Rohit Kumar's Views

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Life and death issue of water

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Munir Attaullah

hearted and generous towards us on many issues that are of vital concern to us. We cannot expect this as long as a state of confrontation persists. And confrontation is something India can comfortably live with while we cannot without paying an inordinately high price

My concern for the past few weeks has been to explain why peace with India is not a luxury but a necessity for us. Must I tediously so harp on a theme the overwhelming majority of us agree with ‘in principle’?

I feel I must, for a number of reasons that themselves bear repetition. Yes, most of us want peace, and vaguely understand, in a general way, the dividends that may follow in its wake. But few of us are given to undertaking the detailed and rigorous cost/benefit analysis of peace and confrontation that might crystallise our views out of suspension from an otherwise turbid solution. Doing my little bit (why have none of our economic scholars written a book on this subject?) may just tip the scales – or so I hope – in favour of a rational, rather than our usual emotional, response to this mighty conundrum we face.

Then there is the mental bunker of the ‘it takes two to tango’ mindset, where, in lazy fashion, we are all too ready to take shelter at the first hint of a little local difficulty. How often have you heard it said, “It is not us but unjustified Indian intransigence that is the real obstacle to the ‘honourable’ (Ah! there is a loaded word if there ever was one) peace we seek?”

Now I do not deny there is much substance in that lament. But why should that surprise us? After all, everyone desires a settlement on his own terms. And just as our ‘terms’ are unacceptable to India, it should not surprise us that their ‘terms’ are unacceptable to us. Why do we forget that the acts of countries (us included) are usually based on self-interest rather than ‘justice’?

But what concerns me most is our complete reluctance to follow this argument through to arrive at some commonsense conclusions from the consequent impasse. In particular, we refuse to accept the proven reality that we lack – and cannot hope to have – the means to force a far more powerful neighbour to amend its possibly errant and unjust ways. Instead, we continue to pride ourselves as a protagonist of at least equal stature, when clearly we are not, and continue to stubbornly bash our head against a brick wall.

Yes, there is some damage to the wall in the process but, in the main, it is us we who are grievously hurt. India can comfortably resist, and afford, confrontation. We cannot, except at an unbearably high cost.

It certainly takes two to tango. But are we sure we know the steps of that particular sophisticated dance? Is it realistic to invite a potential partner to tango when all you know is how to rock? We need to recognise the onus is firmly on us to – somehow – break the deadlock.

If ever there was a perfect illustration of all what I have said above, it is the life and death issue for us of water. How many of us, vaguely aware though we may be of its importance, have thought through this matter carefully? How many of us have actually read the Indus Water Treaty and considered its implications?

If readers cannot be bothered reading up the treaty (courtesy the internet), they should – at the very least – read and digest John Briscoe’s absolutely wonderful article on the subject, published in a national daily on April 3. Here is a man who knows what he is talking about, being an expert on the subject. And he makes my case better than I could ever hope to do. It should be a compulsory reading for all our politicians and those media personalities keen to talk about our water problem. (Incidentally, his article is also interesting for his comments on the relative independence of the media in India and Pakistan.)

But what I can do here is to stress again some inescapable realities that we would do well not to ignore. The first is that the upper riparian states the world over naturally hold all the cards (think of the habitual complaints of Sindh against Punjab regarding its share of water). Possession, as they say, is nine-tenths of the law. Thus, the goodwill of the upper riparian towards the lower riparian is of immense real value.

To drive home this reality, consider the second point. India can easily, staying well within the technical ambit of the Indus Water Treaty, inflict a great deal of damage upon us should it choose to do so (and what does this say about that much trumpeted theory that our threat perceptions should be ‘based on capability rather than intentions’?). The recent shortage in Chenab waters, as a consequence of India filling the Baglihar Dam, is a painful example of what I mean here.

And here is the third point. We cannot do without the treaty. We cannot just repudiate and scrap it. And it takes two to even amend it. Are we, therefore, again going to ask the international community to pressure India and address our every concern under the treaty? That would be a futile hope, quite apart from being an impractical one.

The only real choice we have is to create an environment where India will go out of its way to respect the spirit of a treaty rather than always insist on applying the strict letter of the law. For, the treaty, though perfectly reasonable from our point of view when signed decades ago, has, in today’s then unforeseen circumstances, significant practical lacunae that have the potential to do us great harm should India insist on extracting its full pound of flesh.

To sum up: we need India to be large-hearted and generous towards us on many issues that are of vital concern to us. We cannot expect this as long as a state of confrontation persists. And confrontation is something India can comfortably live with while we cannot without paying an inordinately high price. Of course it remains a possibility that what we seek from peace may still not be forthcoming should India choose to act in niggardly fashion. But do we have any other option except to take that risk?

Man does not live by bread alone, I know; and, yes, there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in my philosophy. Nevertheless, in my naïve and simple-minded way, I continue to hope that rational commonsense will eventually prevail, and that those who aspire to lead us will understand that the welfare of the people is the supreme political virtue.

The writer is a businessman. A selection of his columns is now available in book form. Visit munirattaullah.com

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