Narendra Modi has again raised the spectre of a water war with Pakistan. Speaking at a rally in Bhatinda, Punjab, the prime minister said, "Indus, Sutlej, Beas, Ravi - the water in these rivers belongs to India and to our farmers. It is not being used in the fields of Pakistan but flows into the sea." "Now," he declared, "every drop of this water will be stopped and I will give that to the farmers of Punjab and Jammu & Kashmir, to Indian farmers. I'm committed to this."
The prime minister's rhetoric is likely to set off alarm bells, particularly in Pakistan. Islamabad maintains that the Indus Water Treaty, which regulates the sharing of rivers that flow through both countries, "is not time barred and was never intended to be time or event specific. It is binding on both India and Pakistan and has no exit provision".
Any Indian attempt to block the rivers will have serious ramifications for Pakistan, much of whose farmland is irrigated by the Indus system.
After the attack on an army garrison in Uri, Modi had threatened to review the Indus Water Treaty, which was brokered by the World Bank in 1959. It was soon clear, however, that abrogating the treaty is anything but easy. Nor is it possible to stop the flow of a river overnight; it requires construction of multiple dams and canals over years.
So, India continues to abide by the provisions of the treaty although it has suspended the Indus Water Commission talks.
Under the Indus Water Treaty, Pakistan has exclusive rights over the Indus, Jhelum and Chenab rivers, all of which flow through Kashmir, although India is allowed to use 20% of their water for irrigation and power generation. But India's utilisation remains minimal, at around 4%. It has infrastructure to generate only about 3,500 MW electricity from these rivers as against the potential of over 18,000 MW. It also uses the water to irrigate 8 lakh acres even though it's allowed to use enough water to irrigate more than 13 lakh acres.
Modi has proposed to use more water from the Indus system by expediting work on power projects that have been in the pipeline for a while - the 856MW Sawalkote hydel project, the 540MW Kawar plant and 990MW Kirthai plant. The Pukuldal hydel project is set to be re-tendered as well, according to reports.
The government is also contemplating going full steam ahead with the Baglihar and Kishanganga hydel projects. Pakistan had taken India to the International Court of Arbitration over the $864 million Kishanganga project in 2011, claiming it would adversely impact its own project on the river - called Neelam in Pakistan -- downstream. But it lost the case in 2013.
Recently, though, much to India's chagrin, the World Bank simultaneously appointed a "Neutral Expert" and set up a Court of Arbitration to settle the Kishenganga and Ratle project disputes.
Terming the move as legally untenable, the foreign ministry spokesperson Vikas Swaroop said, "Inexplicably, the World Bank has decided to continue to proceed with these two parallel mechanisms simultaneously."