The Narmada dispute began nearly 40 years ago, the Cauvery dispute is over 100 year old. Water in India is political, wherever and whenever it is a scarce and valued resource. And going by history, politics of water resources in the country will continue to be, probably increasingly, political in the future, says a new book.
To find remedies or at least mitigate the conflicts on sharing of river waters, it must be recognised that decisions about water resource development or management are political, says the book The Politics of Water Resource Development in India. The Narmada Dam Controversy, by John R Wood, Proofessor Emeritus at the Department of Political Science, University of British Columbia in Canada.
Political negotiation is the only way to resolve conflicts over water resource development in a highly pluralistic country like India. "Posturing and rhetoric for a solution - government knows what is best for the people or the dam must be dismantled - are counter-productive and waste of time," the book says.
Wood, who served as the founding Director of the Centre for India and South Asia Research in the Institute of Asian Research, says it is perhaps too early to say whether the struggle over the waters of Narmada is an example of water resource development conflict going terribly wrong or was a case of successful resolution of a lengthy and complicated dispute.
However, compared to the current impasse in the Cauvery or Ravi-Beas conflicts, Narmada may be seen as an instance of the latter, he says.
Wood notes that on the question of how much bureaucrats and politicians were responsible for creating, exacerbating or prolonging the conflict, the Narmada evidence shows that at the state level, bureaucrats mostly followed the wishes of their political masters.
Based on the Narmada experience, there are limitations to suggesting specific remedies for other water resource conflicts in India as the geographical configurations of the disputant states and the social, economic and environmental stakes involved as well as politics of each conflict has have their special features.
"The end result for India is that its water politics is highly diverse and continually changing. Meeting the challenge will require strong institutions, a will to cooperate and a determination to be just," the author says.
The book says that a lot has been written about the Narmada conflict that is tendentious. As in the proverbial war, truth has often been a casualty in the controversy and thus presents a minefield of methodological problems for any analyst that range from reliability of data put forward by either side in the dispute.
Wood also says that both sides to the dispute seemed to regard "politics of water" as annoying feature of Narmada and other river conflicts. While government officials see water resource development as a matter of policy, anti-dam activists, seem to believe that their commitment to a transcendent cause put them beyond politics.
The book says that Narmada is not huge by international standards and is only India's fifth largest river. But it is the largest in western India and contains more water than the Ravi-Beas and Sutlej combined, the three rivers that have made Punjab India's best-watered and most fertile state.
Over the last 50 years, water in India has become ever more scarce and thus ever more politicised resource. Three factors have steadily increased water scarcity: pressure imposed on existing water by growing population; increasing consumption of water due to new agriculture technology, rapid industrialisation and rising consumerism; depletion of water resources through environmental degradation, the author says.
Dams have been built on India's rivers for thousands of years. At present, there are 4,050 large dams and another 475 are under construction. Most of the rivers are subject of disputes among co-riparian states over the allocation of costs and benefits of developing river water resources.
However, it must be acknowledged that some of the country's largest dam projects such as Bhakra Nangal on the Sutlej were successfully completed as a result of inter-state cooperation, the book notes.