If it’s summer, it’s time for a nice Cauvery row!

The Cauvery as viewed through a fish-eye lens at the Krishnaraja Sagar (KRS) dam, near Mysore, in September 2011. Photo: Karnataka Photo News

ROHIT BATNI RAO writes from Bangalore: Come summer and the two south Indian states, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, inevitably start the year’s quota of dialogue on Cauvery river water sharing and people get soaked in political arguments about water related negotiations and political engineering or the lack of them.

This has become a pattern etched in stone, with the two States repeatedly being pushed into the arena by the sheer failure of political machinery on all three sides of the table—the two riparian states and the Centre.

This year the cry heard in some Karnataka voices is the need for a national (river) water sharing policy stemming from an apparent belief that such a ‘national policy’ could magically uncoil the tension among riparian states just because a third party, the Union government, proclaiming itself to be just and equal, when given the funnel, will help direct the waters to the riparian states in a fair manner.

That is pure fiction.

Regardless of the fairness in this deal between States and the Union, these are the things that need to be deeply pondered about:

# (River) water sharing between states is a characteristically local problem, limited to the interests of the riparian states and the people within them directly influenced by the river waters. A solution to this had rather not come from outside of the problem domain for those would not really address the problem!

# The farther removed a government is that is arbitrating river water sharing between states, the little it can do to benefit the riparian states, and the lesser jsut and equal its policies and decisions come across to some of them. ‘The reason why this is so often the case is that bureaucrats and technicians base themselves mainly on political considerations external to the region in question: the needs of the local population rarely feature at all’ (pp 161). Hence the Union government which is further removed than the governments of the riparian states is much poorly disposed to do justice to these states. (In fact it is better disposed to favor either of the states over the other!)

# The strong adverse impact such remotely-designed policies bear on the hydrology of various river basins in question. Historical tribunals of such remote origins and their verdicts on river water sharing in India have proven this point amply.

Keen on catching up on this debate?

Here’s a trivia (along with my interpretation) I thought we’d rather help ourselves with before we dive-in, hoping it’ll expose whatever sense exists in this argument (about the consequences of a national river water sharing policy).

1.) The preamble to the Indian Constitution offers justice (social, economic and political) and equality (of status and of opportunity) to the citizens of India.

Literally interpreting: Among other things. the citizens of this republic are secured social, economic and political justice. Likewise, the citizens have also been secured their equality of status and of opportunity in this sovereign democratic republic.

2.) Item 56 of the Seventh Schedule of our constitution places regulation and development of inter-State rivers and river valleys under the Union List. This officially strips the riparian states of their (otherwise natural) political right to regulation and development of the rivers flowing through the respective states.

How can political justice be secured by stripping one of the rights to govern oneself, to develop oneself?

3) Karnataka and Tamil Nadu elect 12 and 18 members to the Rajya Sabha respectively and to the Lok Sabha they elect 28 and 39 members respectively. Hence on every vote in Delhi, there are 17 extra Tamil Nadu voices roaring to mute us!

How can Karnataka’s equality of status ever be secured by such unequal representation at the Centre?

How can equality of opportunity be secured by a denial of one’s right to engage in constructive negotiations with neighboring Union members targeted at deriving mutual gains?

How can any government, removed from this list of members, secure this equality any better?

4) Article 262 of the same Constitution conveniently assumes the Centre (Union government) to be the responsible body to arbitrate disputes related to inter-state river water sharing. But it has been found in several occasions that the agreements and tribunals arrived and awarded by the centre have only provoked the States to execute massive reservoir projects purely driven by hoarding intentions laden with greed and fear.

Such greed and fear are a synthesis of non-federal siphoning of responsibilities from the States to the Centre, which is not better disposed than the states themselves to decide on matters of such immense local nature.

One instance of Andhra Pradesh describing river waters flowing into the sea as wastage (pp 331) is a clear indication of how such tribunals have bred greed & fear to dangerous proportions at the state level. Not only has this led to hydrological degradation of various river basins, but also led to intra-state conflicts  (pp 14) not unseen till then.

5) The battle between state and central politics complicates the equation.

A national party allying with local parties of either riparian state is inclined to pamper its ally state (TN for example) with a better deal in its tribunal thereby starving its own victorious state (Kar for eg.) of precious water, which is later lured with other political mirages like ministries and such other sihi-tindi (confectionery)!!

Of special importance in this context is the wide gap in quality of local political representation in Karnataka and Taminadu, with Karnataka falling severely short of good local representation, which in turn severely handicaps its ability to negotiate deals in Delhi.

These items vividly elucidate the reasons why central overruling on inter-state river water sharing could be hazardous to the river basin itself, and hence to the riparian states in question. But it is seriously dependent upon public education and political acumen and will-power in the system if strong cries have to rise, demanding decentralization of power with respect to inter-state river water sharing. Like someone said, the next big war in this world will be fought over water.

Let’s not sow such seeds that can only speed up this war crop!

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