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Water War: Northeast in Peril

Sentinel Digital DeskBy : Sentinel Digital Desk

  |  12 Nov 2017 12:00 AM GMT

By Bikash Sarmah

There is much concern these days as to what might befall Northeast (NE) India if the ambitious Chinese regime were to play with the waters of the mighty Brahmaputra in its upper reaches in Tibet. Concerns, which are valid, are being raised both in Aruchal Pradesh, which Chi calls ‘South Tibet’ and therefore lays absolutely unjustified claim to it, and Assam – the two NE States that are heavily dependent on the river system. In fact what one calls the Brahmaputra Civilization is based entirely on this river that enters Aruchal from Tibet and meanders into Assam. With Chi showing no signs of restraining its hydroengineering spree in Tibet by building huge dams to divert the river, and with the Indian government found utterly lacking in sustained and sustaible efforts to put fetters around the Chinese dam brinkmanship, there is no gainsaying that NE stands imperilled. What the future holds, given the Chinese belligerence, no one knows; after all we are known for diplomatic ineptitude right from the Nehruvian era.

What is at the crux of the matter? Unfortutely, there is not much informed debate on the issue as it should have been, given its gravity. It will be recalled that when flash floods hit Himachal Pradesh and Aruchal Pradesh beginning 2000 until 2005 wreaking havoc in the two States, alarm bells were sent out from Delhi as to what could happen if Chi were to succeed in its ambitious water plans in Tibet. But those bells were just of the routine kind, with little pragmatic action on the ground such as airing our concerns vociferously to Chi – even to the extent, if needed, by taking the intertiol community on board. In his classic book Water: Asia’s New Battleground, Prof Brahma Chellaney, one of India’s foremost strategic experts who has held appointments in world-class institutions like Harvard University, Brookings Institution, John Hopkins University and Australian tiol University, blames “the saga of endless and fruitless Sino-Indian border talks since 1981” which “helped deflect attention from a more central issue”. This issue, as he rightly says, is “Chi’s opaquely pursued hydroengineering projects in Tibet that threaten to significantly diminish trans-boundary river flows.” He then talks of the “water bomb” that Chi has engendered. He says, “Between nuclear-armed, continental-sized Chi and India, the water bomb is no less potent than the nuclear bomb.” But our political and diplomatic leadership is not convinced. They would rather jeer at the coige “water bomb”, which is a reality in the whole of Asia as many experts in the field, of the likes of Chellaney, have of late been repeatedly pointing to only to fall on the deaf ears of our self-fashioned political and diplomatic paragons.

The fact of the matter is that there is no transparency in Chi’s Tibetan hydroengineering endeavour whose success in visible by now, much to the justified panic of the people of Aruchal and Assam whose major source of sustence is the mighty Brahmaputra on which Chi has fixed its eyes to feed its parched northwest. This characteristic lack of Chinese transparency stems from its unflinching adherence to political dimension of communism even as it has opened its markets in the wake of globalization inviting foreign direct investment far, far more than India has – this, despite India being a democracy. But this communism-democracy discourse is a different tale altogether. What is being underscored here is that in the vacuum of transparency in the Chinese dam endeavour in the upper reaches of the Brahmaputra in Tibet – which India now acknowledges as “part of the territory of the People’s Republic of Chi” in lieu of its earlier acknowledgement as an “autonomous” part within the territory of Chi in accordance with the agreement between former Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in 2003 in Beijing – there are no signs of any pro-active diplomacy from the Indian side to tone down the dam rrative in our favour and work on tangible measures to assuage our genuine fears. Even the rendra Modi dispensation, otherwise deemed strong, has worked out little on the front. This is very unfortute, to say the least.

Chellaney drives home another pertinent point that most in Delhi have glossed over for reasons best known to them: “Now let us consider river waters. India is set to pay a heavy price on that front in the years ahead for its blunder on Tibet, the point of origin of most Himalayan rivers of India other than the main Ganges River… India thus is critically dependent on cross-border water inflows from Tibet. If Tibet is at the heart of the Chinese/Indian divide, water is at the centre of the India-Tibet connection. But until the advent of the twenty-first century, no Indian leader had even mentioned the ‘w’ word in public in relation to Tibet or Chi. It was only after flash floods devastated some downstream areas in the Sutlej and Brahmaputra basins that India gingerly raised the matter with Chi about its upstream hydroengineering works on those rivers and sought flood-related hydrological data on a regular basis.”

Remember, India does raise such issues these days, but still “gingerly” – in a cautious manner lest should it anger Chi! This will not do. What will do is pragmatic but aggressive foreign policy (no one is advocating war here, which is impossible, given the altered geostrategic equations). But such policy suffers from a huge deficit on New Delhi’s side, thanks to the Nehruvian legacy that the Modi government is now of course trying to change in its own ways. However, as Chellaney points out rightly, “The very essence of a dymic and effective foreign policy is the ability to think ahead.” He goes on to add: “While important countries in the 1950s were pursuing strategies of ‘balance of power’, ‘balance of threat’, or ‘balance of interest’, the Nehruvian foreign policy was organized around developing-world solidarity, including India-Chi friendship, without being anchored in a distinct strategic doctrine. With idealism compensating for the absence of goal-oriented statecraft, the propensity to act in haste and repent at leisure ran deep in Indian policy.” Nothing can be truer.

All said and done, what strikes a discerning observer of India’s stand on Chinese dam manoeuvres in the upper reaches of the Brahmaputra and its preposterous claim on the whole of Aruchal Pradesh, not just Tawang, is that if it were not for the characteristic ‘heartland India’ attitude by successive regimes in New Delhi (mostly led by the country’s oldest political outfit, the Congress) towards the NE ‘hinterland’ neglected and underrated all along, perhaps what Chellaney calls “the ability to think ahead” and what this writer would call “the turalness of love and concern towards such a beautiful people as NE’s in such a strategically paramount region as this” could have gone miles in countering the Chinese hydroengineering threat to NE. True, no one would be a fool to dictate to Chi what it should and should not do in its territory, but then diplomacy of the smart and effective kind as is pursued by visiory and self-respecting tions is what India needs at the moment – and the need is acute. Only diplomats cannot be of help to politicians in the corridors of power in order to save catastrophe in NE, which is looming large. It is the strategic experts of the likes of Chellaney – capable of envisioning policies that matter in the real world of geostrategic equations and that are workable – who could be of greater help. But, then, is it asking for the moon in a system that is so heavily tilted towards bureaucracy that saner voices are seldom heard and respected? [The disrespect shown to the sensible suggestions of the tiol Knowledge Commission is a case in point.]

(Bikash Sarmah is a freelancer and can be reached at

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