Ranjit Devraj:

One year after India and Pakistan initiated peace talks, dialogue between the nuclear-armed rivals appears to be floundering over the sharing of waters of the Indus River that runs through the disputed territory of Kashmir.

Early this week Masood Khan, Pakistan’s foreign ministry spokesman announced at a press conference in Islamabad that his country would seek World Bank arbitration to resolve a dispute over the Baglihar Dam that India is constructing across the river Chenab, one of the five tributaries of the Indus river. Khan’s counterpart in India, Navtej Sarna, responded by saying that differences between the technical experts of the two countries were actually narrowing and he did not believe that ‘’reference to the World Bank is justified.’’

This is the first time Pakistan will approach a third party for resolution of an issue arising out of the 1960 Indus Water Treaty.

Leading analysts believe that India-Pakistan talks, initiated last January at a regional summit in the Pakistani capital Islamabad, were doomed anyway and these include Stephen P Cohen, a leading South Asia expert from the US who is currently in the Indian capital to release the India edition of his book ‘The Idea of Pakistan.’

At a discussion of his book on Tuesday evening Cohen said that the talks lacked “political ownership.’’

In recent weeks, apart from acrimony over the Baglihar dam, there have been unmistakable signs that the talks were sliding backwards. Last Tuesday, the Indian Army claimed that mortar shells were fired across the Line of Control but officials on both sides refrained from calling it a violation of a ceasefire that has held good for 14 months now. Following high level contacts between the armies of both countries on Wednesday, Islamabad agreed to investigate the incident.

Although the two countries have remained at some level of confrontation over Kahmir since 1947, they managed, in 1960, to sign the Indus Water Treaty under the auspices of the World Bank. Under the treaty, India was to have exclusive rights over the waters of the three eastern tributaries of the Indus, the Sutlej, Beas and Ravi while Pakistan was to get similar rights over the westward flowing tributaries of Chenab, Jhelum and the Indus itself. However India, as the upper riparian nation, was allowed to have non-consumptive, run-of-the-river projects on the westward flowing tributaries.

The question, now, is whether the construction of the Dam, intended to produce 450 megawatts of electric power, violates the Indus Water Treaty. Pakistan says it does. India counters that the power project does not propose to store water and will not disrupt flows into Pakistan. Since the latest round of talks between technical experts from both countries conducted earlier this month failed to resolve the issue, Pakistan wants the World Bank, as the guarantor of the Treaty, to intervene. New Delhi, though, has come under increasing pressure from the elected state government in Kashmir which believes that the Indus Water Treaty deprives people living in the state of their right to use the river to generate cheap electricity.

Officials in both India and Pakistan have said that the row over the Baglihar will not come in the way of the ongoing “composite dialogue’’ between the two countries under which India’s Foreign Minister Natwar Singh is to visit Pakistan in February. But analysts like Cohen believe that a real breakthrough in resolving the Kashmir issue can only happen through ‘’statesmanship’’ rather than ‘’diplomatic sparring.’’ — IPS