Pakistan and India are set to hold a two-day meeting of the permanent Indus commission on Tuesday in New Delhi in a first such interaction in two-and-a-half years, suggesting thaw in relations between the two nuclear-armed neighbours.
An eight-member delegation led by Pakistan Water Commissioner Syed Mehr Ali Shah arrived in India through Wagah border on Monday. The meeting of the permanent Indus commission was the first since August 2018. The last meeting was held in Lahore.
Under the 1960 Indus Water Treaty, which survived wars and other phases of tensions between the two countries, the permanent Indus commission is required to meet at least once a year, alternately in India and Pakistan, under the terms of the treaty.
Officials attributed the delay in convening the meeting to the Covid pandemic but sources acknowledged that it also had to do with the Indian move to unilaterally change the status of the disputed Jammu and Kashmir region in August 2019.
After the Indian move, Pakistan had taken a series of measures -- including a decision to review all bilateral agreements. Islamabad has since linked the resumption of talks with New Delhi to restoring the status of Jammu and Kashmir to pre-August 5, 2019.
However, the convening of the permanent Indus commission’s meeting suggests that Pakistan is gradually moving to restore ties with India.
On February 25, Pakistan and India in an unexpected move agreed to recommit to the 2003 ceasefire agreement. Since then not a single incident of ceasefire violation has been reported by either side. The dramatic agreement is linked to back-channel diplomacy between the two countries.
The two countries not just agreed to restore the ceasefire but also decided to lower rhetoric against each other. This has been visible in some of the statements given by the leaders and officials from both sides.
At a recent Islamabad security dialogue, both Prime Minister Imran Khan and Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa sounded conciliatory towards India. Similarly, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi wished Prime Minister Imran Khan early recovery after he was tested positive for the covid-19.
Foreign Office spokesperson Zahid Hafiz Chaudhri said the meeting of Permanent Indus Commission was held specifically under the provisions of the IWT 1960, where only water related issues, which fall under the IWT, will be discussed.
“A host of issues under the Treaty, including our objections on the designs of Pakal Dul and Lower Kalnai Hydroelectric Plants, supply of information on new Indian projects on the western rivers and supply of flood data by India, will be discussed,” the spokesperson said.
Pakistan will raise objections to the technical designs of India's planned Pakal Dul and Lower Kalnai hydroelectric plants, Foreign Office spokesman Zahid Hafeez Chaudhri said.
The Indus River, one of the world's largest, and its tributaries feed 80 per cent of Pakistan's irrigated agriculture.
Bloomberg news agency and Foreign Policy magazine have reported that the United Arab Emirates, with whom both India and Pakistan have close ties, may have played a role in secret efforts to achieve a detente.
Last month, India and Pakistan announced a rare agreement to stop firing along the Line of Control, which Bloomberg said was also the result of UAE-brokered talks. There was no immediate comment from India, Pakistan or the UAE to the Bloomberg report out on Monday.
At the water-sharing talks, both sides are expected to try and narrow differences over the hydro-projects, Indian officials said.
One of the Indian officials, who asked to remain unidentified, said the Pakal Dul and Lower Kalnai projects along with a couple of others - which Pakistan is concerned would hurt the flow of water downstream - were in line with the provisions of the treaty.
"We will discuss to allay those objections, we believe in an amicable resolution," the official said.
(With additional input from Reuters)