Water Politics

By: Ramaswamy R Iyer

Republished on Republica on June,23 ,2013

There is in Nepal a deep ambivalence about India, which many in India tend to misinterpret as anti-Indianism.

Politics_HydroIndia-Nepal relations have been badly mismanaged on both sides. The time has come to make a break with the past and explore new beginnings. In his article in the issue of 15 September of The Hindu, Prof. S. D. Muni has already covered the larger aspects of strategic and security concerns. This article will focus on water relations, though some reference to the larger context cannot be avoided.

Let us first consider what went wrong in the past. The Kosi/Gandak agreements of the 1950s were not inspired by any large visions of ‘regional cooperation’; they were essentially projects conceived by India to meet its requirements or solve its problems, with some benefits to Nepal included. That was the way the projects were designed with Nepal’s agreement, but they were subsequently criticised in Nepal for conferring substantially more benefits on India than on Nepal, though this was inevitable given the relative magnitudes of cultivable areas in the two countries. The projects also suffered from poor design, inefficient implementation and bad maintenance (not to mention corruption); even what was promised was not delivered either in Nepal or in India. The Kosi/Gandak agreements, initially signed in 1954/1959, were amended in 1966/1964 to take care of Nepalese concerns, but the sense of grievance was not wholly removed.

Suspicion and mistrust

The bitterness generated by these experiences coloured all subsequent dealings between India and Nepal. Suspicion and mistrust grew and became a massive impediment to good relations between the two countries. The Tanakpur episode made it worse. Eventually, a new chapter in Indo-Nepal relations seemed to open with the Mahakali Treaty of February 1996. Unfortunately, that Treaty, signed after extensive consultations with a view to avoiding the mistakes of the past, has remained a dead letter, contributing to a worsening of India-Nepal relations rather than a dramatic improvement as had been hoped. The old acrimony has now been revived by the Kosi floods. An embankment in Nepal has failed, and there have been mutual recriminations between the two countries regarding the responsibility for that failure.

If a review of relations in this area were now undertaken, what expectations and concerns are the two countries likely to bring to the talks? Leaving aside strategic and security concerns, India perceives a huge hydro-electric potential in Nepal; and it also sees scope for irrigation and flood control in India from large projects in Nepal.

Nepal for its part is very conscious of being a land-locked country and would like to maintain and add to the numerous overland transit points, and to secure an outlet to the sea through India. It also dreams of generating large revenues from the export of electricity to India from a number of hydro-electric projects on the rivers of the Ganga system. At the same time, there is also some worry about large projects in the Himalayas and about an excessive dependence on India as the sole buyer of electricity.

The fact is that there is in Nepal a deep ambivalence about India, which many in India tend to misinterpret as anti-Indianism. On the one hand, Nepal sees the value of closer political and economic relations with India; on the other, there is a wariness about excessive closeness. There are visceral anxieties about Indian largeness and the unequal relationship that this might imply.

Two suggestions

Given those complexities, what kind of new relationship should the two countries aim at? As an Indian, this writer would not presume to advise Nepal. To the Government of India, he would respectfully venture to make two suggestions that might seem strange and defeatist:

(i) scrap the old Kosi and Gandak Agreements and the 1996 Treaty on the Mahakali, all of which are unpopular in Nepal; stop talking about Karnali, Pancheswar, Sapta Kosi, etc; do not try to enter into any more treaties on large projects on the Himalayan rivers; and

(ii) do not seek excessive closeness; let not Nepal feel threatened; aim at friendliness, correctness and a reasonable distance.

There are good reasons for those two sets of propositions. First, India has been talking to Nepal about Karnali, Pancheswar and Sapta Kosi for over three decades, perhaps four, with no results. The factors that have stalled these projects have not disappeared. Besides, whenever an agreement or treaty has been signed, it has done more harm than good to India-Nepal relations. If India enters into a new Treaty, say on Sapta Kosi, that Treaty will become the subject of a controversy before the ink on the signatures is dry. Wisdom would lie in not creating new opportunities for misunderstandings. In any case, Prime Minister Prachanda is unlikely to be eager to rush into any new Treaties with India.

Secondly, India does not really need these projects. There are alternatives in so far as energy and irrigation are concerned; in any case old-style canal irrigation needs a radical review; and the notion of ‘flood control’ is a fallacy. Those cryptic propositions cannot be elaborated here, but a few observations about projects in the Himalayan region may be in order.

Fallacious concept

The very concept of a huge hydro-electric potential in the Himalayan rivers is fallacious. There is no such natural potential in a running river; it exists only in a falling river, i.e., in a waterfall. In a running river the hydroelectric potential is not natural but manmade: it is created by a dam. At the same time the dam also creates a potential for ecological damage, human misery and possible disaster in the event of heavy floods. The dangers are particularly acute in the Himalayan region, given the friability and proneness to mass-wasting of the mountains, the huge load of sediment that the rivers carry and the added danger of seismic activity. While the project-planners might claim that they have answers for all these problems, the Precautionary Principle would suggest that we leave the Himalayan rivers alone.

Finally, Nepal has felt smothered by excessive closeness: let us try distance for a change. It may pave the way for a new and better closeness in due course.

Source : From The Hindu, September 17,2008 (Republished on Republica June 23,2013)