The Baglihar Verdict: Brighter Days Ahead for J&K?

Seema Sridhar

There has been much ado over the neutral expert’s verdict on the Baglihar Hydel Project (BHP). For over sixteen years, the 450 Mega Watt (MW) BHP on the Chenab River in Doda district of Jammu and Kashmir has been the bone of contention between India and Pakistan. After holding five meetings – in Paris, Geneva, London, Paris & Washington; visiting the project site including its hydraulic model at Roorkee University and examining the written and oral submissions made by both parties, the final report of the neutral expert has given the BHP the ‘go ahead’. On February 12, the World Bank appointed Swiss neutral expert Prof Raymond Laffite in his final report has recommended design changes in the project while validating India’s position that the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) of 1960 has not been violated. Both India and Pakistan are calling it a ‘victory’ that has substantiated their respective stands over this issue.

If there is so much confusion over the interpretation of a lucid technical verdict, it is little wonder that both countries could not see eye to eye over the interpretation of the treaty itself, leading to the shelving of several hydel power projects in J&K. What does the verdict say and what are its implications for the future resolution of disputes between India and Pakistan over the sharing of Indus waters? Is there really a ‘victorious’ party- if so, who won? What does it signify for J&K?

Pakistan had sought international arbitration from the World Bank as per the IWT provisions in February 2005 over four points of objection. Firstly, it had asked for reduction in the height of the storage structure. Now, 1.5-metre reduction in the height of the free board has been recommended. This concession had already been made by India during bilateral talks which Pakistan had not found satisfactory. Secondly, reduction in pondage— amount of water held in the dam- from the designed 37.72 million cubic meter (MCM) to 6.22 MCM was demanded. The final report entails reduction to 32.56 MCM. Thirdly, raising of the intake sources for the power plant by 10 meters was sought in accordance with the IWT. The intakes now need to be raised by 3 meters, from the present elevation of 818 meters to 821 meters. The final contention was over the sluiced spillways was rejected by the expert by allowing the use of spillways in the design. Spillways, gates at the bottom of the storage structure to flush the silt out were the major objection from Pakistan as they were not provided for under the IWT in 1960.

However, the need to use modern technology to deal with the problem of siltation was underscored by the expert, after studying a detailed database of 13,000 dams around the world. This point has been harped upon by the Indian analysts as a major victory for India, where as the recommendations on the height and pondage, although only marginal are being hailed a victories in the Pakistani circles. While India and Pakistan indulge in their characteristic one-upmanship, it would be pertinent to understand how the real stake holders in this dispute- the people of J&K are affected.

The clearing of the BHP has been hailed as panacea of sorts for the energy crisis in J&K. Indeed, the BHP, with a generating capacity of 900 MW would meet one third of the state’s power requirements, once completed. The J&K has been reeling under severe power shortage for the last few decades which has impeded developmental activity in the region. Ironically, it is richly endowed with extensive water resources or ‘blue gold’. Till now, only 1500 mw of at total hydel potential of 20,000 mw in the state has been exploited, both under state and Central schemes. This power shortage has often been attributed to India’s inability to harness these resources owing to Pakistan’s objections. The Kishenganga, Salal, Tulbul are few of the well known stalled projects as a consequence of this.

However, the key question is whether large dams are the only answer to the power woes of J&K? Several projects such as the Dulhasti, Uri-II have been inordinately delayed by Indian authority while Pakistan’s interventions have nothing to do with these projects. The topography of the region makes transmission and distribution of power extremely difficult. The scarcity of power in remote areas has placed the forest resources under tremendous pressure, threatening the ecology and environment of the region. Developing small hydel power generating plants have not been given due importance by the state and central governments, until recently. Instead, generating power from hot-water springs located at Puga in Ladakh district of Jammu and Kashmir is under consideration by the National Hydro Power Corporation (NHPC).

Pakistan’s persistent objections to these projects are a combination of the natural concerns of a lower riparian as well as political maneuverings of an interested party in the conflict in J&K. India holds Pakistan as the main culprit for the inadequate power generating infrastructure in the state. While this view does reverberate the reality of Pakistan delaying large projects in the state, alternative ways of addressing the crisis could have been given due importance by India in the meantime.

Similarly, Pakistan has left no leaf unturned in blaming Indian ‘stubbornness’ not to adhere to the provisions of the IWT for the current impasse. Placing the BHP within the ambit sets the standards for other contentious projects such as the Kishenganga and Tulbul. The futility of political jingoism needs to be kept at bay. In fact, a precedent has been set in resolving the differences between the two parties, which needs to be recognized. This would go a long way in avoiding similar hindrances over projects in the Indus basin and speed up the process of resolving mutual differences over the IWT.

Author Note
Seema Sridhar is a Senior Research Scholar at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi