of high-level talks,” he said.   

Pakistan’s foreign ministry takes this development as a bilateral initiative like other departments.

“It’s like our DGMOs (Director General Military Operations) talk to each other as and when required,” says Nafees Zakaria, spokesman for the Foreign Office.

“Recently Indian parliamentarians were here to participate in an Asian parliamentary conference. Earlier the parliamentarians of both countries were together in Dubai for a conference organised by Pildat, so it’s not an indication that this meeting will pave the way for foreign secretary-level talks,” he said, adding that the foreign secretary-level talks are a totally different ball game.

“For that India has to agree to discuss Kashmir and they are not showing willingness to talk about this issue so far,” Mr Zakaria said.

As the state elections are over in India, the subcontinent may finally see a chance for peace talks but some analysts believe that the landslide victory by the Indian ruling party BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) may worsen situation as the Indian leadership will become over-confident.

Published in Dawn, March 20th, 2017