Feuding over water
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Feuding over water

Inter state river disputes occupy a major share of their relations. For such states the issues have tended to go out of hand, with shrill rhetoric, chauvinism and populism often playing crucial roles in decisions rather than scientific or environmental reasons. A look at three such disputes, that have caught the national imagination in recent years.

india Updated: Jul 07, 2003 13:06 IST

A high level meet to discuss the Kaveri issue earlier this year.

Inter state river disputes have come to occupy a major share of interstate equations. In fact, for states that have water sharing related disputes, the issues have tended to go out of hand, with shrill rhetoric, chauvinism and populism often playing crucial roles in decisions rather than scientific or environmental reasons. Not just have the river disputes grown over the years, thrown themselves into reservoirs, people burnt and killed themselves, all for asserting their state's share of the water.

That it was going to be a problem was evident from the nascent years of independent India. The Inter-State Water Disputes Act was passed way back in 1956. However the system has been put under considerable strain and despite some successes, it has been found wanting more often than not.

A lot of disenchantment has resulted from these disputes and the states have increasingly tended to question the decisions. Possibly the greatest challenge has been the way the tribunals have tried to settle the cases - usually jumping straight from negotiation to adjudication with mediation and conciliation, which have probably made the difference in most cases. Matters have usually gone to court, right up to the Supreme Court more often than not.

The Sarkaria Commission had set certain parameters - one year for the central government to set up the tribunal after request from any state and five years for the tribunal to give its award.

Even this has however failed to translate into positive results for the end-user. Even this summer, the war of words has been shrill, the same lines repeated. The only change has been perhaps an addition of a few new stunts. Which however failed to prevent lives from being lost.

Here we quick look at the contours of three major disputes.

Perhaps the most well-known of the river water sharing disputes in India, the sharing of Kaveri (or Cauvery) waters has a long history. Only the feuding parties were different. Way back in the 19th century, British India's Madras Presidency and the princely State of Mysore disputed the question that is still at the core of the dispute - the conflict between upstream and downstream.

Today Tamil Nadu and Karnataka are locked in a similar dispute. While downstream Tami Nadu has a long history of irrigated agriculture, heavily dependent on the Kaveri water as a result and upstream Karnataka, which initially required less of the water, but with increased irrigation facilities requires more of it now.

Not that there haven't been agreement. A 1924 agreement between Madras Presidency and Mysore is heavily tilted towards Tamil Nadu, alleges Karnataka. Under the agreement a large share of the water is for Tamil Nadu's use, which Karnataka feels is unfair to its agriculture. Tamil Nadu of course cites the agreement and feels any violation of it is a contravention of the rules, and it endangers farmers who have cultivated crops in the Kaveri delta.

Post 1947, two other players, albeit minor, Kerala and Pondicherry, who also technically share the basin, have got added to the dispute, though their role remains minor.

High-pitched chauvinism by the two principal disputants over the last 50-odd years have seen most of the arguments and decisions being made on populist measures. Politicians on both sides of the border (and might just have been an international one rather than an internal one) have led their populaces in raising the pitch of the debate, and despite many farmers committing suicide, any resolution of the dispute seems to a beyond the scope of the tribunal set up for the purpose. Any fair sharing of the river waters seems unacceptable to both the principals as what each cannot, or will not accept, is reduction in their 'quota' of the river waters.

First Published: Jul 05, 2003 16:35 IST