Integrated development, politics and social empowerment in India and beyond

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Jamila Verghese
Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

Pakistan’s fears are bizarre. Baglihar is 110km from the international boundary and any sudden impounding of waters would first hurt the Indian villages.

Forward From Baglihar

Why Pakistan's fuss over this hydro-electric project is a storm in a teacup.

By B G Verghese

Indian Express, Feb 16, 2007

The huge fuss Pakistan created over India’s Baglihar (450 MW x 2) run-of-the-river hydroelectric project on the Chenab has, expectedly, ended as a storm in a teacup. If Islamabad claims a great victory it is entitled to comfort itself with the cosmetic gains it has been accorded. The fact is that the Baglihar design has been upheld by the Neutral Expert, Raymond Lafitte as being entirely consistent with the Indus Treaty and modern hydropower technology and practice. The project can now move towards completion with marginal adjustments in respect of the freeboard, pondage and power intake as stipulated. These modifications should not cause any undue cost or time overrun and will in no way affect the planned benefits.

The parameters laid down by the NE sets the norm for all further schemes taken up under the Treaty and to that extent should curb obstructionist and frivolous objections against any and every project mooted by India as in the past. The 1.5 m reduction in the 4.5 m freeboard (essentially a safety device to prevent overtopping of the dam in the event of sudden storm surges) mandated by the Neutral Expert was in fact a concession Indian had offered even before Lafitte entered the scene. Indeed, India was confident that all remaining issues could well be resolved given another round of talks. But Pakistan was not interested in further dialogue and preferred to seek an external determination. Delay is quite often tantamount to denial.

Hopefully, Pakistan will now abandon such negativism, which appears to be driven more by internal politics and its stance on Jammu and Kashmir than the technical merits of its case. There was a scent of this in the reported remarks of the Minister and Secretary of its Water and Power Development Authority at a press conference in Islamabad on the day the NE’s report was released. They spoke of monitoring compliance in case India reneged and possibly even seeking arbitration if Pakistan came to the conclusion study that the Award itself was made in violation of the Treaty !

The NE has emphasised that the rights and duties of the Parties must be read in the light of the evolving state of the art since the Treaty was signed in 1960. The overriding criteria must be “the most complete and satisfactory utilisation of the waters of the Indus system” in a spirit of “cooperation, goodwill and friendship”, taking into account “the most economical design”, the “best and latest practices in the field of construction and operation”, safety factors, and the protection of live storage against sedimentation in the interest of “sustainability”, which must necessarily include “draw down sluicing and flushing” and advance action in view of the uncertainties of looming climate change.

Lafitte examined world experience and noted that the Warsak Dam on the Kabul River in Pakistan and Salal in J&K on the Chenab below Baglihar had been rendered ineffective by heavy silting, the latter resulting from an injudicious concession made to Pakistan. Islamabad’s objection to Baglihar has been that its allegedly oversized pondage, gated spillway and under sluices enables India strategically to dry up or flood the Chenab to military advantage. The same argument was used to block Salal.

Lafitte has firmly rejected Pakistan’s desired reduction of the Baglihar pondage from 37 million cu m to 6.22 m cu m to convert the project from a peaking to a “constant (base) load” station, thus defeating both purpose and viability. However, he has marginally reduced the project’s designed pondage based on a different calculus.

Pakistan’s fears are bizarre. Baglihar is 110 kms from the international boundary and any sudden impounding of waters would first hurt the Indian villages and infrastructure downstream and shut down Salal. Should these stored waters then be suddenly emptied, Salal would absorb some of the flood, or might well break, while the Indian villages downstream would be overwhelmed. Pakistan would be far less affected, if at all, because the geometry of the valley would cause progressive dissipation and attenuation of the flood.

One can only hope that Lafitte’s ruling will induce sobriety and that Pakistan will desist from raising the pitch of its propagandist concerns. India has modified its Kishenganga project following local objections to submergence and displacement in the Gurez Valley, substantially bluntng Pakistan’s earlier objections. The project should now be actively pursued as also the Wullar Lak “barrage”. This essentially envisages a flood detention mechanism to stagger the Wullar’s natural monsoon pondage through to improve navigation. The Barrage will in fact serve to moderate the Jhelum flood, reduce its silt load and enhance energy output at the Uri dam in India and the Mangla dam in PAK, whose height is being raised in order to counter heavy sedimentation and a consequent reduction in power generation.

Most important of all, with Baglihar behind us, India should boldly propose meaningful steps under the terms of Chapter VII of the Indus Treaty that enjoins “Future Cooperation” to optimise the Indus system’s potential in the “common interest”. Both countries are confronting the early effects of climate change, with glacier melt and aberrant weather, and need to insure against growing water stress and looming hydrological uncertainties. The 1960 Treaty merely partitioned the waters of the Indus and left optimisation for future cooperation. That time has come.

Pakistan is running out of storage sites on the Indus main and has none (barring a modest Neelum Valley dam) on the Jhelum and Chenab, all of them “western rivers” allocated to it. The headwaters of all three rivers lie in the Indian part of J&K to which Pakistan has no access. At the same time, India has not been able to develop the 1.34 million acres of irrigation and 3.60 million acre feet of storage on the western rivers as provided for in the Treaty for uses in J&K including regulating flows to moderate floods, facilitate navigation and generate power in the face of Pakistani objections at every stage. India too could better utilise the waters of the lower Ravi and some of its tributaries, as permitted, and improve drainage in Punjab, Haryana and Western Rajasthan in cooperation with Pakistan to mutual benefit.

Pakistan’s 2004 Technical and Parliamentary Reports on development of the Indus Basin assumes (strategises?) that India will not be able fully to utilise its allocation of waters from the three Western rivers. Beggar–my-neighbour policies can only cause mutual damage. Instead, with the peace process in J&K getting under way, despite obstacles, future cooperation on the Indus, or Indus II, holds out real promise. What better means of making boundaries irrelevant than by integrating the natural resource economies of both sides of J&K to everybody’s benefit.

Mr Lafitte has done his bit. It is now for India and Pakistan to use his report as a springboard for a new era of mutual cooperation and friendship. Mr Saifuddin Soz, India’s Water Resource Minister, has made some statements hinting that this is the way forward. It would be eminently appropriate therefore to place a concrete proposal on the table.

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