NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India has fast-tracked hydropower projects worth $15 billion in Kashmir in recent months, three federal and state officials said, ignoring warnings from Islamabad that power stations on rivers flowing into Pakistan will disrupt water supplies.
The swift approval of projects that had languished for years came after Prime Minister Narendra Modi suggested last year that sharing the waterways could be conditional on Pakistan clamping down on anti-India militants that New Delhi says it shelters.
Pakistan has opposed some of these projects before, saying they violate a World Bank-mediated treaty on the sharing of the Indus river and its tributaries upon which 80 percent of its irrigated agriculture depends.
The schemes, the largest of which is the 1,856 MW Sawalkote plant, will take years to complete, but their approval could prove a flashpoint between the nuclear-armed neighbours at a time when relations are at a low ebb.
"I say the way you look at these projects, it is not purely a hydro project. Broaden it to a strategic water management, border management problem, and then you put in money," said Pradeep Kumar Pujari, the top ranking official in the power ministry.
Pakistan denies any involvement in the 28-year armed insurgency in Indian Kashmir and has repeatedly urged New Delhi to hold talks to decide the future of the region.
Pakistan's foreign ministry spokesman, Nafees Zakaria, said he would confer with the Ministry of Water and Power on the proposed Indian projects, saying it was a technical matter.
He noted, however, that India would be attending a regular meeting of the Indus Commission later this month in Lahore, even though the broader peace dialogue was on hold.
"It seems that finally India has realized the importance of this mechanism under the IWT (Indus Waters Treaty) for resolving water disputes related to the Indus water and its tributaries."
Six hydro projects in Indian Kashmir either cleared viability tests or the more advanced environment and forest expert approvals in the last three months, two officials in India's Water Resources Ministry and the Central Electricity Authority said separately.
Together these projects on the Chenab river, a tributary of the Indus, would triple hydropower generation in Jammu and Kashmir from the current level of 3,000 MW, the biggest jump in decades, added the officials, declining to be named because the approvals had not yet been made public.
"We have developed barely one-sixth of the hydropower capacity potential in the state in the last 50 years," the senior official at the Water Resources Ministry said.
"Then one fine morning, you see we cleared six to seven projects in three months; it definitely raises concern in Pakistan."
Pakistan's water supply is dwindling because of climate change, outdated farming techniques and an exploding population.
A 2011 report by the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations said New Delhi could use these projects as a way to control Pakistan's supplies from the Indus, seen as its jugular vein.
"The cumulative effect of these projects could give India the ability to store enough water to limit the supply to Pakistan at crucial moments in the growing season," it said.
India says the projects are "run-of-the-river" schemes that use the river's flow and elevation to generate electricity rather than large reservoirs, and do not contravene the treaty.
Environmental groups have questioned whether the government has followed proper procedures in fast-tracking projects located in a highly seismic area.
Modi told a meeting of government officials on the Indus treaty last year that "blood and water cannot flow together", soon after India blamed Pakistan-based militants for a deadly attack on its troops in Kashmir.
Modi's message was two-fold, Indian foreign ministry spokesman Gopal Baglay said. Terrorism had to stop and India must fully utilise the economic potential available to it within the Indus treaty.
The projects that have won technical approvals in recent months are Sawalkote, Kwar, Pakal Dul, Bursar and Kirthai I and II.
Most of the projects have been held up for at least a decade awaiting multiple clearances. Sawalkote, which was cleared by a government-constituted environment committee in January, was first given techno-economic approval in 1991.
It is now up for forest clearance from the state authorities, after which the government will finalise financing and begin construction.
Some projects like Pakal Dul were stuck in litigation, but that has been resolved, Jammu and Kashmir's Power Minister Nirmal Singh told Reuters in the summer capital Srinagar. "Things are now in a position of take-off," he said.
In January, senior federal officials made a presentation on energy security to Modi in which they proposed interest subsidies and long-term loans for hydroprojects above 100 MW, according to the document seen by Reuters.
But Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers & People, said some projects had been cleared without impact assessment studies and public consultation.
"It's on one river, the Chenab, where you are doing so many projects. This is a very vulnerable region. It's landslide-prone, it's flash flood-prone, earthquake-prone."
Additional reporting by Saad Sayeed in ISLAMABAD and Fayaz Bukhari in SRINAGAR; Editing by Mike Collett-White