Monday, June 20, 2011


The Chinese are not listening to the Indians and going their own way in making a dam across the Brahmputra river in Tibet. Yarlung Zangbo is the Tibetan and Chinese name of the mighty Brahmputra before it enters India and flows through Assam. It is understood that the idea of diverting waters of that mighty river northward to irrigate the arid region was initially put forward by Chairman Mao Tse-tung himself. The seed took six decades to germinate. It has caused international tension post-germination. It is indeed a serious matter and cannot be brushed under the table. We cannot go to sleep hoping that the problem would solve itself. Care has to be taken that the present issue does not cause international tension that may escalate into a shooting war.


No less a person than Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had, during a state visit to China in 2006, requested the hosts not to proceed further with the plan as that would divert 30 percent to 50 percent water northwards and may cause some Indian territory to go dry and lose paddy cultivation and green forest cover. The Chinese had promised to examine the issue with all seriousness that it deserved. However, the Chinese engineers had proceeded with the dam construction work as per plan. The construction of dam across the Brahmputra river, known as Zangmu dam, in the Shannan Prefecture of the Tibetan Autonomous Region of China has been going on full steam. Not only that, the Indian proposal to reduce the height of the dam from the present 3,370 meters was put in cold storage by the Chinese government in Beijing and continues to be there unactioned.

To add insult to injury of the Indians, the Chinese government plans to build four smaller dams besides the present big one. The Chinese plan is to milk the Brahmputra as much as possible before the river leaves the Tibetan plateau and enters the territory of Bharat.

In the long run, it is feared, the big and small dams would adversely affect the eco-system on the southern slopes of the Himalayas on the Indian side. Right now the Chinese engineers and ecologists are not bothered about shortage of drinking water for an ever-increasing population of India. The illegal immigration from Bangladesh into the Brahmputra valley has caused economic and ecological problems even now. With the passage of time, it may be exacerbated.

It would be in the interest of all interested parties to sit around the table and talk sense so that the posterity does not curse us. The Chinese government in Beijing may be persuaded to stop construction and increase ecological process. India’s protest to Beijing government has rather been a mild one. Unlike some other countries in the region, India has been keen on settling the dispute peacefully sitting and chatting around the table. Of course, some critics of the Government of India have termed it as a weak-kneed policy of the South Block where major and important offices of the Ministry of External Affairs are located.


We may recall the tough negotiations that India and China used to have during the India-China boundary dispute days. Prime Minister Chou En=lai of China and Pt Jawaharlal Nehru of India had a number of rounds of talks. The Chinese side always wore a smile but what was going on in the heart of hearts, that was known to the concerned individuals alone.

While negotiations were going on under the nose of Pundit Nehru, the Chinese government in Beijing had ordered mobilisation of troops and their regrouping, if required. It was in October 1962 that the Chinese army launched a massive attack and the “ill armed, ill clad and ill trained” Indian Jawans were ordered to move to the borders of China (read Tibet). The Indian troops did their duty and no one questioned the wrong decisions made by some commanders. India was annihilated. Of course, there was a silver lining to this defeat. India acquired weapons and equipment required for modern warfare and reorganised training to suit the battlefields located in the high Himalayas. Light equipment holding mountain divisions gained mobility in hills and infantry divisions were earmarked for plains only. 1962 war taught the Indian army many lessons that held them in good stead in 1971 in an all out war with Pakistan. India won a decisive victory and Pakistan was dismembered. India helped in the birth of Bangladesh.

Coming back to the Chinese skill of negotiating across the table, one finds that they hold their cards too close to the chest. Getting intelligence reports from the Chinese troops is a hard nut to crack. Be it peace, be it war, be it plain negotiations, the language barrier is difficult to bust. Unless our intelligence units and personnel learn Chinese-Mandarin, it may be difficult to adduce first hand information about their troops, their location and their plan of action. In the pre-1962 days the ground situation was just similar to what it is today. The Chinese diplomats, soldiers, civilians are as polite today as they were in Chou-Nehru days of Hindi-Chini bhai bhai. There was a tremendous difference between the word and the deed of the Chinese negotiators. Their history tells us that the Han Chinese have not changed in their thought, action or simple behaviour.


The dams on the Brahmputra river may cause problems to the next generation of the Indians. India cannot afford to go to war against China. India cannot afford to forego unfettered use of water of the river that flows in Tibet as much as in India. India may have to negotiate with the Chinese counterparts and not think of lodging a complaint with the United Nations. There are a number of international treaties and examples of international usage of water of a river that flows through two or more countries. The international conventions have laid down traditional proportions for the use of water of a river that flows through two or more countries.

It is an international convention that the country located at the source of a river will not make use of entire water of the river but let the country located in the lower region also make use of the river water. In other words, the country of higher reaches will leave sufficient water in the river for the use of the country of lower reaches.

Indeed it would be in the interest of both India and China to negotiate and settle the dispute by mutual accommodation rather than run to the International Court of Justice and get bogged down in litigation lasting generations. Of course, it should be done in the spirit of “Give and Take” so that no party feels aggrieved. Both go home and live like good neighbours hereafter.
By Chitranjan Sawant

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