With less than two weeks to go for the Karnataka Assembly elections (12 May), the politics of Cauvery is getting hotter. The two important parties, incumbent Congress and challenger BJP, are playing to the gallery, using sensationalism over sense and rhetoric over feasibility, to deliver a solution around a key resource: water. Both parties have national aspirations and can’t push the Karnataka political rhetoric beyond a point, as the neighbouring State of Tamil Nadu is as much a political heavyweight as Karnataka. The casual approach to the Cauvery dispute in Karnataka shows how political enfeeblement leading to a policy inertia around it could hurt the water distribution between the two States. The Cauvery dispute not being taken seriously by political parties shows the low priority both the Congress and the BJP give to this problem. The dispute, though about fair water allocations, has morphed into one of identity and fed by votebank politics.
A brief history about the dispute shows three periods of governance. First
, the dispute started in 1807 (in pre-colonial India) over the sharing of waters due to the construction of dams, checking the flow of water. Second
, though it was under British India that the dispute exacerbated, the Agreement of 1892 accorded the Madras Presidency prescriptive rights over the water, creating socio-economic disparities that manifested themselves through culture and fanned the conflict divide. In 1924 (which would last for 50 years before review), both reached an agreement that endorsed the 1892 agreement of protecting the prescriptive rights but allowed Mysore to set up the Krishnarajasagara dam. And third
, in 1974, the upper riparian state of Karnataka decided to build more storage reservoirs to ensure water security during scanty rainfall periods, practising the Harmon Doctrine which allows an upstream state to have absolute rights over the river without any intervention from lower riparian states.
This dispute has been going on now for over a century but resolution remains elusive. Making it an emotive issue signifies deep seated politics preying over the interests of people rather than focusing on sustainability.
The misconception of deriving strategies based on traditional identities can harm the economy, ecology and individuals that are not so powerful. Political parties use this to set their agenda for more votes by targeting identity (language or religion) and construe to narrow rationality during negotiations on the river water dispute. The dominant strategies of self-interest and non-cooperation by political parties in the two States leaves the dispute to be a prisoner’s dilemma.
In 1990, the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal was setup to ensure efficient and equitable distribution of water among the States to accomplish any agricultural, consumptive and industrial needs. The Tribunal’s concluding judgment of February 2007 announced 30 Thousand Million Cubic Feet (TMCft) of water to Kerala, 270 TMCft to Karnataka, 419 TMCft to Tamil Nadu and 7 TMCft to Puducherry. But the Congress-led Karnataka did not abide by the award. And, with the failure to mention the distribution of water during a poor rainfall year, Tamil Nadu under AIADMK exacerbated the situation. The issue again escalated to a point where the Supreme Court has had to intervene. So, today, the water sharing negotiation has come down to institutionalising the mechanism through the creation of a Cauvery Management Board (CMB). Here, the Supreme Court has placed the ball in the hands of the Centre, or the BJP for now, which according to recent news has sought two more weeks, after elections in Karnataka.
What remains to be questioned is the capacity of the Board in managing the dispute. One shortcoming is the growth of State based politics that appeals to certain identities, curtailing the independence of boards from making just decisions.
Without independent functioning boards, there would be extended litigations and hostile inter-State politics. Another major problem political parties are facing is the water hardship being faced by poor farmers and urban dwellers. States have failed to realise that water sharing is a must under a federal setup and one cannot play blame games to achieve political advantage by maximising control over this resource.
Political parties have a compelling argument to develop a covetous standpoint and discard any cooperative strategy because this generates a political rallying point that is appealing to disparate masses. However, as water scarcity intensifies in the future and cries of a growing population grow shriller for water, the politicisation of Cauvery can soon reach a breaking point with severe ramifications.
Agreed that a solution to a century-old problem cannot be found overnight, but the government must take strong steps now to generate a winning resolution within the next few years. This resilient approach can be pursued on three policy fronts.
, the idea of water rationality proposes that States must pursue prudent management of existing national water resources, and maintain, with specific reference to any shared water, good relations with co-riparians. Without this concept, national water management policies become short-sighted and result in disagreements. The government must optimise within the theory that equity and sustainability should have precedence over economic efficiency and political prowess.
, the formation of a Supreme Court mandated autonomous Board is a necessary condition for implementing impartial, reliable and timely recommendations to address inter-State water disputes without political pressures. But, without the inputs of experts, it will not be a sufficient condition.
, politics needs to reform. Political parties, for instance, should not nudge people to agitate over a common resource with the promise of increased incomes and livelihoods simply because it attracts media attention and rallies people. There needs to be a clarity of purpose and incentives by sub-national powers to nudge people towards desired actions without an uproar.
The legacy of Cauvery weighs down heavily on generations from Tamil Nadu and Karnataka and unless we act decisively and apolitically, this burden would certainly be passed on to the next generation. A steely resolve along three policy fronts is what is required to lay this inherited burden to rest. But, if successive governments continue to vacillate as they have done over the past seven decades of Independent India, soon the ‘ship of State’ will have to be navigated through drying waters.
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