States in troubled waters

Madhusudhana Rao S

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Madhusudhana Rao S

The ongoing water row between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu has thrown States, the Supreme Court and the Centre into a tricky situation. The gauntlet thrown down by the Cauvery dispute is whose is supreme. Is it the collective will of people as represented by the elected legislators or the Indian Constitution or the decision given by the highest court of the land? It’s not the conflict that often arises between the executive and the judiciary but a state’s refusal to obey the apex court’s order on water sharing.

Karnataka legislators’ unanimous decision at a special session of the State Assembly last Friday that the government should not release 6,000 cusecs of Cauvery water to Tamil Nadu from September 21 to 30 as ordered by the Supreme Court has set the stage for confrontation between Karnataka and the Supreme Court. Non-implementation of the order ‘in public interest’ means inviting judicial action and Tamil Nadu moving the court once again for ‘justice’.

It’s interesting to see what action the apex court will initiate against Karnataka for contempt of court and whether it demands the central government’s intervention. However, it’s noteworthy the court had asked the central government to set up a Cauvery Water Management Board within four weeks. The Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal, in its award, had recommended constituting such body. But the most important question is whether a state can defy a Supreme Court order claiming that it had taken the decision in the interest of the people. When every state government is supposed to function for the welfare of the people, Karnataka’s claim holds water for Tamil Nadu as well as far as Cauvery water is concerned.

But such arguments will be applicable to any river dispute in the country. Only a court of law, after hearing the stakeholders, will be able to resolve the row according to the constitutional provisions. If states start taking unilateral decisions on inter-state disputes, it is tantamount to undermining the Indian Constitution. Such political decisions by any state raise many other issues that impinge on states-centre relations. In fact, but for a brief advice from Delhi, the Modi government is a mute witness to the raging row between the two southern states ruled by non-BJP parties.

In a way, that has been the practice all these years whichever party/coalition is in power in New Delhi. For instance, take the Cauvery row. Though it is considered and described as an inter-state water dispute, its impact on the manufacturing sector, businesses and the national economy is perceptible. Moreover, it has driven a wedge between Tamils and Kannadigas and the rancour has spread to every strata of life in both the states.

That means an inter-state water dispute will have wider implications. It can even undermine national integrity. If we look at them from a national perspective, inter-state water rows should no longer be considered as regional problems and left to the mercy of social and political forces.   

Since Independence, we have had a number of water disputes between two or more states. The latest to join the long list is Telangana and Andhra Pradesh over sharing of Krishna and Godavari river waters. Almost all the rivers in the country are involved in nearly a dozen disputes of upper and lower riparian states. Though many have been resolved through centre-initiated negotiations or special tribunals, disputes arise when upper river basin states construct dams citing various reasons such as more water flowing down during heavy monsoons or sharing the quantum of water.  However, Cauvery is the mother of all such disputes in the country.

Though the 802-km Cauvery can’t be counted among major rivers, it is the main source of friction between a relatively docile Kannadigas and emotional Tamils. The river basin covers an area of 44,000 sq km in Tamil Nadu and 32,000 sq km in Karnataka. Since there is more basin area in Tamil Nadu than in Karnataka, the former insists that it should get more water. It also claims that over 30 lakh acres of land is irrigated under Cauvery and denial of its share means robbing lakhs of farmers of their livelihood.

On the other hand, Karnataka asserts that the original British era agreements made in 1892 and 1924 between the then Madras Presidency and the Princely State of Mysore were made in favour of the former and needed a thorough review. In other words, Karnataka demands equitable distribution of water between the two major shareholders.

Years of negotiations and efforts to reach an amicable solution have not yielded any result. Amid escalating seasonal tension between the two states, the central government had set up a tribunal in 1990 to resolve the contentious issues. It took 16 years to decide on the quantum of water to be shared by Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. However, when the verdict was out on February 5, 2007, neither state was happy. Under the award, Tamil Nadu’s share was fixed at 419 tmc and Karnataka’s 270tmc a year. Meanwhile, two other states, Kerala and Puducherry, which jumped into the fray with claims over Cauvery water, had been awarded 30tmc and 7tmc respectively. With water allocations further diminishing, the two major stakeholders had approached the Supreme Court for a review of the tribunal award which was published in the Central Gazette six years later in 2013, that too after an apex court order!

In a classic example of government apathy towards a burning issue and let it widen the rift between the states, neither a board nor a committee has been set up to implement the tribunal’s verdict in letter and spirit. In other words, the tribunal’s final allocations have largely remained on paper. (Only a powerless supervisory committee is there for namesake).

Over the years almost every state involved in river water disputes has witnessed Cauvery-type agitations, often violent. But very few have been resolved to the satisfaction of all stakeholders because water is increasingly becoming a precious commodity and no state government would like to part with it willingly. Reasons are many.

States’ reluctance to share water with neighbours has to be seen in the light of failed monsoons, ever increasing demand for more water, poor conservation, unabated pollution of water bodies and enormous wastage. Rivers being major source of water, states have to save it by any means to meet local demand before thinking of sharing it with others. Therefore, dams, reservoirs and other schemes aimed at increasing water self-sufficiency in one state lead to friction among riparian states.

The friction is bound to increase in the coming years with abnormal climatic changes we are witnessing now. Both the central and state governments need to address the problems arising out of climate changes now to lessen river water confrontations in future. As the second most populous country in the world with a perennial need for water for human welfare, economic growth and industrial development, we must realise water is a finite and precious resource that should not be wasted or dumped into sea. As such, rivers should be treated as national assets and treated accordingly by the states and the centre. When a dispute arises, it should not be allowed to play out on the feelings of people nor should it be exploited for personal or political benefits. Had the previous central governments intervened in the Cauvery dispute and ended it, the issue would not have been hanging fire.

At least now, will the powers that be act without succumbing to regional chauvinism and political opportunism keeping national interests in mind?

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