The Geopolitics of Infrastructure on the Indus Rivers since the 1940s


A review of The Geopolitics of Infrastructure: Development, Expertise and the Nation on the Indus Rivers, by Majed Akhter.

The politics of water-sharing and development is a globally important topic. Burgeoning populations, increasing per capita demands on water resources though modernization, and the potential impact of climate change mean that water is a precious commodity. South Asia, much of which is arid or semi-arid, has not only a pressing need for water but also some of the world’s most extensive irrigation and hydropower networks. Majed Akhter’s The Geopolitics of Infrastructure: Development, Expertise and the Nation on the Indus Rivers is a welcome addition to the fields of water policy studies, South Asian international relations, and state-building in Pakistan. Taking a seventy-year view of technocracy on the Indus rivers—including the Indus Waters Dispute between India and Pakistan during the 1940s-1950s, the relationship between nationalism and regionalism in Pakistan during the 1960s-1970s, and the legal geopolitics of international arbitration during the 2000s—Akhter argues that political elites in regions downstream from powerful neighbors emphasize hydrographic vulnerability in their relations with upstream elites.

The dissertation is divided into nine chapters, plus a short introduction and conclusion. After an introductory first chapter, which introduces the rivers and critiques the Security Studies-centric mode in which they are usually discussed, Chapters 2, 3, 4 and 5 are historical in focus. The rest of the chapters discuss contemporary developments.

Chapter 1 critiques the dominant, security-centric discourses that underpin mainstream studies of the Indus rivers. Following Stephen Graham (Disrupted Cities: When Infrastructure Fails. New York: Routledge, 2010, pp. 1-26), Akhter argues that the Security Studies approach tends to privilege apparent “peace” between states as the goal of international relations, often marking the social and economic impacts of unequal relations between and within sovereign states, which the structure of international relations often frames. This line of argument flows through the thesis as a whole, and after establishing his initial position, Akhter moves on to tackle another major strand of thinking on the Indus rivers: namely that Pakistan (the downstream country in the basin) is running out of water. He delves into publicly available water-flow statistics and natural sciences literature in order to demonstrate that the basin’s hydrology is more complex than a simple picture of water stress: waste water, for instance, is widely used for irrigation, meaning that apparent inefficiencies in water management do not necessarily translate to water stress (pp. 45-46). Akhter concludes that relative water scarcity based on power and wealth inequalities—i.e., the fact that “water flows towards money,” in the saying of the American West—is Pakistan’s real problem.

Chapter 2 turns to the early years of the historical Indus waters disputes, which broke out between East Punjab (India) and West Punjab (Pakistan) in 1948. The British colonial government had constructed a large network of irrigation canals in undivided Punjab, which the Partition of 1947 severed. East Punjab inherited not only a geographically upstream position, meaning that the rivers of the basin flowed through it before crossing into Pakistan, but also the mechanisms for controlling the flow of water into some Pakistani canals. In April 1948 the East Punjab government used this position to cut off water supplies into two of West Punjab’s waterways, citing the latter’s failure to renew a canal-related interprovincial agreement. Rather than discuss the technical and legal ins and outs of the lengthy negotiations that India and Pakistan held between 1952-1960 under World Bank auspices, Akhter examines the ways that technocratic assumptions about river-development structured politicians and bureaucrats’ frame of reference. Akhter demonstrates that the India-Pakistan negotiations, while ostensibly “technical” and “a-political,” were in fact thoroughly politicized. Drawing on James Scott’s influential thesis on high modernism in state formation (James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), Akhter argues that discussions of water-flow data, for instance, masked what Indian and Pakistan negotiators held in common, namely a propensity for simplifying a complex natural system such as the Indus Basin into an easily “legible” object of state development.  This framework left precious little room for the acknowledgement of “hydraulic regionalism”—Pakistani elites’ articulation of the specific vulnerabilities of Pakistan’s downstream territory—which nevertheless continually undermined the technocratic nature of the talks.

In 1960, when India and Pakistan signed the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT), another agreement was signed, providing $893.5 million of funding to Pakistan to construct a huge system of irrigation and hydropower works. Several western powers contributed to the fund, which consisted of a mixture of loans and direct grants: Australia, Canada, New Zealand, West Germany, the U.K., and especially the U.S. Chapter 3 explores the financing of the Indus Basin Development Fund as a window onto Cold War geopolitics and capitalist development. Drawing on the analysis of David Harvey, Akhter suggests a juxtaposition between “capital logic”—the global imperative towards capitalist accumulation—and “territorial logic”—the grounding of state power in bounded territorial spaces. Akhter argues that, in the context of the World Bank’s role in putting the financial package together, “the territorial logic of Cold War statecraft exercised itself through finance capital” (p. 113). Technocratic development, in other words, served the ends of both capitalists and states.

Chapter 4 shifts focus from the international arena to a political history of Pakistan during the 1950s. In this chapter Akhter engages with the Gramscian idea of a “passive revolution”: a top-down process of state formation that forms at the intersection of global and domestic political economy, on the capitalist periphery (Antonio Gramsci, Q. Hoare and G. Nowell-Smith, Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gransci. New York: International Publishers, 1971; Antonio Gramsci, The Southern Question. West Lafayette: Bordighera, 1995). Akhter argues that the passive revolution in Pakistan served the ends of Pakistan’s military-bureaucratic elite, which was (and is) dominated by Punjabis. This elite, he argues, used apolitical, technocratic hydro-development as part of its attempt to extend hegemony and create a sense of nationhood that lay beyond the overtly political sphere.  The spatially uneven process of development, which neglected other regions, nevertheless contributed to the tensions and fissures within the Pakistani nation-state. Akhter has since refined and developed these arguments in a journal article (Majed Akhter, “The Hydropolitical Cold War: The Indus Waters Treaty and State Formation in Pakistan.” Political Geography 46, 2015, pp.65-75).

Chapter 5, which also forms the basis of a recent article (Majed Akhter, “Infrastructure Nation: State Space, Hegemony, and Hydraulic Regionalism in Pakistan.” Antipode 47, 2015, pp. 849-870), builds on the previous chapter. It analyzes the process of hydraulic regionalism that has characterized relations between downstream Sindh and upstream Punjab, first as provinces of colonial India, and later of Pakistan. Akhter focuses on three infrastructure-related geopolitical issues: a dispute between the two colonial provincial governments over water allocation during the 1920s; the welding of the provinces of West Pakistan into one unit during the 1950s, and its fragmentation back into individual provinces in the late 1960s; and contemporary Sindhi protests against a planned dam at Kalabagh in Punjab. Again responding to Gramsci, the chapter argues that Punjab’s representatives have sought to present their claims to hydro-development as technical and apolitical, casting the river basin as a unit that does not contain political boundaries. In fact, as Akhter shows, this discourse masked an intense regional politics.

Over the rest of the thesis, Akhter brings his narrative up to the very recent past, and shifts source base. In Chapter 6 he turns to legal sources to analyze a 2005-2007 dispute between Indian and Pakistani delegations over the construction of the Baglihar project on the River Chenab in (Indian) Jammu and Kashmir. Pakistan contested India’s right, under the IWT, to construct the hydropower dam on a river that the treaty had assigned to Pakistan’s use. The World Bank appointed Raymond Lafitte, a Swiss professor of civil engineering, as a “neutral expert” to decide the case. Akhter usefully links back Lafitte’s deliberations and decision, which ignored the possible geopolitical effects of the project and relied heavily on the wording of the treaty, to the crucial moments in 1960 when the World Bank insisted on the given treaty wording. Doing so, Akhter argues with considerable justification, demonstrates that Lafitte’s approach misread the history of the Indus negotiations by assuming that the treaty wording represented consensual agreement rather than grudging compromise. In this chapter Akhter also discusses another recent dispute, over India’s Kishenganga hydro-electric project on a tributary of the River Jhelum. This time, a World Bank-convened court of arbitration did consider geopolitics, to an extent, and imposed limits on Indian plans.

Chapter 7 follows hot on its heels and sustains the investigation of the Kishenganga arbitration, using similar sources. Here Akhter thinks more broadly about what international treaties are and how parties interpret them, leading to an informative discussion of the IWT in international legal context. Again, he shows how present-day disputes actively invoke and use the history of the Indus negotiations. This is particularly useful: water policy literature frequently mentions (in passing) the legal oddity of the IWT, but Akhter is the first scholar to convincingly illuminate the treaty’s unstable meaning.

The final two chapters maintain focus on the present day, but shift in theme to the politics of technocracy, nationalism, and regionalism in Pakistan. Using ethnographic sources, mainly interviews with engineers and his field notes on attending specialist water policy discussions in Lahore, Akhter returns to the theme of the “politics of artefacts,” and this time builds on Winner’s theories to highlight the relationship between the Pakistan’s national water-supply system as a material phenomenon and a focus for the politics of regionalism (Langdon Winner, “Do Artifacts Have Politics?” Daedalus 109, 1980, pp.121-136; and The Whale and the Reactor: The Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988). Even an apparently simple task like measuring water flows in different provinces suffers from the deep lack of trust between engineers loyal to those provinces, shows Chapter 8. Technological “fixes” to political and social problems, such as determining and ensuring the equitable distribution of water amongst rival claimants, rarely work.

Using a similar sources base and pursuing similar themes, Chapter 9 explains why a technocratic vision of unified, integrated water-supply across Pakistan’s four provinces cannot overcome regional differences. The most powerful engineering lobby in the country is attached to Punjab, the province which is both advantageously upstream on Pakistan’s rivers, and politically, economically, and demographically dominant compared with the other provinces. Punjabi engineers who promote “neutral” and “efficient” schemes from water distribution fail to recognize, and overcome, the objections of activists in downstream Sindh. By insisting on absolute technocracy, and attempting to annex discourses of the “national interest,” the Punjab lobby leaves no room for compromise.

The Geopolitics of Infrastructure has significant potential to impact on the fields of water policy studies, South Asian studies, and historical geography. Akhter wades into the thick mire of writing on the politics of water-sharing in the Indus Basin, and finds genuinely original angles on it. More broadly, the thesis will be of interest for its impressive demonstration of source-work. Akhter handles official archives, legal materials, interviewing, and ethnographic reporting with equal skill. He not only demonstrates that big topics require multiple approaches, but offers a clear methodological example for others who wish to follow suit.

Daniel Haines
Department of History
University of Bristol

Primary sources

World Bank archives, Washington, DC
Personal interviews
News media
Reports and decisions on legal cases

Dissertation information

University of Arizona. 2013. 282 pp. Primary advisor: Paul Robbins.

Image: Indus River from Karakoram Highway

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