There is a rising din that the Sir Creek dispute is a low-hanging fruit ripe for plucking. But the ground reality belies any such optimism, says Ashok Malik
EVER SINCE Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari travelled to New Delhi and Ajmer on Easter Sunday and invited Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Islamabad, there has been speculation in New Delhi about the political content of a possible Indian prime ministerial visit. Will agreements be signed? Will long-standing issues be resolved?
While much of the focus has been on the Siachen Glacier, there is a growing perception that the Sir Creek dispute is “doable”. The phrase was apparently used in the Zardari-Singh conversation on 8 April. On 14 May, a Pakistani delegation was supposed to arrive in Delhi and discuss the Sir Creek dispute. At the 11th hour, it announced a postponement to 22 June.
Ironically, this deferring of dates was seen as an indicator of Sir Creek’s “doability”. The Siachen talks begin on 11 June. Pakistan is keen on demilitarisation, which would amount to India conceding altitudinal and strategic advantage. Islamabad, analysts suggest, is holding the more “doable” Sir Creek agreement hostage till New Delhi agrees to a Siachen agreement on its terms. The assumption is the Indian side will be desperate for some sort of settlement to showcase before the prime minister crosses the Wagah border.
There are two issues. First, do Manmohan Singh and the UPA government have the domestic political capital to push through agreements, whether on Siachen or Sir Creek or otherwise? Second, exactly how “doable” is Sir Creek? An examination of the facts and interviews with government sources suggests an imminent solution is unlikely. In fact, if anything it is getting more complicated. “This line about Sir Creek being ‘doable’ has acquired a momentum of its own,” says an official, “frankly I don’t see where it is coming from.”
The Sir Creek dispute goes back almost exactly 100 years. The Creek is a 63 mile (about 100 km) long water body that stretches from the marshes at the edge of the Rann of Kutch to the Arabian Sea. In 1913, it came to be contested between the Rao Saheb of Kutch and the Chief Commissioner of Sindh. There was a difference of perceptions between the Indian princely state and the British province as to the boundary between them.
‘This line about Sir Creek being ‘doable’ has acquired a momentum of its own. I don’t see where it’s coming from,’ remarks an official
Sir Creek was not seen as particularly valuable. The conflict had arisen because locals from both provinces had begun to explore the Creek area for firewood and were squabbling. The case was referred to the government of Bombay. It conducted a survey and offered its opinion in 1914. The verdict, the centenary of which will be reached in two years, is at the root of the current India-Pakistan dispute. It offers two contradictory assessments:
• Paragraph nine says the boundary between Kutch and Sindh lies “to the east of the Creek”. This would imply the Creek belongs to Sindh and thereby to Pakistan
• Paragraph 10 says as per the chief commissioner of Sindh (the winner according to the previous paragraph) Sir Creek is navigable most of the year. As such, given international law, a boundary can only be fixed in the middle of the navigable channel. This would imply the Creek is to be divided between Sindh and Kutch, and thereby India and Pakistan
For the past 60 years, Pakistan has hammered away at paragraph nine of the 1914 Bombay government order. India has emphasised paragraph 10.
In 1914, both Sindh and Kutch walked away with different interpretations of the verdict, and both declared victory. In 1925, a map of the region was drawn and showed a “green riband to the east of the Creek”. Pakistan uses this map to say that the green riband marked the boundary between Sindh and Kutch, and left the Creek with Sindh. India says the Creek itself was depicted as a thin line on the map and it is “normal cartographic practice” to mark a maritime boundary to the right or left of a water body “so as not to obliterate the marking of the water body on the map”.
In 1947, India and Pakistan became independent and Sir Creek was now part of a gamut of contested boundaries. The Rann of Kutch itself was the location of the 1965 war. After the war, India and Pakistan agreed to a UN-facilitated international arbitration tribunal to demarcate the India-Pakistan border in the Kutch sector. In 1968, the tribunal gave its award and drew a boundary of some 450 km between the two countries, and between the state of Gujarat (into which the old Kutch had been incorporated) and the Sindh province.
However, this tribunal judged the land boundary but stopped short of Sir Creek. It identified Border Post (BP) 1175 in Kutch as parallel to the head of Sir Creek, the northern tip where the Creek meets land. From BP 1175 to the head of the Creek, it laid 67 pillars at a distance of half a mile from each other. These 67 pillars and 33.5 miles were entirely east of the Creek. They were undisputed Indian territory, and acknowledged as such by Pakistan. However, the straight line of 67 pillars was important to mark the head (top or source) of the Creek. The head of the Creek in turn had to be agreed upon before any negotiations. In a marshy landscape, where exactly the Creek began was itself a tricky question.
The pillars laid in the mid-1960s were ravaged by nature. In the decades that followed, erosion took place. The pillars disappeared. In 2005, a joint India-Pakistan team set out to excavate the 67 pillars. Only 37 were found, all in a straight line from BP 1175. It was then agreed to extend that line at half-mile intervals, till 67 pillars had notionally been identified. In this manner, the head of the Creek was agreed upon.
IN RECENT years, two other key developments have taken place with regard to Sir Creek. In 2007, naval hydrography units from India and Pakistan together tested the channel for navigability. They found it was entirely navigable. Admirals from both sides initialled the findings.
This evidence of navigability bolstered India’s case. It confirmed the Sindh chief commissioner’s declaration of 1914 that Sir Creek was navigable most of the year. It brought into application the Thalweg principle, which is used to draw up international water boundaries and holds that a navigable waterway must be divided midchannel. For instance, this is the principle used to identify American and Canadian interests in the Saint Lawrence river.
In 2008, Pakistan reneged on the findings, denied the initials of their admiral and said navigability had not been established. This rejection of an agreed benchmark and empirical evidence has led to sections of the Indian military and the foreign ministry wondering if there is any value to a Pakistani signature, and to any final agreement that country may sign.
The second development was a critical concession by India. The navigable channel of the Creek comes down (southwards) from the head and then veers sharply westwards, towards Sindhi land. If the navigable channel is divided equally, it will move the Indian boundary much closer to Sindh than Pakistan may be comfortable with.
As such, India proposed ignoring the westward lunge of the channel — and notionally accepting that the channel actually descended straight, north to south. At this point, at the mouth of the Creek, India and Pakistan would accept a principle of equidistance and divide the waterway.
This was a reasonable offer, officials say, and meant both nations would climb down from their maximalist positions. When India suggests Sir Creek is “doable”, it essentially means Pakistan should accept this Indian formula. “This is the most we can do,” says a negotiator, “it’s our bottom line.”
The Pakistanis may not quite see it that way, and that’s due to another accident of geography. The dispute is now over where the mouth of the Creek is — where it meets the Arabian Sea. India identifies the mouth at one location. Pakistan identifies the mouth about 10 nautical miles further south. The consequences can be enormous.
Why? In the early 20th century, Kutch built a canal on the eastern bank of Sir Creek. In the decades that followed, erosion and the shifting of sand and water broke the canal and ended up creating a new creek — the Pir Salai Creek. This new creek is entirely in Indian territory, but if Pakistan’s interpretation is accepted, it could be blocked by that country’s navy.
As it happens, India has “substantial naval assets” in Pir Salai Creek. These assets are needed to monitor the Arabian Sea, check maritime infiltration from Pakistan and for any deep-sea mineral prospection. Pakistan’s version of the mouth will in effect allow it to blockade and nullify these Indian naval capacities.
There is one other implication: mineral wealth. The boundary agreed at the Creek will determine the sea boundary and the exclusive economic zone of either country extending to 300 nautical miles. A single nautical mile concession in the channel (not to speak of a 10 nautical mile concession as Pakistan wants) could have an exponential effect in the deep sea.
The sea is brimming with mineral wealth, including hydrocarbons. Sir Creek itself is believed to be a repository of shale gas, though some petroleum ministry officials in New Delhi say these sentiments are exaggerated. Nevertheless, it is part of the same geological formation as for instance the oil fields of Barmer (Rajasthan).
There’s also a hint of politics. At the CMs’ security conclave in Delhi in April, Narendra Modi pointedly requested the Centre for help in exploring the Sir Creek region for hydrocarbon resources. Gujarat goes to the polls in December 2012. The prime minister hopes to visit Pakistan in September or October. After all this, does Sir Creek still sound “doable”?
Ashok Malik is Contributing editor, Tehelka.