Dr Ganesh Malhotra
Pakistan was from 1947 seen as a major trouble maker in Jammu and Kashmir but in recent years China has also proved its hidden intentions in J&K. China first occupied territory in J&K, then getting some land as gift from Pakistan, stapled Visa and now CPEC. China and Pakistan Axis is getting worse for India in terms of Sovereignty, Strategy and resources. Despite India’s reservation and Sovereignty issues over Gilgit-Baltistan and CPEC several memoranda of understanding (MoU) were finalised between China and Pakistan in May 2017. Significant among these was an agreement to construct number of hydropower projects referred to as the North Indus Cascade. Consisting of five major hydropower projects including the much delayed and controversial Diamer Bhasha Dam (DBD), the Cascade will cut across Gilgit Baltistan, a part of Pakistan occupied Jammu and Kashmir (PoJK), as well as Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Notably, China has committed a whopping USD 50 billion for this cluster of projects on the transboundary river Indus, with a projected cumulative hydropower generation capacity of over 22,000 MW.
The MoU on these Indus projects was concluded between Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA), and China’s Ambassador to Pakistan on the side-lines of a conference organised by China’s National Energy Administration (NEA) on May 13. Pakistan cited the critical importance of water and food security for Pakistan, and unequivocal gratitude for China’s generosity and applauded the efforts made by Chinese agencies and representatives.
Like the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the North Indus Cascade has come out of efforts over a period of time. In August 2015, Pakistan held talks with China’s NEA on several of these projects. Subsequently, at a Joint Coordination Committee (JCC) meeting of CPEC in January 2017 on the Chinese willingness to consider including the “non-controversial” projects under the Cascade in the CPEC scheme.3 The ‘non-controversial’ here refers to those projects on which Pakistan’s provinces have arrived at a consensus. Then, in April 2017, it was reported that Pakistan has urged the World Bank to support some of the hydropower projects including Dasu and Tarbela and that the bank’s representative was positive towards the request.
The North Indus Cascade is envisaged to originate in Skardu in Baltistan before flowing into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa with installed capacity of about 22,230 MW of hydropower. The string of projects include: Bunji dam (7100 MW), Diamer Bhasha dam (4500 MW), Dasu dam (4320 MW), Patan dam (2,400 MW) and Thakot dam (4000 MW). River Indus’s gross hydropower potential is estimated to be 40,000 MW.
There are striking parallels between CPEC and the North Indus Cascade, apart from the fact that both run through PoJK. Both are massive projects supported by China. The North Indus Cascade is the second largest Chinese commitment towards Pakistan in terms of the volume of proposed aggregate investment.
Both projects have geopolitical contentions given the India angle. Lately, India has been assertive about its claim on PoJK. India’s objection to the DBD in the past, and presently on CPEC, is based on its claim of sovereignty over PoJK. It follows that the proposed North Indus Cascade originating in Baltistan is likely to be similarly contentious. India refused to participate in the BRI summit in Beijing owing to territorial sovereignty claims over Gilgit-Baltistan through which the CPEC arm of BRI is slated to proceed. But ignoring India’s objections to projects in PoJK, Pakistan and China are brazenly determined to go ahead with their agenda. With the issues on CPEC yet to be settled, the North Indus Cascade is likely to cause further discord between the three countries.
China had recently proposed that CPEC could be renamed if India is ready to participate in it. It has been seen that China is insisting on renaming DBD (already renamed once in 2004 to include Diamer in the wake of popular demand), which is now a part of the North Indus Cascade. But merely altering the name cannot solve issue concerning territoriality and sovereignty. Further, China has tried to justify CPEC as a connectivity project and it could certainly give a similar rationale for the North Indus Cascade as well.
J&K already feels the sacrifice of their legitimate share of Indus river system to Pakistan. It is natural that north Indus Cascade fructifies it is if further going to aggravate this sentiment. India is yet to fully utilise its permissible share for storing water up to 3.6 MAF (million acre-feet) under IWT in the western rivers (Jhelum, Chenab and Indus) allotted for its use. Besides, in comparison to Pakistan’s tally of dams on the eastern rivers including those on the Indus, India has so far built only a small number of run-of-the-river dams on the western rivers. Even small-scale efforts such as the 330 MW Kishanganga Hydro Electric Plant (KHEP) in Bandipore have been challenged by Pakistan in various international forums. Whereas Indian projects have been challenged by Pakistan continuously. India has so far not sought either the opinion of neutral experts or international arbitration on DBD or Bunji projects. Instead, it has simply limited itself to making ritual objections. China’s involvement in the construction of mega dams on the Indus and its increasing presence in Gilgit Baltistan will further accentuate India’s concerns. Given this, India needs to explore ways to deal with these concerns.
China has very unfriendly and erratic approach regarding transnational rivers. It has no concerns for ecological concerns, which was clearly evident during the construction of the Three Gorges Dam – a project that continues to raise critical questions concerning its ecological impact.
Looking at China-Pakistan axis in North Indus Cascade, India must look at options that can diminish the challenges arising from what appears to be an emerging Sino-Pakistan axis on the Indus waters. It needs to evolve strategies to legitimately promote its sovereign territorial interests and its positions on projects such as DBD and Bunji. The North Indus Cascade violates India’s territorial sovereignty and poses another challenge for India. This is like another China’s diversion project on Brahmaputra. India should work on weaker points of China like Tibet, Human right issues, Taiwan and South China Sea. China is trying to prove as a water hegemon in the world but India need to counter such strategies at international level in aggressive diplomatic manner to expose the unholy nexus between Pakistan and China and its impact on South Asia. India should assert its right on PoJK and Gilgit Baltistan aggressively and support the groups fighting against Pakistani and Chinese hegemony in these regions. This will be good for India and other countries of South Asia leading to peace from this unholy alliance.
(The author is a J&K based Stratrgic and Political analyst)