Event ReportsPublished on Jun 07, 2019
Understanding subnational hydropolitics and its potency for conflict and cooperation in shared river basins

Contrary to popular belief, countries that share common water resource have rarely fought a war regarding the ownership of this vital resource. However, far more omnipresent and economically and socially disruptive are the conflicts that operate at the subnational level, and involve political jurisdictions like states, provinces and prefectures. With such a backdrop in place, a single day workshop and book discussion titled, “Two Treatises on Subnational Hydropolitics,” was organised at Observer Research Foundation Kolkata on 31 May 2019. The first session involved a presentation and discussion on Dr. Scott Moore’s book, “Subnational Hydropolitics: Conflict, Cooperation and Institution Building in Shared River Basins. It was followed by another session that discussed the Cauvery Conflict, encapsulated in the ORF monograph entitled, “Conflict over Cauvery waters: Imperatives for Innovative Policy Options” by Dr. Nilanjan Ghosh, Dr. Jayanta Bandyopadhyay and Dr. Jaya Thakur.

The chair for the first session, Prof. Rakhahari Chatterjee, Advisor, ORF Kolkata, initiated the day’s discussion by stating that a few fundamental questions need to be answered for understanding sub-national water disputes. The chair further asserted that it is crucial to understand the factors that influence the approaches towards subnational water disputes. It was followed by a presentation by Dr. Scott Moore, Senior Fellow, Kleinman Centre for Energy Policy, University of Pennsylvania, on the preponderance of subnational disputes over international disputes and its operational dynamics vis-à-vis India. He stressed on the role of social roots, linguistic chauvinisms and regional identities in shaping the subnational hydropolitics of India. Dr. Moore further highlighted that the reorganisation of states in India on the basis of language has aggravated the issues of subnational cooperation over shared water resources. Finally, Dr. Moore mentioned the French experiment with creating six water agencies to carry out the task of water management through the equal participation of all stakeholders at the level of a river basin. He emphasised that such models can be a good benchmark for solving subnational hydropolitics around the world, including India.

As the first discussant, Dr. Srinivas Chokkakula, MoWR Professorial Research Chair – Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, complemented the book and acknowledged the pivotal role that it has played in understanding hydropolitics at the subnational level. He further suggested that the disputes can also be viewed through the prism of territorialisation, politicisation and institutionalisation as espoused by a few political geographers. He further argued that the straight jacketed binaries between cooperation and conflict should be abandoned as both co-exist together. It is very difficult to imagine a separate cooperation setting and separate conflict setting. Dr. Chokkakula lamented that while the major focus is given on the conflictual areas, it is seldom noticed that the sub-national actors also contribute to cooperation. Dr. Jayanta Bandyopadhyay, Visiting Distinguished Fellow at ORF, as the second discussant for the session, noted that the book acts as entry point to river basin studies and stressed that ecological politics has to be understood along with identity politics. He further talked about two distinct models of approaching river dispute by citing the twin cases of Yellow River in China and Damodar in India. He asserted that distinctive political structures have catapulted a powerful supranational structure in China that controls the hydro-power generation and flood control measures in the Yellow river while the Damodar Valley Cooperation is now besieged under supraprovincial authorities due to the complex federal structure in India.

In the post lunch session, Dr. Nilanjan Ghosh, Director, ORF Kolkata, explained how the root of the Cauvery water dispute dates back to 1890 when the Madras Presidency (Tamil Nadu) felt their water supply for paddy cultivation might decline with the development of an advanced irrigation system in the princely sate of Mysore (Karnataka). Long hindered in its potential to develop water resources by the two agreements of 1892 and 1924, post 1974 Mysore had undertaken a number of irrigation projects. The diversion of water diminished the flow of Cauvery in Mettur affecting irrigation and agriculture in the Madras Presidency. This conflict acquired new dimensions when the need arose for irrigating the water-intensive paddy crops in both Karnataka (Summer Rice) and Tamil Nadu (Kuruvai Rice) during the dry pre-monsoon season. This practice was incentivised further by allowing a higher minimum support price for Paddy by the government. Taking a note of the recent trends, Dr. Ghosh acknowledged that as the support price for Ragi increases, a shift is happening in Karnataka in favour of Ragi. However, he cautioned that the long-term results are yet to be realised. The 2018 verdict by Supreme Court had provided an opportunity for holistic management with the proposal for establishing Cauvery Water Management Authority. However, it needs to be made inclusive and include members from interdisciplinary backgrounds.

Dr. Scott Moore, in his role as a discussant of the presentation, appreciated the monograph for its interdisciplinary point of view. He re-affirmed that the conflict indeed had many layers; the historical layer of past discrimination in water allotment, the agrarian layer of crop production, the economic layer of water scarcity when demand surpassed supply and lastly, the layer of identity politics. He further added that the inter-sectoral dimension of the conflict and its manifestation between urban and agrarian sectors is now emerging as a serious issue which demands a sustainable solution. Dr. Kalyan Rudra, Chairman, WBPCB, was the second discussant. He emphasised the need for integrated basin management programs, as is recommended in the Monograph, and opined that India now requires a paradigm shift in river management. As the chairperson for the session, Mr. Shekhar, Former Secretary, Ministry of Water resources, pointed out the fallout of not consuming coarse grained cereals like Ragi and the subsequent absence of micronutrients in the Indian diet. He concluded by stating that it was now time to move away from arithmetic hydrology and consider the health of the river for itself as otherwise the people dependent on it would be submerged in many more complex conflicts.

This event report has been compiled by Sayanangshu Modak, Research Assistant, ORF Kolkata with contributions from Jaya Thakur, Junior Fellow, ORF Kolkata, and Soumya Bhowmick, Sohini Bose and Ambar Kumar Ghosh, Research Assistants, ORF Kolkata.

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