Coercive diplomacy to renegotiate the Indus Water Treaty

Though the government sought to underplay it as a technical matter, employing the dispute as a counterweight to curb cross-border terror is very much on the table.

Published: 30th January 2023 12:14 AM  |   Last Updated: 30th January 2023 12:14 AM   |  A+A-

Image used for representational purpose only.

A multilateral agreement that has stood the test of time is now arguably facing its toughest test as India has put Pakistan on notice to renegotiate the Indus Water Treaty. India’s coercive diplomacy is not just against Pakistan but also against the World Bank, whose leadership in the past had done commendable work by negotiating the treaty way back in 1960. India reckons the current leadership of the World Bank erred by allowing two problem-resolution mechanisms on the same matter to run concurrently though the rule book allows for only one at a time for their graded escalation. The treaty, while allowing Pakistan unrestricted access to waters of the Indus, Jhelum and Chenab, lets India tap them for limited use. The difference in perception is about hydroelectric power projects built by India on their tributaries.

While Pakistan in 2015 sought a neutral expert to look into the differences, and India was okay with it, a year later, it unilaterally wanted the matter sent to the court of arbitration. Mark the diplomatese: If differences aren’t resolved by a neutral expert, they are treated as disputes and taken up for arbitration. After putting the matter on ice for six years, the World Bank inexplicably set up both mechanisms simultaneously last year, resulting in India boycotting the arbitration court. India reasoned that it would be ridiculous if the two mechanisms came up with conflicting findings and jeopardised the treaty. In its tit-for-tat, the government slapped a notice on Pakistan to join the talks table within 90 days as per the treaty since it refused to discuss the issue under the Permanent Indus Commission that meets at least once a year.

India appears to have taken a calibrated step to leverage its upper riparian advantage to renegotiate the treaty. Though the government sought to underplay it as a technical matter, employing the dispute as a counterweight to curb cross-border terror is very much on the table. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had in 2016 said after the Uri attack that blood and water cannot flow simultaneously. However, India lacks the ability to impound or divert those waters, even if it wants to. How it would eventually play its coercive cards remains to be seen. But after staying neutral in the Ukraine war despite humongous Western pressure, the government perhaps reckons it can deal with a weak Pakistan and the World Bank on its terms.


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