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Cauvery Water Dispute: STRONG CASE FOR REFORMS, By Dr S.Saraswathi, 11 February, 2013 Print E-mail

Events & Issues

New Delhi, 11 February 2013

Cauvery Water Dispute


By Dr S.Saraswathi

(Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi)


The recent order of the Supreme Court directing Karnataka to release water to Tamil Nadu to save its crops may well be seen like a drop in the ocean. The Cauvery water dispute has a long history and calls for major reform in river management in the country.


In this connection what has been said requires attention. In November 2012, after talks  were held between  the  Chief  Ministers of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu at the instance of the Supreme Court,  a  statement attributed to the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu  made shocking reading that “Karnataka won’t give a drop of water to Tamil Nadu”.  This remark is doubly significant as the Court had observed that the talks should be held in an atmosphere of “give and take”.  Of course, we are not to take it in a literal sense, but as an expression of the broad position taken by the Karnataka government in a particular sequence of events and conditions.


Cauvery water dispute is a typical case embodying the hopelessly complicated scenario of river water management and governance in India. When there is shortage, when developmental projects grow, and riparian States do not enjoy equal access to the source, inter-state problems are bound to rise in sharing. 


The actual water situation in Karnataka and its ability to fulfil its obligations relating to sharing Cauvery water are matters to be resolved by water experts.  The direction of the Supreme Court to the Karnataka government to release water to Tamil Nadu immediately resulted in violent protests by farmers and activists of various organizations of Karnataka and this is reflected in Karnataka government’s stand.


Going ahead on its stand, the Government of Karnataka stopped releasing water from the Cauvery to Tamil Nadu and filed a petition before the Cauvery River Authority (CRA) to suspend the Cauvery Monitor Committee’s directive to release water to its neighbour.  Karnataka has also requested the Union Government not to notify the final order of the Tribunal ensuring release of water to Tamil  Nadu.


We, the general public who need water for personal, agricultural, industrial, and commercial purposes, are certainly irritated by this clash between two neighbouring States erupting at  rather regular intervals.  It shows   the   weakness of the machinery, vagueness of principles and procedures, and half-hearted adherence to commitments governing sharing of inter-State river water in the country.


Evidently, the Constitution makers did not foresee that river water would become a bone of contention between riparian States when they listed water, the most precious life sustaining natural resource, under State subjects.


Even if the Union Government amends the Constitution to bring water under concurrent subjects, it is doubtful whether the problem would get a solution.  The present struggle between the States over sharing river water would then transform into Centre-States politics and inter-party conflicts with worse political inputs. This is another side of Indian politics.


The background to the present episode is the fact that the final order of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal issued in February 2007 has not been notified in the Gazette despite court orders and the Centre’s assent to notify this by December 2012.  The bench granted time till end of January 2013 to the Union Government to notify the order, but the deadline has come and gone. 


The Supreme Court has now asked the Government of India not to abdicate its duty and notify the tribunal’s order by 20th February 2013.                         


Politics in its worst form is present in sharing of inter-state river water.  It has made the River Boards Act of 1956 ineffective. It has led to the establishment of a political authority to mediate in the matter of sharing water which rightly falls in the domain of professional and bureaucratic decisions in consultation with the users. What should be governed as an integral part of national developmental issues, devoid of politics is presently mired in deep petty politics.  Shares and priorities that should be settled between users and by agriculturists, industrialists, economists, and administrators are taken to courts for judicial verdicts.          


Water governance in India is deficient in many respects. Here governance refers to the manner power is exercised in the management of water resource including sharing and distribution.  It involves many fields and requires a sound mechanism, unambiguous procedures, and strict adherence to agreed and prescribed arrangements.  Since these prerequisites are missing, affected parties approach courts for settlement. 


Water is not the concern of the governments alone or the consumers only.  It is an indispensable ingredient for holistic development. Sound water management calls for integrated work of several departments actually cutting across State borders with public-private collaboration.


This is acknowledged in the National Water Policy 2002 which has stressed the need for development and management of water resources in a holistic and integrated manner covering different needs through participatory approach.


The State governments are neither able to settle water sharing amicably in a friendly spirit, nor agreeable to conform to a national water framework law presently under consideration. They invoke the bogey of Central intrusion into State jurisdiction.

The Punjab Government opposes any permanent central water authority. Tamil Nadu and Karnataka reject the idea of a national water framework law.  Sadly, States have no common stand.

But, the award of the tribunal, though final, cannot be forced on the States. This facilitates the aggrieved to approach the Supreme Court for reversal of the tribunal’s order which obviously means delay. 

In the case of Cauvery dispute, on the direction of the Supreme Court, the Central Water Commission sent a three-member expert committee to assess the requirement of water in the delta region of Tamil Nadu. Tamil Nadu was asking for 12 tmcft of water to save crops and scaled it down to 9 tmcft;  farmers bargained for at least 8 tmcft;  the expert committee thinks that 2.44 tmcft is sufficient and the Supreme Court accepts and issues the order. 


Tamil Nadu rejects the recommendations of the committee, and Karnataka is inclined to seek possibility of legal remedy and is in no mood to release water.  


All these point to the urgency of reforming river water governance and management. Whether it is in the form of a Constitutional amendment, a framework legislation, or a permanent Central water body with representatives of all stakeholders are issues to be decided by broad consensus. Appeal to the Supreme Court year after year – nay, season after season -  is a sign of bad governance and bad management of river water in India. –INFA


(Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)



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