Reciprocity is the first principle of diplomacy. But not for India, if one goes by its record. India has walked the extra mile to befriend neighbours, yet today it lives in the world’s most-troubled neighbourhood.

India’s generosity on land issues has been well documented, including its surrender of British-inherited extraterritorial rights in Tibet in 1954, the giving back of strategic Haji Pir to Pakistan after the 1965 war, and the similar return of territorial gains plus 93,000 prisoners after 1971 — all without securing any tangible reciprocity. Despite that record, there are still calls within India today for it to unilaterally cede control over the Siachin Glacier.

Even though India is reeling under a growing water crisis, few seem to know that India’s generosity has extended not just to land but also to river waters. The world’s most generous water-sharing pact is the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty, under which India agreed to set aside 80.52% of the waters of the six-river Indus system for Pakistan, keeping for itself just the remaining 19.48% share. Both in terms of the sharing ratio as well as the total quantum of waters reserved for a downstream state, this treaty’s munificence is unsurpassed in scale in the annals of international water treaties. Indeed, the volume of water earmarked for Pakistan is more than 90 times greater than the 1.85 billion cubic metres the US is required to release for Mexico under the 1944 US-Mexico Water Treaty.

India is stuck with this treaty of indefinite duration. It is vital it should not fall into the same trap with Bangladesh. It already has signed the Ganges treaty with Bangladesh in 1996, under which it is releasing almost half of the downstream flows at Farakka for that country. But now to strengthen the hands of Sheikh Hasina Wajed, New Delhi seems ready to reserve half of the Teesta River waters for Bangladesh. Sheikh Hasina may be a friend of India but she certainly won’t remain in power indefinitely and may be replaced by anti-India forces.

Lost in such big-hearted diplomacy is the fact that India is downriver to China, which, far from wanting to emulate India’s Indus- or Ganges-style water munificence, rejects the very concept of water sharing.

By seeking to have its hand on Asia’s water tap through an extensive upstream infrastructure, China challenges India’s interests more than any other country’s. Although a number of nations stretching from Afghanistan to Vietnam receive waters from the Tibetan Plateau, India’s direct dependency on Tibetan waters is greater than of any other country. With about a dozen important rivers flowing in from the Tibetan Himalayan region, India gets almost one-third of all its yearly water supplies of 1,911 cubic kilometres from Tibet, according to the latest UN data.

Of all the rivers that flow into India from Tibet, the Brahmaputra is the largest. Before making its famous U-turn to enter India, the Brahmaputra flows from west to east through Himalayan glaciated region, collecting snow and glacier melt waters. When it enters India, the Brahmaputra’s cross-border discharge is the highest of any river system in Asia.
As it runs due east for almost 2,200 kilometers along Tibet’s southern border with India, draining the runoff from the Himalayan slopes, the mighty Brahmaputra collects extremely rich silt from the Himalayas. It is the nutrient-rich silt in the Brahmaputra waters that helps re-fertilize the overworked soil in the Assam plains and the eastern half of Bangladesh. The Brahmaputra’s annual flooding cycle helps spread these valuable nutrients into the floodplains of northeastern India and Bangladesh and allows for the cultivation of rice paddies in natural-pond conditions, besides creating a giant nursery for fish — the main source of protein for the poor. The rich, fertile soil in the lower Brahmaputra basin owes a lot to nature’s yearly gift of silt. Even marine life in the Bay of Bengal depends on the nutrients and minerals received from the emptying of the Brahmaputra and other Himalayan rivers into the ocean.

The Chinese upstream damming of the Brahmaputra will block delivery of nature’s yearly gift to downstream farmers and fishermen. Much of the river’s nutrient-rich sediment load, instead of being naturally transported downstream, would get trapped by the upstream projects — in the same way that the Three Gorges Dam already is disrupting heavy silt flows in the Yangtze River and causing silt buildup in its reservoir itself.

An upstream hydro-engineering infrastructure on the Brahmaputra and other rivers flowing to India will significantly diminish cross-border flows in the dry season, besides arming Beijing with leverage on the quantum of flows it decides to release. As one influential Chinese academic put it to this writer, the choice Chinese policymakers have on diversion of Tibetan river waters is between slaking the thirst in China’s parched north and “not offending” India and other downstream states — and “this choice is a pretty easy choice.”

The plain fact is that when it comes to assertive pursuit of national interest, China cares little about the potentially negative impact on its image in other states. Its policies are designed to advance perceived national interests, not to seek approbation or appreciation from other states.

India must also look after its interests. Yet it is fair to ask: Is India condemned to perpetual generosity toward its neighbours? This question has assumed added urgency because India has started throwing money around as part of its newly unveiled aid diplomacy — USD1 billion in aid to Bangladesh, one-fifth as grant; USD500 million to Myanmar; USD300 million to Sri Lanka; USD140 million to the Maldives; and generous new aid to Afghanistan and Nepal. If pursued with wishful thinking, such aid generosity is likely to meet the same fate as water munificence.

Generosity in diplomacy can yield rich dividends if it is part of a strategically geared outreach designed to ameliorate the regional-security situation so that India can play a larger global role. But if it is not anchored in the fundamentals of international relations — including reciprocity and leverage building — India risks accentuating its tyranny of geography, even as it is left holding the bag.