After the failure of the last round of bilateral talks between India and Pakistan over the controversial Tulbul Navigation Lock, New Delhi has indicated seeking international arbitration under the Indus Water Treaty. At Ningli near the spot where the project was started and later abandoned, there has been a lot of activity. Has the J&K government revived the project? Sameer Yasir reports.

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A group of fishermen is busy in Wullar lake in Bandipore district of north Kashmir. KL Image: Basit Jamal

The last round of talks between Islamabad and New Delhi on Tulbul Navigation Lock in March this year met the same fate as the earlier 13 rounds. At the end of the fruitless secretary-level talks, New Delhi indicated in as many words that it would consider seeking international arbitration on the project that it thinks is vital for the interests of J&K.

At the end of the secretary-level negotiation, India’s Water Resources Secretary Dhruv Vijay Singh informed his Pakistani counterpart, Imtiaz Kazi, that New Delhi would refer the issue to a neutral expert if a solution was not found through the bilateral mechanism. A neutral expert had already helped the rival neighbours settle their differences over the Baglihar power project on Pakistan’s request.

A joint statement issued at the end of the two-day talks under the Composite Dialogue framework also highlighted the outcome. “It was agreed that the Indian side will provide additional technical data to Pakistan. The Pakistani side will examine the data and furnish its views before the next round of talks,” the statement said. “Both sides agreed that, if required, they will explore the way forward for resolving the issue under the provisions of the treaty.”

The J&K government started implementing the project somewhere around 1984, apparently without taking Pakistan into confidence. As Islamabad came to know about the construction at Ningli, on the mouth of Wular Lake, it raised objections. Later, Pakistan’s water experts visited the site and Engineers did whatever they could to conceal the happenings from the visiting officials from Islamabad. But in 1987, J&K was asked to stop executing the project. Though the government did not discard the project, the rise of armed conflict in Kashmir later decimated it as the vested interests took away every piece of steel that was lying around the site and allegedly sold it in the open market.

Farooq Ahmad Shah, a retired chief engineer remembers that “we thought it was a beneficial project”. The government had already booked an expenditure of Rs 20.15 crore when the work was stopped. Central Public Works Department (CPWD) was executing the project. As CPWD fled from Kashmir, it took the state government many years to shift out the staff it had posted on the site. By March 2005, the government said it had spent Rs 45.50 crore on the staff lying idle as the project costs spiralled to Rs 150 crore. Now it could be much higher.

Pakistan calls the project Wular Barrage and India sticks with the Tulbul Navigation Lock. The project, a 440 ft long structure, involved the construction of a lock on Jhelum with an avowed objective to increase the level of water in the river during the lean season (late October to mid-February).

The J&K government says the project is aimed at managing better water levels in the river during lean season when the discharge recedes to a mere 2000 cusecs. A fall in the water level by almost one-half prevents routine navigation, especially in the 20-km stretch from Wular to Baramulla via Sopore. For navigation a depth of four feet, a flow of 4,000 cusecs is needed besides an operational level of 5,177.90 ft in the Wular lake. The project, the engineers argue, would stabilize the water level between Khanabal and Khadanyar.

However, the stated objective of the project seems unconvincing because the government has abandoned the reintroduction of water transport in Jhelum twice in the last 30 years. The idea is being debated again and there is a move to introduce water taxis for tourists in the city. Experts say that the real benefit of the project will go to the energy sector because a better discharge during the lean season will add to the unutilized capacities of the downstream project, the NHPC-owned Uri-I and Uri-II and PDC-run Lower Jhelum.

If the International Court of Arbitration permits the Kishanganga power project, the added water level in Wular would actually double the lean period generation of these three projects.

The project has an interesting history. In 1912 Punjab government approached Kashmir Durbar seeking permission to construct a major barrage on Wular Lake to help irrigate parts of Punjab where Rabi crops were not getting enough water. The Durbar would get Rs 75000 every month as royalty but it was not agreed to.

Later in 1924, the Punjab government came up with a renewed proposal offering a yearly royalty of Rs 1.85 lakhs. The princely state rejected the proposal again believing it might lead to water-logging in most of the north Kashmir, especially Sopore and Baramulla.

In 1972 when the government initiated a proposal to revive the age-old navigation in the Jhelum between Khanabal (Anantnag) and Khadanyar (Baramulla), a series of studies were undertaken. The result was the idea of constructing of a navigation lock that would ensure a better water level around the year. The government was toying with the idea of getting four small vessels of 75 tones each that would be pulled by a powerful tugboat.

The project was started at Tulbal. However, after the Pakistan Indus Water Commission made a number of visits to the site, they suggested New Delhi to change the site and get it much nearer to Wular so that the navigation lock affected only a small portion of the neighbouring Sopore. It was finally shifted to Ningli, furlongs away from the spot where Jhelum leaves Wular. The project envisages the making of 10 parallel waterways – a lock way, two overflow ways, six non-overflow ways and a fish ladder.

New Delhi maintains that regulating the depletion of naturally stored waters for non-consumptive use of navigation is permissible under the Treaty and that there is no storage involved.

Islamabad says India cannot store water in excess of 0.01 million acre-feet (MAF). Its objections, however, stem from the apprehension that the Lock may damage its triple-canal project linking Jhelum and Chenab with the Upper Bari Doab canal and a fear that the stored water could be used as a weapon by India during hostilities.

Engineers who have remained associated with the project insist that a constant flow during the lean season would also help Pakistan in running its Mangla-dam-fed Hydel Power Project in Muzafarabad. “A host of Pakistani officers who were frequenting the site did admit the fact, however, they were apprehensive that India might use the project as a weapon by withholding the water or by simply adding more to the Jhelum especially during floods in order to create more problem in Pakistan”, said another officer, who was earlier associated with the project.

So far there were 10 rounds of secretary-level talks on the issue, the last in March 2012. Besides, there were five specific meetings on this issue in 1998, 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007 under the Composite Dialogue. But the two sides failed to agree on a way out.

Off late, however, there is a lot of activity in the fishermen’s village of Ningli, at a different spot. Village head Mohammad Subhan Lami is confused about what is happening in his neighbourhood. He said tippers are working dawn to dusk and supplying cement and other things to hundreds of labourers. “They (project people) are telling us that they will connect our village with Adipora,” Subhan said.

More than two hundred migrant labourers, under Flood & Irrigation department, are working on the site – dredging and filling up empty cement bags and filling up one side of Jhelum. But the government says it has nothing to do with the Navigation Lock. “The construction work which is going on presently at the site is for the conservation of the Wular Lake,” said Taj Mohi-ud-Din, Minister for Irrigation and Flood Control.

“It is a 300 crore rupees project which would take almost three to four years to get completed.” The minister said Wular was a dead lake and the government is trying to review it and boost tourism in the area. “If the lake can be made a tourist destination it would bring an income for the poor people of the area,” Taj said, asserting that the construction work had nothing to do with the Tulbul controversy involving the two countries.

Senior engineers in the department also de-linked the project with the controversy. “It is a small embankment project aimed at preventing backwaters damaging Sumbal and Naidkhie areas,” an engineer who wishes to remain anonymous said. “It will help maintain a water level in the river that would enable us to navigate it better for tourism purposes.”

New Delhi exhibited an interest in reviving the project in 2009 when various ministries were consulted. The process was apparently a follow-up to the suggestions that the then Water Resources Minister Prof Saif ud Din Soz had made for its revival. In 2007, he has asserted that the project does not violate the treaty and a Japanese company was investing in the project. But officials in Srinagar say there were no links between the 2009 plans and the “small embankment project”.


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