Water disputes plague Indian states: Institutional mechanism has failed to deliver, what now?

Rivers are at the heart of the social, political and economic life of Indians Photograph:( Others )

WION New Delhi, Delhi, India Sep 29, 2016, 07.43 AM (IST) Nivedita Khandekar

It is unfortunate that an agrarian distress caused due to a perceived lack of water has led to severe violence and damage in the two south Indian states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Several districts of Karnataka have received deficit rain this year, but this is not the only reason behind the ongoing violence between the two states. The Cauvery water-sharing dispute is almost 100 years old and, unfortunately, all attempts to reach a resolution have failed so far. 

To add to the Cauvery dispute, in the aftermath of the Uri attack, the Indus Water Treaty between India and Pakistan has come to the fore. As yet, India has decided to tap its underutilized water share, a step that has agitated Pakistan. Recently, Punjab assembly passed a resolution of not going ahead with the Sutlej Yamuna Link Canal (SYLC); Delhi-Haryana have been at loggerheads over increased share of Yamuna water; Andhra Pradesh and Telangana are fighting over Godavari waters. With the coming of dams and irrigation canals that have increased water use exponentially, examples of water-related disputes have become too abundant to ignore.

While in northern parts of India that have glacier-fed perennial rivers, the dispute has been about who will have more water and how much. In peninsular India, however, the disputes are more about basic water sharing. 

Former bureaucrat and water policy expert late Ramaswamy Iyer consistently pointed out how water allocation to states and other parties will always be insufficient for some reason or the other; and if the supply cannot be enlarged, states will have to learn to manage their waters within the available amount. After all, the Ganga Water treaty of 1996 between India and Bangladesh, a pretty difficult yet comprehensive arrangement, and the Indus Water Treaty 1960 between India and Pakistan, although lopsided heavily in favour of Pakistan, have survived wars and political uncertainties. So, if India-Bangladesh or India-Pakistan can solve their disputes, why not states within India, Iyer would ask.

The sheer range of institutions existing because of water-sharing agreements or disputes is amazing. We have various River Boards for regulation of inter-state rivers and development of river valleys, such as the Upper Yamuna River Board and the Brahmaputra Board. Many of these are not even always operating successfully. To add to these official bodies, India has several river development authorities and Water Dispute Tribunals. The latter were formed under the Inter-State Water Disputes Act 1956 to look into water-sharing conflicts. Such intricate and vast institutional arrangement is not surprising, considering India has 14 major rivers and 44 medium rivers, the majority of these run across two or more states and suffer from water-sharing issues.  

Though the water dispute tribunals were formed with the good intention to keep such conflicts outside the purview of political interests, the existing institutional mechanism, however, seems to have not delivered a satisfactory outcome. Political interests have indeed prevailed over water issues. Karnataka has proved to be the classic example of how politicians across party lines come together on regional/state level issues, particularly in cases related to water. Both Bharatiya Janata Party and the Indian National Congress, the two main political entities in Karnataka, share the same stance. The fact that they expressed solidarity with each other on Mahadayi and Cauvery issues is an apt reminder as to why water disputes should not be politicised.

The Inter-State Water Disputes Act of 1956 clearly defined jurisdiction of each parties involved. Under the ‘Bar of jurisdiction of Supreme Court and other Courts’, the Act mentions: “Notwithstanding anything contained in any other law, neither the Supreme Court nor any other court shall have or exercise jurisdiction in respect of any water dispute which may be referred to a Tribunal under this Act.” 

In almost all cases, however, states have refused to accept the decisions by the Tribunals and, at least one or all parties involved, have gone to the Supreme Court. The moot question is, why at all the Supreme Court should be adjudicating in such matter when there is an equally valid legal arrangement in place for such water disputes? 

Some see it as institutional fatigue or as a failure of existing institutions and still other refer to it as vote-bank politics, but the bottom line is there has been no amicable solution via either the Tribunal or the Supreme Court. Therefore, the need of the hour is to leave politics out of the debate and concentrate on environmental issues. 

An alternative mechanism, based on environmental thinking, has become paramount to resolve river issues in India.

Inevitably all inter-state water disputes (or for that matter even the trans-border issues) start with and continue to peak in cycles coinciding with a bad monsoon. A weather phenomenon directly affects the farmers more than anyone else. Farmers being the largest stakeholders in any kind of river disputes, it is imperative that farmers be involved in the decision-making process. 

‘Cauvery Family’ was one such attempt, and it has set an exemplary model wherein farmers and think tank/NGO members from both Karnataka and Tamil Nadu met from 2003 onwards, alternatively in each state with farmers playing the host. The group is keen on taking a pragmatic view of the situation, has helped to overcome information and communication gaps and have also arranged visits to various parts of the Cauvery basin to seek first-hand information about problems and possible solutions.

Dr S Janakarajan, who initiated the ‘Cauvery Family’ in 2003 says, “We worked on arriving at solutions and discussed various aspects. Although no final solution was arrived at, there were two strong models that were likely to happen if the process had continued beyond 2009.”  

Although no final solution was arrived at, the achievement of the ‘Cauvery Family’ was that farmers from both sides were involved and there was no violence till the time the meetings continued. After 2009, there have been no meetings as the farmers were simply overwhelmed by the sheer political forces. After the current bout of violence, there have been demands for reviving the ‘Cauvery Family’.

Cauvery Family example is relevant for all river disputes. Similar attempts can be, rather should be, tried for all inter-state river disputes. “Certainly, the model of Cauvery Family could be tried in other inter-state disputes in India at least to create a good deal and facilitate information flow,” says Dr Janakarajan from the Madras Institute of Developmental Studies (MIDS) who is also the President of South Asia Consortium for Interdisciplinary Water Resources Studies in Hyderabad.   

With precarious geo-politics at play for such disputes between any two countries or states, it is imperative that there is good will and trust between the two parties only then water negotiations can happen and continue smoothly. 



Nivedita Khandekar

Nivedita Khandekar is an independent journalist based in Delhi. She writes on environmental, developmental and social issues.