The situation is apparent to most. Water-stressed Pakistan’s irrigation is faltering because it cannot store water. Its cities are awash with ill-managed sewage while groundwater levels sink. Its barrages are old and in need of improvements it can’t afford. Its canals are tapering off at the tails because of low supply from the rivers. And it keeps losing water disputes with India because of its warlike approach to the water crisis.
Pakistan’s lower-riparian concerns about India stealing its waters are similar to Sindh’s fears about the Punjab. This latter discord is back in the news as the Sukkur Barrage, the oldest and most historically significant of Pakistan’s 10 barrages, silts up. Commissioned in 1932, the Sukkur Barrage gave birth to Sindhi nationalism, which split the province’s Muslim and Hindu populations, and, ultimately, made the creation of Pakistan possible.
Two new books—Saiyid Ali Naqvi’s Indus Waters and Social Changes: the Evolution and Transition of Agrarian Society in Pakistan, and Daniel Haines’s Building the Empire, Building the Nation: Development, Legitimacy, and Hydro-politics in Sind, 1919-1969 (both from Oxford University Press Pakistan, 2013)—present a compelling case about the barrage’s impact on Pakistan’s present-day water tensions within and without.
Originally named the Lloyd Barrage, the Sukkur Barrage, Naqvi writes, “delivers water to the world’s largest irrigation system, serving a cultivable command area of 6.54 million acres.” It feeds seven canals: Rohri, Nara, and two Khairpur canals on the left; and the Northwest, Rice, and Dadu canals on the right. The barrage became world famous because some of these canals fanning out from it are larger than the Suez.
In arid Sindh, where rainfall averages between 100 to 200 millimeters per year and the evaporation rate is between 1,000 to 2,000 millimeters, people live off the Indus River. Sukkur Barrage, the first constructed across the Indus, has reportedly developed a large delta which allows silt deposits to build up in the middle of its storage area. This has reduced its capacity from 1.5 million cusecs to less than 1 million. This in turn has squeezed the three canals on its right side, threatening agriculture in Sindh. Farmers fear that the depletion of the barrage may render 62 percent of its command area barren, inflicting a loss of 3.39 percent to the country’s GDP or more than Rs. 413 billion. They want a new barrage built.
London sanctioned the Sukkur Barrage project in 1923 to improve the reliability of irrigation water to more than 1.5 million acres of existing agricultural land, and irrigate for the first time more than 2.6 million acres. This was not entirely propelled by altruism; it was also to increase land revenue receipts. To Sindhi Muslims, Sindh’s separation from Bombay province was conceived as an ideal after imagining the barrage as a source of wealth that Bombay had hitherto been unable to provide.
Syed Mohammad Shah, a member of the 1928 Royal Statutory Commission on Reforms, had argued that the separation of Sindh from Bombay would help it develop its own infrastructure. This Sindhi nationalism, linked to the Sukkur Barrage, included all its Muslim communities as well as some Gujaratis. Jamshed R. Mehta, president of the Karachi Municipality and a prominent Parsi politician and financier, asserted in 1928 that separation would result in better health, sanitation, and education in Sindh—and prosperity for the whole country.
“All that has to be done,” Mehta said, “is that in the Ledger of the Government of India, on the page of the Sukkur Barrage account, the debtor should be entered as the Sindh Provincial Government rather than the Bombay Provincial Government.” The Hindu majority opposed to separation held that the Sukkur Barrage was too big a project for Sindh’s financial and administrative capacity. Since Bombay had to foot the bill, they said, the Sukkur Barrage tied Sindh irrevocably to Bombay.
The barrage’s political significance was attested by former Pakistani leader Benazir Bhutto in her posthumously-published book, Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy & the West: “The British ended Muslim Sindh’s separate identity by integrating it into Hindu-majority Bombay. My grandfather … had long struggled for the separation of Sindh from Bombay. The British said that the waterlogged, saline Sindh lacked sufficient revenues to be independently governed as a separate administration. My grandfather then initiated the Sukkur Barrage project to turn the arid lands of upper Sindh fertile. With the completion of the Sukkur Barrage, Sindh gained sufficient revenues for my grandfather to argue that Muslim Sindh be separated from Hindu India. He was successful, and Sindh once again emerged as a separate entity under British rule.”
Before or around the same time as Sir Shahnawaz Bhutto’s advocacy for the barrage, prominent Sindhi landowner-politician Mohammed Ayub Khuhro asserted in a 1930 pamphlet that the Sukkur Barrage was “the greatest irrigation scheme in the world” and that Sindh was “honor-bound to accept responsibility for its success or failure.” Khuhro articulated the “national” marker the barrage had become: It “had become inextricably entangled with Sindh’s existence as a self-conscious entity,” writes Haines.
The rift was becoming visible: the “separatists” were arguing for greater control over their own affairs while those opposed called for government-by-bureaucracy. Soon afterward, the Round Table Conferences, convened in London in 1930 and 1931, included a subcommittee whose task was to determine the desirability or otherwise of separating Sindh from Bombay.
Sir Frederick Sykes, the-then governor of Bombay province, feared that allowing Sindhis to dominate the hypothetical new province entirely would run the “risk that a policy of Sindh-for-Sindhis will lead to the exclusion of immigrant cultivators from the Punjab to take up lands [in the Sukkur Barrage zone], which would still further increase the burden and possibly render the scheme unproductive. Expressing an earlier assessment of Sindhis as farmers, he thought Sindhis would not farm the land effectively, thereby not earning money that could be taxed” and “leaving the government without increased revenues to compensate for the debt [from] building the barrage and renovating the canals.”
The Sukkur Barrage stands as a monument in the annals of the Pakistan Movement.
Separation eventually occurred in 1936. Sindh became an autonomous province under the terms of the 1935 Government of India Act. This triggered the overarching tendency among Sindhi Muslim nationalists to support the Muslim League’s demand for a separate homeland. This move, from a small separation to a big one, was the result of the Sukkur Barrage, which stands as a monument in the annals of the Pakistan Movement. Sindh became the only province to support Jinnah, Pakistan’s founder, in the early phase of the Pakistan Movement while the Punjab and the Northwest Frontier Province were ruled by anti-separatism parties.
But the Sukkur Barrage also triggered an early competition with upper-riparian Punjab. Water in the new canal network in the Punjab was, to Sindhi nationalists, a resource stolen from Sindh. The new Punjab colonies were established after the canals got going. From 1945 to 1946, the canals made a net profit of Rs. 4,099,000—more than three times their cost of construction. The officials in charge of the Sukkur Barrage put forward big revenue estimates to get London interested. And Sindhi cultivators were preferred over non-Sindhis: 350,000 acres (nearly a quarter of the land brought under cultivation by the barrage) were set aside to be granted to existing landholders in the barrage command area at a “nominal” rate of Rs. l5 an acre.
A British officer actually recommended “that a Land Alienation Act should be introduced to offer landholders greater legal protection against potentially destabilizing outsiders.” Had it been done, as happened in the Punjab, the rancor against Hindu creditors taking over farmland would not have occurred. Haines writes: “Muslim [landowners were] at risk of obliteration by Hindu [moneylenders]. This tightened the colonial administration because their system of control was dependent on the cooperation of [the] Muslim [landlord], and not on the Hindu moneylenders, who could often take over the land of borrowers who had failed to repay their debts.”
The Sukkur Barrage gave birth to Sindhi nationalism vis-à-vis Bombay. It became the root of the Hindu-Muslim divide in Sindh because Hindus didn’t want separation from Bombay. This was followed by a Sindhi-Punjabi split after British officers “imported” Punjabi farmers to ensure proper revenue from the barrage waters. In time, Sindhi nationalism became a willingness to support Pakistan’s separation from India. As the barrage dries up today, it excites Sindhi lower-riparian alarmism against the Punjab, as Pakistan expresses the same kind of alarmism against upper-riparian India.
Sindhi nationalism is now directed at the Punjab and has been supported sporadically by the other two small provinces, Balochistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. This nationalism draws its strength from its opposition to the “dream” dam that will end Pakistan’s water shortage during droughts: the Kalabagh Dam. In its water disputes with India, Pakistan is often rebuked by international experts for not storing its river waters when the flows are normal or excessive. The World Bank leads the international financial institutions encouraging Islamabad to undertake the construction of new dams, particularly Kalabagh.
Kalabagh Dam was conceived in 1953 as a multipurpose project to keep Pakistan’s water supply going in lean months. Existing dams have silted up by one third of their capacity. The shortfall in water availability in the country was 40 million acre-feet in 2004 and 108 million acre-feet in 2013. Kalabagh was proposed to be built with a height of 260 feet and a length of 11,000 feet with a storage capacity of 7 million acre-feet. It was also to generate some 3,600 megawatts of cheap electricity and irrigate expansive additional acreage. The cost of the dam was estimated at $10 billion in 2004, when President Pervez Musharraf tried to persuade Sindh to support the dam but got nowhere.
Nationalism becomes critical with consensus. In Sindh, political parties otherwise mutually hostile to the point of violence, support the Sindhi stance on the waters. The Pakistan Peoples Party, the only one with an all-Pakistan national status, was supposed to rationalize the sharp edges of this sub-nationalism but is ever less able to do so as its hold outside the province shrinks and it is made to rely on its electoral dominance of Sindh to survive. At the best of times, however, it was seen as “moderate” on the question of Kalabagh while its leaders in Sindh remained hardline. The four-way political divide in the province—among the PPP, Muttahida Qaumi Movement, Awami National Party, and the nationalists—has not undermined the consensus against the Punjab, which remains the only unambiguous supporter of large new dams in Pakistan’s north.
Sindhi sub-nationalism, however, is owned and championed seriously by the Sindhi “nationalist” parties Jeay Sindh Mahaz and its better known offshoot Jeay Sindh Qaumi Mahaz, which was once led by its founder-secessionist Ghulam Murtaza Shah or G. M. Syed, and Jeay Sindh Muttahida Mahaz. The other influential parties with a growing following in the country of Sindh are the Qaumi Awami Tehrik led by Ayaz Latif Palijo, Sindh Taraqi Pasand Party led by Dr. Qadir Magsi, Sindh United Party led by Jalal Mehmood Shah, and the Sindh National Movement led by Ali Hassan Chandio. This second set is non-secessionist, but wants a new social contract from the state. Emphasizing smaller-province resentment against the Punjab, these parties are united at the national level in the Pakistan Oppressed Nations Movement, a Sindh-Balochistan consensus of grievances.
Sindhi experts diligently collect evidence to underpin the province’s case against the Punjab, solidifying what may appear at times to be mere distrust, in some cases, arising from proven excesses committed by upper-riparian Punjab. Interestingly, the grievances highlighted by the experts go back to the British Raj and the construction of Sukkur Barrage. A distrust of the Punjab and its rapidly expanding “canal colonies” grew in 1901 when Sindh was part of the Bombay Presidency and had put the government on notice about Punjab taking water from rivers Indus, Chenab, Jhelum, Ravi, Sutlej and Beas “without the prior permission of Sindh.” In 1919, a committee set up by the Indian government recommended that the “Punjab government should undertake no new project, till the construction of Sukkur Barrage had been completed and Sindh’s water requirements had been met.”
PPP’s reference to ‘Mother Sindh’ promises an intensification of provincialism.
Sukkur Barrage touched off a nationalism that has many strands now. Sindhi resentment of Punjabi farmers who had relocated to areas watered by the barrage aroused a mild and natural xenophobia against “outsiders” which grew as the barrage brought prosperity and caused old cities to flourish. Migration, external and internal, exacerbated the situation as urbanized populations gravitated to Karachi and stymied the Sindhi farming communities’ own transition from the village to the city. Sindhi sub-nationalism draws strength from its “hydraulic” grievances against the Punjab and the usurpation of indigenous space by external settlers.
Something similar happened to Maharashtra, India, but without the hydraulic aspect of the strife seen in Sindh. In Maharashtra’s case, the animus was directed mainly at the Gujarati population dominating Bombay’s economy by reason of its superior consciousness based on centuries of trade in Gujarat when its city Surat was the only port of India. Bombay and Karachi were built to benefit from this superior consciousness. Bal Thackeray, the strongman of the “wronged” indigenous population and leader of Hindu-extremist Shiv Sena, dominated Bombay. When he died in 2012, Hindustan Times called him “the mascot of Marathi pride.” It described Thackeray’s power thus: Thackeray “protested the right of the Marathi on Mumbai [Bombay], a city dominated by ‘outsiders.’ His pro-Marathi plank propounded Maharashtra for Maharashtrians, and chose even to offend his ally, the [Bharatiya Janata Party], by backing Congress’s presidential nominee, Pratibha Patil, who was a Maharashtrian.”
Migrations lead to violence. The immigrant is insecure because he wants a place in the sun; the local is insecure because he fears losing his own space to the immigrant. Fear gives way to hatred, and hatred to violence. Both in Bombay and Karachi, local populations were either marginalized or their relocation from countryside to the cities was delayed through “interloper” communities. The Sindhi assertion of identity and rights has remained rural-based; its urban space has been surrendered to the immigrant MQM.
Ethnicity produces more durable violence than any other identity. Internal émigré communities in Karachi have long taken to using strong-arm methods. Communities hounded by religious extremism seek protection from MQM chief Altaf Hussain, who, like Thackeray, remains aloof from the politics he presides over. If Karachi is the stronghold of the Urdu-speaking immigrant community, it is also the biggest Pakhtun city of the world. Thackeray challenged a functional Indian state and was therefore demonized by India; Hussain challenged a dysfunctional Pakistani state and achieved acceptance from political parties beleaguered by terrorism.
The Sukkur Barrage revived agrarian Sindh and postponed the forced, city-ward relocation of rural populations. It aroused fear, too, because the Sindhi thought this lifeline could be disrupted. This compelled him to ask for more guarantees against possible betrayals by upper-riparian Punjab. As other grievances accumulated, this fear coalesced with the real dangers of marginalization and neglect. Nationalism usually relies for its survival on exaggeration, and in this case as well a realistic fear grew into lower-riparian alarmism, thwarting all solutions and promoting only secessionist extremism.
Sindhi nationalism is isolationist as it militates against international opinion recommending more upriver storage dams. It also repels international support by denouncing the Indus Waters Treaty of 1960 with India which safeguarded Pakistan’s rights and is held up as a model to be followed by other states. Pakistan compounds the problem by mixing nationalism with its water problems with India. Its crisis of confidence with Sindh could be defused if it cooperated with India instead of threatening war with it on the basis of case-building that convinces no one outside Pakistan.
Last December, after the Lahore High Court “ordered” construction of Kalabagh Dam favored only by the Punjab, the Sindh Assembly ruled by the PPP blew its fuse. The House indulged in inflammatory speechifying before adopting the following resolution: “The issue or even the idea of constructing this dam is tantamount to eroding the foundations of national cohesion, destroying provincial fraternity in general, and creating socioeconomic disaster for the province of Sindh in particular, and this House vehemently condemns those who have been supporting it.”
As the PPP consolidates in Sindh after being ousted from the center in the 2013 elections, it is challenged by the province’s sub-nationalism. The reference to “Mother Sindh” by its young patron-in-chief, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, in a tweet after hearing MQM’s Hussain demand bifurcation of Sindh promises an intensification of provincialism: “No50/50, No number 1 or number 2, only Mother Sindh. All men are created equal. All Pakistanis should b treated equally in the eyes of the Law.” This message was aimed both at rivals in the province and at federal institutions, including the judiciary, seen by the PPP as biased against it.
The Sindh government of the PPP suspects the federation of favoring a Punjabi “plot” to build dams. It challenges the other Sindhi party, the MQM, on the urban-rural divide, posturing to represent the Sindhi of the Sukkur Barrage against the urban, MQM-voting trespassers. Behind the slogans of “wronged Sindh” looms the shadowy presence of secession, a reminder that if the PPP doesn’t succeed in retaining the hearts and minds of the Sindhi masses, the separatists will make inroads into its vote-bank and marginalize it. As the dysfunctional state of Pakistan swings helplessly in favor of the terrorists, carrying a flag of extreme isolationism because of its ideological opposition to India and the U.S., rising sub-nationalism represents a defensive reaction of the aggrieved masses.
From our Feb. 1, 2014, issue.