After trade, can we use water to build peace with Pakistan?
Tridivesh Singh Maini
16 May 2012
India and Pakistan have in the last year made some giant leaps in the realm of trade and commerce. A clear illustration of this point is trade through the Wagah-Attari land route rising by 44 percent last year and the substantial increase in trucks plying the route.
What is clearly evident from the substantial progress in the realm of bilateral trade over the last year or so is the need for an incremental and deft approach towards sensitive issues and also creating win-win situations on both sides. For example, instead of declaring India as the Most Favoured Nation (MFN), Pakistan has begun to reduce the negative trade list.
Interestingly, the realm of water, which is a major bone of contention between both countries and is often exploited by hardliners on the Pakistani side, also provides a major opportunity to both sides to find common ground. Right now hardliners, the establishment in Pakistan and even some liberals in that country have hyphenated the water issue with Kashmir and blame India for their water shortage.
The causes of water scarcity, which are well known to us all, are quite different. One of the primary reasons for water shortage is the cropping pattern in both countries, especially the Punjabs. In Pakistani Punjab, it is rice which consumes maximum water. The rice crop alone requires around 17 million acre feet (maf ) of water, which is more than what will be available from three proposed Kalabagh dams (5 maf ) or more than two Diamir- Bhasha dams (8 maf ). In the case of Indian Punjab, the wheat-paddy cycle lowers water levels in the state. The second cause is the excessive use of tubewells on both sides, which drain out water.
While these issues have been repeatedly raised by Track Two summits, seldom have recommendations made by farmers, farmers' unions and agricultural scientists or even state governments been taken seriously.
Twinning of the two prominent agricultural universities, Faisalabad and PAU, which is a must and was recommended by governments of both Punjabs, was turned down on security grounds in 2006. Similarly, a proposal for setting up joint agricultural research stations right on the border was not given much attention.
Meetings between agricultural scientists of both countries and of course farmers groups have taken place but again they have not been carried out in a targeted manner with specific policy goals. They have only helped in forging personal relationships rather than enhancing sectoral ties and increasing interdependence.
What is important is that governments of both countries in general and the Punjabs in particular promote meetings with specific business and policy agendas such as complementarity in crops, both sides could think along specialisation in certain commodities.
There is also scope to share with each other water management practices. There are clearly things to learn from each other in the policy domain as well. For example in 2009, India promulgated the Sub-Soil Water Preservation Act and discouraged its farmers from planting nursery before May 10 and sowing before June 10 - thus reducing irrigational requirements of canal water and maximising the use of monsoon rains. This actually helped in raising water levels in Indian Punjab.
Apart from the above points, these actors could play a pivotal role in pressurising their governments to sell surplus produce in the other's market rather than allowing the produce to rot or banking on the MSP. On numerous occasions, Indian Punjab has for example suggested the sale of its surplus wheat to Pakistan but such requests have been turned down. Interestingly in 1978, India had exported 2,000 metric tonnes of wheat to Pakistan, double of what Pakistan required. Pakistan had a shortage of wheat while India had a bumper crop.
Finally, farming groups from both sides can also come up with a list of agricultural commodities which should be included in the list of tradable commodities. At the moment, the commerce ministry is taking up issues like trade of Bt cotton but including farmers' groups in the process will definitely help. Just as the overall peace process has benefited as a consequence of the proactive commerce ministries which have the ability to think out-of-the-box, and of course continuous pressure from business lobbies in both countries.
In the domain of water, maybe it is important to look at actors beyond the Ministry of Water Resources. Agriculture-related departments - both central and state - are naturally the best bet. In all, greater cooperation between the farming communities could be one more logical step towards building a substantial peace constituency in Pakistan.
(The author is an Associate Fellow with Observer Research Foundation. These views are personal)