This paper examines the pitfalls of macro-narrative on water diplomacy in South Asia which remains hostage to a strategic-geo-political construct. Building on critical approaches to water diplomacy, it presents the concept of ‘water communities’, which inhabit the borderlands of South Asia. Such an approach is not only useful in rooting water diplomacy in the concept of water communities but can also add a layered scalar understanding to water diplomacy through a ‘water plus’ approach. Apart from documented stories on cooperation, personal interviews 1 were conducted for highlighting the micro-narratives from the Himalayan borderlands of Bhutan, India and Nepal.

South Asia in its institutional manifestation can appropriately be defined as a strategic construct. The rationale for this statement stems from the historical baggage of partitions which the subcontinent witnessed in 1947 and 1971, and the strategic culture which was perpetuated through the impact of the cold war years. So fossilized have been the violent memories and the exclusivist narrative of partition, that the imagination of South Asia as it morphed into its institutional identity hesitated to go beyond the colonial legacy. This fractured South Asian identity, which later became institutionalised through the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) could never liberate itself from the baggage of geo-politics. As a result, in its maiden years, SAARC largely focussed on soft issues pushing the contested issues which were a threat to the sovereignty of states to the back burner, thus failing to emerge as a regional community (Muni, 1985; Baral, 1999). If one casts an eye on the nature of water cooperation between South Asia states there is an overwhelming presence of bilateral agreements over shared transboundary rivers, where most of them witness issues related to lack of implementation and information sharing (Crow & Singh, 2000:1908; Surie & Prasai, 2015; Price, 2016). The making of these negotiated agreements also reveal that most of them were either influenced or sabotaged by the immediate political environment (Dhungel & Pun, 2009), domestic politics (Subedi, 1999; Pande, 2016), colonial legacies which focused on dams as the main panacea for managing rivers to facilitate development (Crow et al., 2005; Bandopadhyay & Ghosh, 2009).

This article goes beyond these limitations and offers a scalar approach to the discourse on water diplomacy. It does so with the help of case studies from India's Himalayan neighbours – Bhutan and Nepal. Critically examining the nature of bilateral cooperation on political, ecological and social grounds, it offers specific ways through which communities living around transboundary rivers can cooperate with each other. In this backdrop what merits attention is a critical discourse on water diplomacy which is rooted in water communities. The micro-narratives presented in case studies attempt to bridge the gap between the macro-narrative of water diplomacy in South Asia.

Situating water communities within water diplomacy

The conceptual frameworks offered by the scholarship on water diplomacy is an animated one as the debate has broadened and deepened over a period of time. Given the burgeoning literature in the field, the scholarship can be clubbed into three broad categories – strategic, normative and critical. The strategic approach explores ways of managing water conflicts and influencing state behaviour during negotiations. Scholars are divided on whether water is an independent or an explanatory variable for causing tensions between states, and offer insights on potential transformative solutions that could minimise water conflicts and strengthen ways of undertaking diplomatic negotiations. Most of these studies resort to the existing body of International Water Law in terms of addressing challenges that countries witness in inter-state negotiations. Such policy-relevant research offers useful tool for preventive diplomacy which can be employed by diplomats to negotiate agreements and identify variables which can aggravate/minimise riparian conflicts. The inclination of this work however remains state centric or basin centric (Gleick, 1993; Elhance, 1999; Homer-Dixon, 1994; Butts, 1997; Wolf et al., 2003; Gleditsch et al., 2006; Wolf, 2007; Zeitoun et al., 2019).

The second strand of strategic approach is inspired from rational choice theories offering ways through which state actors can cooperate. A key concern for these scholars is to offer explanations for influencing state behaviour primarily by focussing on how riparian asymmetries and power play can influence state policies. Thus geographical location of states or even the geo-morphological understanding of rivers offers a useful entry-point for examining the positions of state actors in negotiating water regimes. (Spykeman & Rollins, 1958; Zeitoun & Warner, 2006; Dinar, 2008).

The second approach can be termed as normative and pertains to guidelines (soft law) which are agreed at the international level. Foregrounding a governance perspective, this approach can very much be considered a part of water diplomacy discourse as it establishes the normative framework around which actors should converge their preferences and privilege a sustainability-based approach (Cullet, 2009:25). This approach gained momentum from the Dublin Conference post 1992, which focussed on the principle of efficiency and sustainable development. Terming water as an economic good, the Dublin principles not only prescribed recommendations for actions at the international, national and local level but also brought to the fore the idea of public-private partnerships and access to basic water services such as clean and safe drinking water. Scholars have pointed out that water services related cases which are brought for international arbitration have been increasing in recent years, which in turn have increased the responsibility of the state for regulating private water actors (Chaisse & Polo, 2015). These developments have brought forward the dichotomy between water being perceived as an ‘economic good’ and as a ‘fundamental human right’ (Cullet, 2013:57). Some have argued that ‘water service needs to be perceived as public service’ which increases the accountability of states at the domestic level (Simoes, 2017:273). In this regard, scholars have emphasised that states should design their water-related policies in compliance with investment treaties, as a failure on this front would increase water costs in the long term (Chaisse & Polo, 2015). The normative debate thus expands the centricity of water diplomacy from ‘states’ to ‘private actors’. Another central guidepost in the water governance debate are Millennium and Sustainable Development Goals which are not only seen as a marker of poverty eradication but also the benchmark for sustainable governance of global water resources (Cullet, 2009:26; Klimes et al., 2019:1363). Even though such debates and their impact in varying domestic contexts is being debated (Cullet et al., 2019), it is significant to note that water diplomacy practices in South Asia have been immune to the international policy context and remains locked in riparian claims.

The third broad category of scholarship can be identified with a critical or the local in water-diplomacy studies which broadens and deepens the definition of water diplomacy from states and private actors to communities and human development. In many ways taking the normative approach further, but giving an applied context to it, the literature belonging to this genre emancipates the vocabulary of scales and society highlighting the mismatch which often occurs between administrative, jurisdictional and legal boundaries imposed on the river. Underlining the limits of negotiating transboundary rivers, hydro-diplomacy is perceived from the lens of human development. Against this backdrop it has been argued that holistic knowledge and eco-systems perspective should be privileged in diplomatic negotiations (Bandopadhyay & Ghosh, 2009). One of the primary arguments offered by scholars is to move beyond a ‘modern’ resource-centric understanding of water and explore its multiple meaning as ‘it exists in a particular place or context’ (Blatter & Ingram, 2001). The multiple meanings of water has led to scholars diversifying the nature of actors beyond a state-centric definition of networks, collectives and stakeholder engagements. Significantly, attention to the concept of scales is highlighted in order to negotiate water governance on transboundary rivers (Norman et al., 2015; Klimes, 2019). Islam & Susskind (2013) have translated this analysis to a conceptual level by offering a ‘Water Diplomacy Framework’ where they draw inferences from complexity science and negotiation theory, making their analysis interdisciplinary by foregrounding the perspective of water networks.

This article offers a via media for this discourse by emancipating the concept of scales and actors in South Asia. While the scholarship on normative and critical approaches to water diplomacy highlights the importance of scales, actors and networks, it does not directly address certain questions. First, the link between water diplomacy and water community has to be fleshed out at a conceptual level. This is important with respect to the gap which exists between the macro- and the micro-narratives. Second, since water is an inter-disciplinary subject and the existing literature on water diplomacy has broadened and deepened over the years, it needs a comprehensive and systematic analysis. This article not only attempts to fill this gap but examines how critical questions related to scales, and actors could enhance and inform the meta-narrative of water diplomacy, making it more intertwined with micro-narratives.

One way of emancipating scales and actors to the discourse on water diplomacy is to foreground it in the concept of borderlands – zones which lie near international boundaries (Schendel, 2004). Border districts in South Asia, become significant as much of the South Asian identity converges around these sub-regions. Significantly, one of the primary conduits which binds these identities together are transboundary rivers which defy bordered spaces. The rivers are also witness to ‘shared’ vulnerabilities and resilience these communities share when natural disasters hit them. Rivers also endow a distinct identity to the people living on the banks of the rivers, who are at the receiving end of water policies and politics envisioned and negotiated at the national and bilateral level. The concept of borderlands perspective thus helps putting some of these ideas into perspective.

It was William Schendel who introduced the term ‘borderlands’ in the South Asian vocabulary. Refraining to use the term ‘marginal spaces’, he qualified them as ‘epistemic’ spaces, which were rich sites for understanding the social rather than the political narratives. Conceptualising borderlands to emancipate discourses, perceptions and the impact of partition on common lives, Schendel bought the narratives of the people to the centre of spatial imagination (Schendel, 2004:1–17).

Much work on borderlands has been done in North American history and has often been seen as a tool to ‘transcend centrist blindspots’ (Hamalainen & Truett, 2011:338). One of the central assumptions of borderland studies has been to question, problematise and go beyond the meta-narrative of the state, and highlight select narratives through which the decisions of the state unfold in these spaces. Fuller & Benei's (2001) interesting study examines the impact of the state on the everyday lives of the people. They provocatively focus on ways to examine both the structural and ideational forces which give meaning to the idea of the state. Although the authors do not focus on borderland per se, they do consider the relevance of ethnographic methods to examine the fuzzy lines between state and society. David Gellner's interesting study on borderlands of ‘Northern South Asia’ underlines ways through which the quotidian aspects of every day vis-à-vis the state can be studied. Gellner emancipates the concept of borderlands to study both the ‘idea of the state (the state effect) and how people interact with the state and what they expect from it’ (Gellner, 2013:3). These twin aspects, according to Gellner become significant for studying both the idea and practices of state and should be the focus of any ethnographic investigation undertaken in the borderlands. This argument becomes significant for studying the layered relationship between borders and water diplomacy as one of the main purposes of the latter is to secure the needs and interests of the former. However, much of the work on water diplomacy has refrained from conceptualising the human possibilities for informing the concept, primarily because of the limitations of linking water diplomacy to a scalar analysis.

Thus, the concept of borderlands becomes a compelling entry point for studying cross-border water cooperation in South Asia for two reasons. First, it informs the debate on cooperation on transboundary rivers at a conceptual level and second it offers a rich site to examine the perspectives of the communities who dwell along the banks of these transboundary rivers. For this purpose, two cases from South Asian borderlands are examined. The first case is of Saralbhanga river shared between India and Bhutan. The second is Mahakali river shared by India and Nepal. Saralbhanga flows across the Indo-Bhutan border and a stretch of Mahakali forms the border between India and Nepal. The rationale for choosing these specific rivers is due to their distinct geo-morphology and the evidence they offer for mobilizing communities around transboundary water issues. The rationale was to present a scoping case and document evidence which can offer some hope for broadening and deepening the discourse on water diplomacy in South Asia. Cases like these also need attention, as there is growing evidence of cross-border interaction between the communities living along the borderlands of South Asia (Siddiqui et al., 2017; Barua, 2018).

The methodology employed in this article is interpretive (Neufeld, 1993). The methodology is facilitated by discourse analysis method, which focuses on specific ways through which one understands and sees the world (Jørgensen & Phillips, 2002:1). To take the analysis further, documented evidence and personal interviews were the main areas of focus for understanding how and what communities think of cooperation across borders and how cooperation is ‘represented’ through their utterances. The water communities, mentioned in this article, primarily reflect the views of women leaders2 who have been a part of the cooperative process. Jørgensen and Phillips note that ‘discourse is a form of social action that plays a part in producing the social world, including knowledge, identities and social relations, and thereby in maintaining specific social patterns’ (Jørgensen & Phillips, 2002:5). Critical discourse anaysis of ways through which women leaders think and articulate the meaning of cooperation would be useful not only for understanding the voices of women but also the ecological, social and political context that they seem to be embedded in. The select cases also reveal ways through which cooperation can materialise through borderlands of the South Asian region. Thus for conceptualising the fluidity of these discourses emerging from the border regions, cooperative efforts around two small rivers of South Asia (in contrast to larger rivers such as The Ganges, Indus and Brahmaputra) is undertaken. This helped in understanding micro-discourses vis-à-vis the macro-discourses on water diplomacy. While the river Saralbhanga is a minor river which flows from Bhutan to India, River Mahakali is a border forming river between India and Nepal. The method is largely qualitative and becomes significant for critically assessing the ‘meanings’ which macro-agreements around transboundary rivers have for these communities. The focus on communities also helps one to navigate across scales and emancipate their understanding of the river. Three parameters are isolated for understanding the meaning of trans-boundary rivers for communities inhabiting borderlands. These are (a) geography (context of the river), (b) issues framing cooperation and (c) the nature of cooperation. These three parameters help in eliciting issues at the local level, highlighting the much needed insight for facilitating a scalar/layered analysis to bridge the gap between the macro-narratives which emerge from bilateral water diplomacy and the border micro-narratives which emerge from the borders.

Case study one

Saralbhanga is one of the smaller rivers that flows from Bhutan's Sarpang district to Assam's Kokrajhar district in India. Although more than 50 rivers, rivulets and streams flow from Bhutan to India or to join the mainstem Brahmaputra, there are five major and minor river systems in Bhutan. The five major river systems are Drangme Chhu (Manas River), Wang Chhu (Raidak River), Punatsang Chhu (Sankosh River), Ammo Chhu (Torsa River) and Mangde Chhu (Tongsa River) (Dorji, 2016). Much of the hydro-power projects between India and Bhutan are envisioned around these rivers. The minor river systems are the Jaldakha in Samtse, Aiechhu in Sarpang, Nyera Amari in Samdrup Jongkhar, Jomori in Samdrup Jongkhar/Trashigang, and Merak-Sakteng in Trashigang (Dorji, 2016). Saralbhanga belongs to one of the minor river system and is one of the smaller rivers in Sarpang district of Bhutan and offers an interesting tale of cooperation between both countries. However, before this tale is narrated, it is important that one puts the macro-narrative of India–Bhutan water relations in perspective.

The macro (state) narrative of India's water relations with an upper riparian Bhutan is quite different from the discourse it shares with upper riparian Nepal. The primary reason for this is the existing trust between India and Bhutan, nature of issues (primarily hydro-power) pertinent to India–Bhutan water cooperation and the economic arrangement which was negotiated by the countries in the first phase of hydro-power cooperation (Bisht, 2010) The second phase of hydro-cooperation between both countries started in 2007 with the aim to generate 10,000 MW of power by 2020. Bhutan currently generates 1,616 MW of electricity (Dorji, 2016; Chorredron, 2018)). Challenges confront the second phase of hydro-cooperation between both countries as it has not been as successful with significant economic, social and environmental costs associated with the projects (Bisht, 2011; Vasudha Foundation, 2016; Ranjan, 2018). While the macro-narrative of Indo-Bhutan, water cooperation is slowly changing and is being addressed by governments through official channels, the narratives which emerge from border districts of lower riparian Assam are yet to be addressed. One of the constant irritants that often evades the attention of the national media are grievances from the lower riparian Assam regarding the issue flash floods which have become a regular feature in last few years. The meaning which hydel projects have for the state and the community, who inhabit the banks of the rivers are different.

The first documented evidence of water-induced disasters came to the fore in 1994, when a flash flood was caused due to the breach of Lugye Tsho (Lotay, 2015; Acharya, 2017). Flash floods followed in 2000, 2004, 2009, 2013, 2016 resulting in agricultural degradation and loss of infrastructure. The primary reason identified for these flash floods in Bhutan was heavy monsoon rainfall and earthquake which caused a breach in the upstream supraglacial ponds (Lotay, 2015:6; Gurung et al., 2017).

However, the narrative downstream in Assam regarding the flash floods which happened in 2004 and 2016 was different, which alleged that the 2004 flash flood was due to the breach of Kurichu dam, which is built on Kurichu river, a principal tributary of Manas river. While Assam highlighted the unannounced release of water, without any early-warning signal from Bhutan, the Bhutanese authorities denied any such allegations (Down to Earth, 2016). Assam had alleged that the overflow happened due to a landslide, which caused a breach in the Tsatichu lake situated 30 km upstream of Kurichu. The debris which came with the floods choked the tributaries and made Assam accuse Bhutan of opening the reservoir gates to flush out the gushing force of water (Mahanta, 2014). Another major incidence of flash floods impacting Bhutan happened on 2016. In 2016, there were two flash floods, which resulted in economic losses for Sarpang district of Bhutan and Assam (Acharya, 2017). Media reports have noted that while flash floods are a concern for Assam, stone mining in upstream and heavy siltation has made agricultural land degradable (Frontier Weekly, 2018). The case of flash floods suggest that water-induced disasters can be a pertinent issue across the Indo-Bhutan border. The discourses that these tensions have created at the local scale and the ramifications they hold for the bilateral hydel-cooperation is reflective of the glaring gap that exists between the capitals and the borderlands of South Asia.

Given that there are tensions at the local cross border level between India and Bhutan, a vignette of cooperation between these two neighbours along the Saralbhanga river becomes an interesting site for study. This is because the case not only suggests ways through which border-states can cooperate but also reveals how cooperation around rivers can be made functional through water communities.

Case of the Saralbhanga river

Bhutan shares borders with Sikkim, West-Bengal, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. Saralbhanga which flows into the Bodoland Territorial Area Districts (BTAD) of Kokhrajhar, Chirang, Baksa and Udaiguri, are situated in the northern banks of Brahmaputra. The case of cooperation over the Saralbhanga river and its narrative becomes important because the case reveals three significant issues – why cooperation happened, how was cooperation facilitated and what was the nature of cooperation. The case therefore is studied under three parameters, geography, issues which facilitated cooperation (frames) and nature of cooperation. The example of cooperation also becomes significant because the bordering districts under BTAD have been a conflict-ridden area.

Geography, the riverine context

The BTAD is a politically sensitive area and has been a witness to militancy/insurgency in the past years. The primary reason for this was a demand for a separate state of Bodoland, as the Bodos wanted to secure their linguistic and cultural rights ensured under the Assam Accord. It was in 2003, after a decade of armed conflict and negotiations between the insurgent groups and the Indian government that the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC), with four contiguous districts of Kokhrajhar, Chirang, Baksa and Udaiguri were established and the militancy waned for the moment (Sharma, 2016). The geographical location of Indo-Bhutan borderlands merits attention, as cooperation and conflict between India and its South Asian neighbours is often intertwined with national security issues, and Bhutan is no exception to this phenomenon. One of the primary reasons why hydro-power cooperation has succeeded in the case of Bhutan, unlike other riparian neighbours is the trust and goodwill shared by New Delhi and Thimpu. However, the geography of the adjoining border districts and insecurities stemming from it is a sensitive nerve, given the nature of open borders. Often the insurgents find refuge in the dense forests of South Bhutan. As a consequence borders of Northern Assam were securitised and by 2003 and 2004, the Indian army was deployed along the Indo-Bhutan border to prevent insurgents from entering the territory. With the launch of Operation All Clear by Royal Bhutan Army in 2003, the insurgents from Bhutan were flushed out and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland declared a unilateral ceasefire. The ceasefire however was short lived as violence between the Bodos and the Non-Bodos has been a regular phenomenon (Sharma, 2016). As a result, the Government of India launched another operation, called Operation All Out, against Bodo insurgents in 2014. What these facts reveal is the protracted violence and suffering which people in the Indian borderlands in Northern Assam have witnessed, which means that development cooperation with border districts in Bhutan is linked with Indian ‘national security’ concerns. The macro-perspective along the Indo-Bhutan borders is also suggestive of reasons for the lack of effective response related to flash-floods in Assam, as the Central government in India, largely perceives the Northern regions of Assam through a security lens.

Issues framing cooperation

Between July and September 2017, like other previous years of heavy monsoon rainfall, Assam had again witnessed the issue of flash floods and there was significant damage to the border infrastructure situated along the Southern district of Sarpang and Assam (Acharya, 2017; The Kuensel, 2017). The Bhutan government responded by diverting the Saralbhanga river. This caused much concern amongst local farmers who were concerned that such upstream activities would increase the silt in the river causing degradation of agricultural land downstream (Yashwant, 2018a, 2018b). Another decision by the Bhutanese government, which did not go well with the lower riparian Assam was the decision to put an embargo on building a nine foot tall indigenous check dam (Jamfwi/Dongo) in the middle of the river by farmers of Kokrajhar district. This indigenous structure has been a traditional practice, which helps in diverting water through irrigation so that the farmers can irrigate their crops. Given that agriculture is the primary source of livelihood, this decision had a high stake for local citizens (Yashwant, 2018a; Anon, 2018). In response to this crises Northeast Research and Social Work Networking (NRSWN), a local NGO and members of informal networks, the All Bodo Students Union (ABSU) and Bodo Women's Forum for Peace and Development (BWFPD), met the officials of the local chapter of Bhutan-India Friendship Association (BIFA) in Gelephu (Bhutan) to raise the concerns of the farmers. The Bhutan India Friendship Association (BIFA) facilitated a meeting with the Deputy Commissioner (DC) of Sarpang district of Bhutan, after which the Bhutanese officials agreed to allow farmers from Assam to build the check dams used for diverting the water of Saralbhanga River for irrigation purposes (Anon, 2018; Yashwant, 2018a, 2018b). The issue which framed cooperation in this case was immediate livelihood concern, which reveals how specific local issues can be upscaled, communicated and even leveraged to collectively mobilise the community over shared interests.

Commenting on the nature of agency and what initiated collective mobilisation, a women leader noted, ‘Northern Assam (BTAC) and Southern districts of Bhutan, Phuensheling and Sarpang, share a conflictual and cooperative relationship. Not only is the Indian movement monitored through the border crossing gate at Gelephu town in Bhutan due to conflict in the past, but many Bhutanese also pass through the BTAC area to go to their towns at Phuensheling (given that it is a much shorter route for them) or to other places in India for their treatment’ (personal communication, Nagarkot, Nepal March 9, 2019). She also argued, ‘Why can't Indians be allowed to Bhutan to sell their products and take advantage of existing open borders? These are issues that concern the local people' (personal communication, Nagarkot, Nepal March 9, 2019). The focus on livelihood issues and how it can ignite imagination towards improving the economic status of locals, emerged as the major concern and motivation for the borderland community to mobilise collective interests. What was observed therefore was that water diplomacy or conflict resolution over disputed areas does not emerge as a single, isolated water-related issue but is related to multiple issues having a larger vision of the everyday lives of the people. A ‘water-plus’ approach (water plus other issues related to livelihood) helped mobilise community with a long term vision in mind. This is an important aspect as such understanding can help create water communities in the borderland areas.

Nature of cooperation

The nature of cooperation in this case was informal and informed by the role played by international non-governmental organisation (OXFAM), local non-governmental organisations (NRSWN) and informal networks of students and women, the All Bodo Students Union (ABSU) and Bodo Women's Forum for Peace and Development (BWFPD). This combination of both formal organisations and informal networks becomes a significant entry point to understand how community mobilisation and building can be sustained and achieved in the border regions for the benefit of borderlanders. While there is no official arrangement or legal framework which obliges the Bhutanese authorities to act in the same way, as they did in the case of Saralbhanga river, such best practices merit attention, so that water diplomacy in the South Asian region gets a distinct meaning and can be broadened by leveraging ‘every day’ issues which can help build a distinct community in the borderlands. In 2018 India–Bhutan announced the opening of a Border Trade Centre between border districts of Assam and Bhutan, which is a welcome move (Singh, 2018). It was reported that on June 2019 ‘over 500 people from 36 villages of Saralpara area in Kokrajhar district participated in Shramdan (Voluntary Work) to repair traditional diversion based irrigation canal (local natives called Jamfwi/Dong) from Saralbanga River, which flows downstream from Bhutan through Kokrajhar district in Assam’ (Preetam, 2019). One of the primary reasons for the mobilisation was the ‘presence of ABSU and BWFPD as both networks have strong relational ties with the local Bodo people, given that they have shared memories and experiences related to the insurgency years. In the long term economic interaction across the border offers promise of economic growth to them’ (personal communication, Nagarkot, Nepal, March 9, 2019). Pratibha Brahma an active social activist in the region noted, ‘Our efforts to bring two friendly nations together to meet the developmental aspirations of people living along the Indo-Bhutan border is bearing fruit. People to people ties are facilitating cordial sharing of natural resources especially the water on the border. Saralpara initiative for trans-boundary river sharing is one of the best things that I have ever seen in my life’ (Preetam, 2019). The nature of cooperation is local, but also elicits how the local agency can translate some of its interests through important policy networks. However, in order to sustain such initiatives, such informal initiatives should be supported and institutionalised in the long term. An important lesson from these initiatives is the multiple meanings that the river has for water communities. It can be a source of sorrow but also a facilitator which can be a route for community building and amplifying livelihood opportunities.

Case study two

Unlike the Saralbhanga river, Mahakali river is a known name in discourses around water diplomacy. Mahakali is a tributary of The Ganges, and is distinct given that it is a boundary forming river. Mahakali is a part of the catchment of the Ghagra sub-basin and the Ganga basin. In Nepal Mahakali passes through the four districts of Baitadi, Dadheldhura, Kanchanpur and Darchula and in India it passes through the districts of Uttarakhand namely Pithoragarh, Champawat, Bageshwar, lower Almora and Udham Singh Nagar. The river forms an international boundary with Pithoragarh, Champawat and Udham Singh Nagar in India. One of the most contentious aspects of the Mahakali, is the origin of the river itself and there are arguments which claim that the Mahakali treaty was an attempt to formalise the disputed border which has not been resolved so far (Paudyal, 2013).

The case of Mahakali river

The trade embargo imposed on Nepal by India in 1989 had created much distrust amongst the Nepalese. With no sign of diplomatic negotiations, it was only in 1995, when the coalition government headed by Sher Bahadur Deuba of the Nepali Congress (NC), the Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) and the Nepal Sadbhavana Party (NSP) was formed, that issues related to the Mahakali River came to the negotiating table.

In 1995, the Integrated Development of the Mahakali River, including the Sarada Barrage, the Tanakpur Barrage and the Pancheshwar Project (Mahakali Treaty) was negotiated between both the countries to streamline the water woes between them. The treaty took a holistic view of the development of the Mahakali river aiming to formulate a benefit sharing formula and negotiating the broad guidelines for establishing the Mahakali River Commission (Dhungal, 2009:46). The discourse around Mahakali has always been surrounded with riparian hopes and frustrations. As per the treaty, Nepal was provided with a supply of 1,000 cusecs (28.3 cubic meters per second) of water in the wet season and 300 cusecs (8.5 cubic meters per second) in the dry season and an annual supply of 70 million kilowatt hours of energy on continuous basis, free of cost (Upreti, 2006:43). India was also supposed to construct a head regulator and water way and transmission line up to the Nepal border at its own expense. The treaty has however not been translated at ground level given the domestic opposition in Nepal over the Treaty related to socio-economic–ecological aspects and indirect costs related to the project. Some even claim Mahakali is a worse treaty than the Kosi and Gandak as it delimited the water rights of Nepal, and that the Treaty was employed as a strategy to legalize Pancheshwar project and Tanakpur barrage, which was unilaterally constructed by India in the early 1990s (Dinar, 2008; Kantipur Daily, 2009).

Initially termed as a win–win agreement, the Mahakali Treaty was thus held hostage to implementation and multiple interpretation. One of the primary roadblocks for the Mahakali Treaty was its interpretation over Article 3, which focused on ‘existing consumptive uses’. Nepal perceived the then existing uses of India as being higher than that of Nepal which was a clear violation of the principle of equal entitlement (Subedi, 1999:957). Significantly, the macro-discourse pertaining to the Mahakali treaty has also revolved around issues related to the disputed borders of India and Nepal, thus bringing to the fore mistrust and divisiveness between both countries. Cooperation around transboundary rivers has also failed to build a ‘community’ around rivers, even though the relations between border districts are bereft of any violent conflicts.

This lack of community building merits attention as it shapes the perceptions across borders. Significantly, this geo-political discourse often overshadows the geo-cultural discourse, which has historically been integral to India–Nepal relations. There is a need to emancipate such geo-cultural discourses as it becomes significant for cultivating a sense of community amongst the borderlanders. Singh (2002), Valdiya (1988) and Dhungel (2010) offer some insightful research in this regard and argue how the Khasa culture and tradition of Nepal was distinctively different from Hindu Brahamanical civilization (Dhungel, 2010). Vasudha Pande highlights the fluid boundaries that existed between Western Tibet, Western Nepal and Kumaon and how these regions shared distinct networks of interaction (Pande, 2017). This shared sense of familiarity, history and belonging to the past have been forgotten, as these areas became peripheral to the then centres of power.

However, romanticising the old at the cost of contemporary can also be misleading as riverine communities in the Indian and Nepal border districts do share real concerns regarding water security and governance along the 640 km long river border shared by both countries. Some of these include the nature of shifting rivers, flash floods, water pollution, lack of dispute resolution mechanisms amongst others. Despite open borders, and a common socio-cultural fabric, there is not only a lack of community consciousness amongst the people living in border districts, but also a gnawing distrust of the ‘other’ living across the border. This is revealed by the narrative of Gauri Hamal, a resident of a border village in Nepal who notes, ‘When the people from across the border came to temple in Nepal, locals in Nepali land would be taken aback fearing something unpleasant may happen with them’ (Yashwant, 2018a).

It is against this backdrop that certain initiatives in the India–Nepal borderlands towards community building merit attention. These are important as in the long term they can be the building block for effective cooperation, particularly in times of hazards (floods and landslides), which are quite common in this region. Also in cases where diplomatic relations are witnessing stalemate, community-building exercises can enable effective communication across border and delink itself from national politics which is present in the capital cities of both countries. For Mahakali too, three factors become significant for facilitating such initiatives, geography, issues framing cooperation and nature of cooperation.

Geography – the riverine context

One of the common and shared problems in the riverine districts of Southern Uttarakhand and Far Western districts of Nepal is the issue of recurring floods and landslides, which has shaped the understanding of each other. This is significant because the nature of cooperation around Mahakali Treaty revolves around hydro-power generation and construction of barrages. When natural disasters afflict the region, often the debris created by water infrastructure such as dams proves disastrous for people living downstream (both for the Indian and Nepalese communities). Hazards have been a recurrent feature in the bordering districts of India and Nepal in the past, and floods of the past years reveal ways through which geography of rivers connect and shape the ecological landscape around them defying any consciousness of borders (Theophilus, 2013).

One of the important factors for understanding the geography of Himalayan rivers, which makes the political, geological and geo-morphological factors intertwined with each other are the water infrastructures, small and big dams. Against this backdrop the role of big dams on the Himalayan rivers has been greatly problemitised (Asher, 2019; Sati et al., 2019), and their devastating impact of small dams extensively recorded (Paudel et al., 2013; Theophilus, 2013). A good case in point here is the 2013 breach of the Dhauliganga dam, which is constructed on one of the major tributaries of the Mahalkali river upstream of Dharchula town in Pithoragarh (Uttarakhand). The project generates electricity (280 MW) and is designed to minimise the inflow of sediments into pressure waterways. The June 2013 floods were devastating for the inhabitants of border districts between India and Nepal causing much damage to livelihood, physical infrastructure and human capital (Paudel et al., 2013; Theophilus, 2013). While heavy monsoons were reported to be a significant reason for the damage, reports have claimed that opening of the sluice gates by the National Hydroelectric Power Corporation brought a considerable amount of debris to the downstream areas (Theophilus, 2013).

Issues framing cooperation

Thus one of the main factors which impacts the livelihoods of downstream inhabitants are floods, which if accompanied by landslides can cause much devastation. Given that Mahakali is a border forming river, communities along the border receive equal damage. The TROSA project of OXFAM in South Asia has been one of the major actors in facilitating interaction between people across borders (OXFAM, 2019). Some of the issues that impact people living across borders in Nepal are inadequate water for irrigation, access to drinking water due to lack of supply facilities up in the villages and floods, which the locals recalled were caused due to a dam upstream in India, and inadequate early warning systems for alerting the Nepali citizens during floods (personal communication, Nagarkot, Nepal, March 9, 2019). Some women claimed that there was a lack of income sources due to men migrating to India and no facilities were available for engaging women in the villages (personal communication, Nagarkot, Nepal, March 9, 2019). As communicated to the author, the first step which became a prerequisite for cooperation along the border areas was to mobilise women to form a collective, so that their voices could be strengthened. However, it is significant to note that some issues which made women come together were not just water-related issues, but issues linked with livelihood empowerment, which was associated with training, skill and capacity development. Both local government institutions and informal institutions were involved in the process (personal communication, Nagarkot, Nepal, March 9, 2019). A key aspect which needs to be noted here is that cross border community mobilisation came in much later, after a women collective had been formed in the villages of border districts. For instance, the story of Binayak village of Nepal and Halk Saurya village of Uttarakhand in India arrived at common solutions by formulating the Saurya-Binayak Nepal India Joint Advocacy Forum (Oxfam, 2019). The collective looked at multiple issues, and an early warning system is just one of them. Some narratives from the women from Nepal and India become useful to understand the dynamics in this regard.

According to Gunadi Chand, ‘after the formation of the forum, it has helped solve problems facing Nepali people within the Nepali side. According to her, the five-member forum coordinates with Indian police and Seema Sahastra Bal (SSB) officials. Thus, the hassles earlier faced while using sand, water and other resources of the river have been minimized. According to her, prior to formation of the forum, SSB used to harass Nepali women several times.’ (OXFAM, 2019:14).

Amrita Chand, a social mobiliser notes, ‘In Halko Saurya of India, while the liquor was banned, it was not so in the case of Nepal. This prompted Indian men to approach the Nepal side to access liquor. It was this which prompted women from Indian side to propose banning liquor in Nepal side as well. As the matter was discussed, the empowerment center decided to take this matter to the ward office’. Chand further notes, as a result, the ward office of her village banned the sale and consumption of liquor. While this angered the Indian men who used to come to the Nepali side for liquor, Indian women have been happy. This, as Chand notes is the preliminary evidence of effectiveness of the forum.’ She adds, ‘We did a good thing by constituting the joint forum’ (OXFAM, 2019:14).

Nature of cooperation

The nature of cooperation as observed in these cases started at the local scale by forming collectives in individual border districts. This was followed by the second step aimed at amplifying some of these voices with government officials. The nature of upscaling was routed through dialogues between non-governmental organisations, national branches of OXFAM and local government representatives on both sides. The Mahakali Sambad (dialogue), facilitated by OXFAM in this respect merits attention. This phase was led by the NGOs and three meetings were held in Nepal and India between both countries leading to a final declaration within the larger framework of Mahakali Sambad (personal communication, Nagarkot, Nepal, March 9, 2019). However, it needs to be noted that these were fund-driven initiatives and the life of such initiatives ends with funding, making them unsustainable in the long term. However, such local initiatives, if institutionalized can be beneficial in the long run and local governments in Nepal and India need to internalize and build on such initiatives. Local government institutions are important in this regard, as nature of cooperation in borderlands reveal that issues beyond water matter. This water-plus approach in the Mahakali case too offers insights on how community consciousness across borders can be facilitated and cultivated.

Routing water diplomacy through water communities in borderlands offers interesting insights. The discourse on water diplomacy in South Asia, as illustrated in the cases of Bhutan and Nepal reveals that macro-narratives are divorced from the everyday lived realities of people living in these border areas. Where in the case of Bhutan, cooperation was triggered as a response to an immediate dispute which impacted the livelihood of the lower riparian population, what sustained the mobilization was an aspiration of economic interaction with border districts of Bhutan. In the case of Nepal, water emerged as a significant issue, but water communities have been formed over an intersection of multiple issues. Most of the theoretical leanings on water diplomacy in the discipline either incline towards the power asymmetries/hegemonic theories or focus on negotiation strategies which can help cultivate and facilitate a better understanding on cooperation between states around transboundary rivers. From the praxeological perspective, much of these theoretical frameworks miss the strategic and geo-political complexities of South Asia, making only a superfluous reference to the normative and critical turn in water diplomacy studies. While the normative and the critical turn in water diplomacy does take into account the complexity of actors and scales, little work has been undertaken with respect to ‘understanding’ the needs and aspirations of water communities, which are not just restricted to water conservation and management, but go beyond them. This ‘understanding’ is an important aspect of critical communication as opposed to communication which focuses on instrumental/strategic ends. As evident from the aforementioned discussion, both initiatives in the borderlands of Bhutan–India–Nepal were donor driven, and therefore were central in highlighting water and gender as issue areas. There is a big question however on the sustainability and the organic growth of such initiatives. Also given, the unique geo-political positioning of South Asian borderlands, which are either prone to distrust or are conflict ridden, it has been observed that even the most effective benefit sharing formulas between the capitals of South Asian states are unsustainable, as often they fall prey to the macro-narrative of South Asian politics. It is in this backdrop that a scalar engagement between ‘water communities’ informed by a ‘water-plus approach’ becomes significant. This will not only link macro- with micro-narratives but through a focus on borderlands, will help build a community consciousness, thus localizing water diplomacy in South Asia.

There are three ways of localizing water diplomacy in the long term. First, focus on existing local trade markets (border haats) in borderlands of South Asia in terms of synergising formal and informal initiatives for facilitating cross border exchanges. Such mechanisms already exist between border districts and the scope of cooperation needs to be engineered keeping the large purpose of building communities across borders. Second, borderland communities should be perceived as water communities and their participation should be channelized through an asset centric approach. This means that cooperative efforts along the borderlands should go beyond water-centric cooperation to include other issues that help in the mobility and economic uplift of communities living across the border. Third, given that water diplomacy has broadened and deepened over a period of time, the emerging international water policy context demands that the local, national and bilateral tiers of water governance are synergized. Thus, the scholarship on water diplomacy needs to go beyond bilateral water negotiations and the international water law framework, but examine in detail the changing international water policy context, and ways through which states can adapt to the emerging interests and needs of private sector and communities at the international and local level.

1

I would like to thank International Rivers Network, California, United States of America for inviting me to the first Women and Rivers Congress, Nagarkot, Nepal, March 6 to 10, 2019. Interviews for this paper were undertaken there. I would particularly like to thank Pratibha Brahma, and Samira Shakya for her time and effort towards facilitating discussions with women leaders.

2

By using the term women leaders, I do not imply women who have been formally elected as leaders but ordinary women who play a role through collective leadership (Bisht and Sudarshan, 2005).

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