Baglihar Project Raises Stakes For Kashmiris
19 January 2005
Srinagar: Engineers in Indian-0ccupied Kashmir are working round the clock building an electricity plant that officials say will ease the state's dire power shortage but which has neighbouring Pakistan up in arms. Pakistan, which fears the one-billion-dollar project could deprive its wheat-bowl state of Punjab of a vital irrigation river, charges that the plant violates a 44-year-old water sharing treaty. But officials say the 450-megawatt Baglihar project on the Chenab River in south Kashmir does not contravene the pact and could go a long way to ending routine 12-hour blackouts plaguing the Himalayan state. 'Given our disastrous power situation, the project will help end the acute power deficiency,' said Nayeem Akhter, secretary to Kashmir Chief Minister Mufti Mohammed Sayeed. The power shortages affect people most during the freezing winters. With no electric heat, people spend the chill nights huddling around stoves or clutching kangris - pots for carrying hot charcoal - inside their clothes. 'Before I die, I want to see a day in my life when there is no power cut,' retired businessman Abdul Razak, 78, said in Srinagar. Pakistan says it never approved the project's design as stipulated under the Indus Water Treaty and has threatened to go to the World Bank which brokered the agreement to block the project. The row comes as the two countries which have fought three wars - two over Kashmir - inch forward in a bid to settle their differences over all issues including the disputed region, which each holds in part but claims in full. The treaty bars India from interfering with the flow of the three rivers feeding Pakistan - the Indus, the Chenab and the Jhelum - but allows it to generate electricity from them. The treaty is one of the nuclear-armed South Asian rivals' most enduring agreements and has survived two wars between them. Kashmiri power authorities insist the project, on which work began in April 1999 and is due to be completed next year, will not store water, thus cutting off the flow to Pakistan. 'We're complying with the treaty religiously,' said Kashmir's Irrigation Minister Qazi Mohammed Afzal. 'There have been no violations at all.' Engineers in construction helmets are working 24-hours-a-day on the project, cutting through massive Himalayan rock formations and using rope ways to get to hard-to-reach parts of the site on the banks of the fast-flowing Chenab. 'It's a dream project that will become a main source of power,' said Abdul Aziz, a senior project engineer. He said the addition of 450 megawatts of power would reduce load- shedding - the cutting off of power to certain lines when demand is greater than supply - by 20 to 25 per cent. The government plans to start work on a second 450-megawatt phase once the first stage is completed. Kashmir government officials fear halting the project will not only keep the state in the dark but will also spell big financial difficulties for the state. The Jammu and Kashmir state government has taken loans from nine financial institutions to fund the project. 'If Pakistan believes it's a friend of Kashmiris, it should not jeopardize this project,' state Finance Minister Muzaffar Beig said, adding that it is vital for the region's economic development. Kashmir has the potential to generate 20,000 megawatts of power, but less than 10 per cent of it has been exploited. Massive power theft has compounded the state's woes with people refusing to pay power bills. India has said it believes the dispute can be resolved with more talks but Pakistan has refused and says it wants to consult neutral arbitrators.